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Rome - First Century A. D. Nero, the mad Emperor & Poppaea,
his vile Empress, engage in every sort of vice & degradation.
Wanton cruelty becomes a spectator sport and virtue &
innocence are denigrated. Slowly, however, a new Power
growing. People calling themselves Christians are secretly
spreading their Faith ever more widely. They are horribly
persecuted, but they continue to multiply. Which will
eventually triumph - the might of Imperial Rome, or the
ones who follow THE SIGN OF THE CROSS?
This Cecil B. DeMille epic is a vivid retelling of the struggles
the first Christians. Paramount gave the film a lavish
and DeMille wrings every drop of piety & puerile interest
possible from the plot. Fredric March is stalwart as the
official who falls in love with a beautiful Christian girl. While
ultimate conversion wouldn't convince the average modern
Baptist, he holds his own in scenes with other performers
whom are allowed to behave outrageously. Elissa Landi is
sweet as the virtuous Believer, effectively underplaying
`Do you want to play the most wicked woman in the world?'
DeMille asked Claudette Colbert one day on the studio lot.
did & she does memorably, from her eye-popping milk bath
scene to her revenge on her would-be lover. Sniveling,
and wearing a huge fake nose, Charles Laughton is pure
effeminate evil as Nero (notice his catamite), a foul blot on
face of humanity & stealing all his scenes from everyone
History tells us that Nero eventually murdered Poppaea
stomping her to death...
Ian Keith is enjoyable as an unpunished villain. Ferdinand
Gottshalk & Vivian Tobin are effectively degraded as Roman
bacchants. Film mavens will recognize the voice of John
Carradine, calling `We who are about to die, salute you!' out
the arena to Nero; he can later be spotted in the role of
Christian martyr ascending the dungeon stairs to his death.
DeMille had just returned to Paramount from a 3-year,
3-picture stint at MGM, where he was remarkably subdued.
Back at his home studio he was allowed more license.
Wrapping a little sermon up in a lot of sin, he filled
pre-Production Code drama with plenty of the latter. When
SIGN OF THE CROSS was re-released in 1944, many cuts had
be made. The film now having been restored, it's not difficult
guess which sections those were. The Dance of the Naked
& much of the antics in the final arena sequence are beyond the bounds of
good taste, but certainly not beyond the bounds of Cecil B.
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