It’s always interesting to delve into a performer’s very early career, and while Fredric March was a longtime veteran of the screen, sound films were still finding their footing. One of many movies he made in 1932 was the racy Cecil B. DeMille epic, The Sign of the Cross.
The film starts in 64 AD, where Nero (Charles Laughton) is playing a harp and watching Rome burn. Nope, not a fiddle in sight. Naturally, he’s not at all concerned about property destruction and loss of life, but he does feel a wee bit put out that one of his harp strings breaks.
Tigellinus (Ian Keith) tells Nero that his lounging around mocking the Romans doesn’t look so good for his image. Why not blame the Christians? Nero likes that idea. He likes it very much. He declares open season on Christians. Hunting them, killing them, humiliating them, or whatever tickles the fancy is fair game. They’re not allowed to worship, and certainly not to proselytize. And just in case the new normal isn’t serious enough, anyone caught harboring Christians will be executed.
Turning in Christians almost becomes a sport among the Romans. There are those who get handsomely paid by Rome to drag Christians to the local prisons, and people fall all over themselves to out Christians where they find them.
One day, two older men named Titus (Arthur Hohl) and Favius (Harry Beresford) are being harassed by a couple of mercenaries, and Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome (Fredric March) steps in to help, not because he’s in any way sympathetic to Christians, but because Favius’s pretty adopted daughter, Mercia (Elissa Landi) is also caught in the fray.
Marcus makes it a point to find where Mercia lives, but soon he gets more than he bargained for, as he becomes invested in Mercia’s family and their troubles. He saves Mercia’s teen brother, Stephan (Tommy Conlon) from prison, although he’s too late to prevent him from divulging where the Christians will be having church next.
Despite racing to the service, Marcus is too late to save the group from being captured or matyred, but he does spirit Mercia away to his house, where he hopes to seduce her. Even though Mercia loves Marcus, she wants to be with her fellow Christians, and nothing Marcus says or does will dissuade her, not even a seductive dance by local playgirl Ancaria (Joyzelle Joyner), which, ironically enough, gets drowned out by the Christians singing on their way to the Coliseum, where they will wait to be executed at the Circus.
Meanwhile, the empress Poppea (Claudette Colbert) has her sights set on Marcus and doesn’t want a Christian or anyone else getting in the way. This woman is a diva on steriods, bathing in donkey’s milk (yes, the film has nudity) wearing custom perfumes, and making everyone scramble with one imperious look. And she’s just as bad as Tigellinus when it comes to whispering in Nero’s ear. Marcus likes what he sees, but is it enough?
It’s tempting to hope for The Sign of the Cross to have a happy ending, but yeah, no. These characters can’t escape their collective fate. Everything leads up to the Circus, where no one will come out smiling, if they come out at all.
The Sign of the Cross is eye-popping. I don’t doubt this film was a huge hit in 1932 just for the shock value alone, and it’s certainly epic in they typical DeMille style, but it’s not the kind of movie one watches for fun, especially in light of what’s currently happening in Afghanistan. Plus, knowing that Christians really went through this in Rome and are still going through it in certain places makes things tough.
Mercifully, DeMille leaves most of the gore to the imagination, showing just enough to help the viewer connect with the action, but the point still comes across pretty blatantly.
DeMille’s attention to detail is always apparent, but like most movies, The Sign Of the Cross does have a few historical inaccuracies. One was the cross Titus and Favius draw when they talk at the fountain. Early Christians didn’t draw crosses in the dirt to identify each other, but what’s called an icthys fish, which is still used today, although it’s a little more overt.
The other thing is the Christians’ worship methods in the movie look very Catholic, namely processionals and sprinkling holy water. That’s not surprising in a film called The Sign of the Cross, and certainly not a bad thing, but from what I’ve read, a lot of the recognizable Catholic rituals portrayed in the movie didn’t show up until after the first century. (Right? Help me out, Catholics). This was due mainly to the need for secrecy.
Anyway, the film’s raciness offended both Protestants and Catholics, the latter of whom set up the League of Decency as a result. Not surprisingly, the film would be heavily edited in later releases.
As for Fredric March’s performance in The Sign of the Cross, I quite honestly think he had better roles than Marcus. A lot of the movie involves Marcus standing with his arms akimbo like the hero he’s supposed to be, but bravado isn’t character. I wonder if part of this might have been due to to filmmakers still figuring out what to do with sound films and being unsure of what audiences would accept in a movie.
Marcus isn’t a jerk, per se. He’s not as much of a line-follower as his fellow dignitaries, and he seems to have at least some sense of justice. He’s a simple fellow with a one-track mind, and his dogged determination to carnally know Mercia leads him to cast about for the best way to do that. Does he love the woman? Are his beliefs changing? Or is his one-track mind winning out?
It’s not all serious, though. During the party scene Marcus is obviously tipsy, a seemingly obligatory state for Fredric March characters.
I enjoyed The Sign of the Cross for what it was. I’d never seen it before and didn’t know anything about it, and there’s nothing like going into a film with completely fresh eyes. This isn’t going to be the last time we talk about this movie, either, as there’s a fair amount of lore in its corner, but that’s another story for another time.
For more of the great Fredric March, please see Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting this blogathon, ladies–hope you can bring it back!
Coming up in September (click the images for more info):
Yep, it’s a wee bit busy. Some of it will be somber, some of it will border on the bizarre and zany, but I hope it won’t be dull. Thanks for reading, all, and see you in a few days with a new Stage To Screen…
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