Sign of the Cross [1932]

One of Hollywood's greatest showmen gets a worthy showcase in The Cecil B. De Mille Collection, consisting of five of the legendary producer-director's most characteristic films. As noted by David Thomson in his influential book A Biographical Dictionary of Film, "De Mille's movies are barnstormers, rooted in Victorian theatre, shamelessly stereotyped and sentimental, but eagerly courting 20th-century permissiveness, if only solemnly to condemn it." That's an apt description of the films included in this nicely packaged box set, which offers no extras beyond the films themselves. Thomson is equally accurate in calling De Mille's films "simple, raw, pious, and jingoistic," but as these five well-preserved films make abundantly clear, De Mille was always a consummate entertainer. One of Hollywood's foremost pioneers, De Mille cut an iconic figure, single-handedly defining the archetypal image of the dictatorial director, complete with boots, jodhpurs and an ever-present riding crop to enforce his domineering authority. After failed attempts to work independently and, later, for MGM, De Mille found a permanent home at Paramount in 1932, and it's there that he made these five films (now owned by Universal as part of their pre-1948 Paramount library), which represent the glorious clash of Christian virtues, epic-scale production values, lurid sexuality, and self-important grandiosity that make De Mille's films so curiously (and in many cases hypocritically) enthralling. The Sign of the Cross (1932) is quintessential De Mille, now famous for its pre-Code (i.e. pre-censorship) scene of peep-show nudity as Claudette Colbert (playing Poppaea, wife of Charles Laughton's Roman emperor Nero) takes a tantalizing bath in goat's milk, daring DVD viewers to freeze-frame "the naughty bits" while Roman prefect Marcus (Frederic March) struggles to reconcile his loyalty to Rome with his forbidden love for the Christian maiden Mercia (Elissa Landi), who's destined for the lion's den. Full of outrageous spectacle (including dwarves in the Roman arena), this blood-and-guts epic is pure De Mille compared to the more conventionally formulaic adventure of Four Frightened People (1934), also starring Colbert as one of the four titular characters shipwrecked on a remote Malay island (filmed at Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, in Hawaii) and forced to fend for themselves. It's a stodgy but frequently amusing adventure, with Colbert's uptight schoolmarm growing sexier and less inhibited with each passing scene. Colbert returns (De Mille obviously adored her) in the title role of Cleopatra (1934), easily seducing Marc Antony (played by De Mille favorite Henry Wilcoxon) in a film as lavishly appointed as it is melodramatically extreme. Wilcoxon pairs with Loretta Young in The Crusades (1935) with De Mille once again mixing piety with prurience in a religious epic that promises plenty of sex but, in classic De Mille fashion, remains steadfastly chaste. Union Pacific (from Hollywood's golden year of 1939) is a grandly entertaining Western that mangles history (specifically, events surrounding construction of the transcontinental railroad) while casting gunslingers Joel McCrea and Robert Preston in a contest for Barbara Stanwyck's affections. Choosing a favorite among these five films is purely a matter of personal taste, but for all of his weaknesses as a director (not the least being a condescending and self-righteous arrogance toward his audience), De Mille was never, ever boring. These films helped to make Paramount the most profitable studio of the 1930s, and they hold up remarkably well. Despite the complete absence of bonus features (Universal once again taking the low-cost option with no-frills packaging), each film is presented in pristine or near-pristine condition, ripe for first-time viewing or nostalgic rediscovery by vintage film buffs everywhere.--Jeff Shannon

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