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The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Not Rated | | Drama, History | 10 February 1933 (USA)
A Roman soldier becomes torn between his love for a Christian woman and his loyalty to Emperor Nero.

Director:

(as Cecil B. De Mille)

Writers:

(screen play), (screen play) | 1 more credit »
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Nominated for 1 Oscar. See more awards »
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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
...
...
...
...
...
Arthur Hohl ...
...
Favius Fontelas
Tommy Conlon ...
Stephan
...
Vivian Tobin ...
...
Licinius / Old Man Carrying Child
Joyzelle Joyner ...
Ancaria (as Joyzelle)
...
Viturius
...
Clarence Burton ...
Servillius
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Storyline

After burning Rome, Emperor Nero decides to blame the Christians, and issues the edict that they are all to be caught and sent to the arena. Two old Christians are caught, and about to be hauled off, when Marcus, the highest military official in Rome, comes upon them. When he sees their stepdaughter Mercia, he instantly falls in love with her and frees them. Marcus pursues Mercia, which gets him into trouble with Emperor (for being easy on Christians) and with the Empress, who loves him and is jealous. Written by John Oswalt <jao@jao.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

nero | soldier | empress | arena | epic | See All (68) »

Taglines:

A picture which will proudly lead all the entertainments the world has ever seen

Genres:

Drama | History

Certificate:

Not Rated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

 »
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Details

Country:

Language:

Release Date:

10 February 1933 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Im Zeichen des Kreuzes  »

Filming Locations:

 »

Company Credits

Production Co:

 »
Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs

Runtime:

(without intermission) | (original)

Sound Mix:

(Western Electric Noiseless Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See  »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

Cecil B. DeMille deliberately cast Claudette Colbert against type as Poppaea. Until then, Colbert had been playing innocent ingénue roles, and this was her first 'wicked' role, which she relished playing. See more »

Goofs

As the Christians are holding their clandestine meeting at the Grove, right before the little girl asks her mother "Why don't they sing loud?", the shadow of the boom mic can be seen hovering over the people in the background. See more »

Quotes

[the Empress, soaking naked in a tub of ass's milk and calling to her handmaiden]
Poppaea: Dacia, you're a butterfly with the sting of a wasp. Take off your clothes. Get in here and tell me all about it.
See more »

Connections

Referenced in Hollywood Hist-o-Rama: Cecil B. DeMille (1962) See more »

Soundtracks

Christian Hymn No.1
(1932) (uncredited)
Music and Lyrics by Rudolph G. Kopp
Sung a cappella by Christians at the meeting
Reprised by them after their capture and at the arena
Sung a cappella by Elissa Landi and Tommy Conlon
Played and sung offscreen at the end
See more »

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User Reviews

 
"We'll only see half as much Christian blood"
28 January 2009 | by (Ruritania) – See all my reviews

1932 – the height of the depression, Paramount studios in financial straits, Hollywood's output limited to small-scale dramas and bedroom comedies – and Cecil B. DeMille decides to make an epic. There are many classics among the "small" pictures of the early-30s, but it's good to see that someone was, against all odds, still carrying the torch for grandeur and spectacle.

Of course, Sign of the Cross is still an epic of its poverty-stricken time. There are no stupendous sets or masses of extras, but DeMille always knew how to make our eyes deceive us. A huddle of a dozen people filling the screen looks like a crowd. Five men on horseback shot from a low angle looks like a stampede. In the scene where Titus and Favius first meet, the camera wheels round and backs away at the same time, giving the impression that the street scene is much more than a cramped indoor set. And DeMille's use of lighting (here courtesy of Karl Struss who was Oscar-nominated for his efforts) really pays off, with fuzzy half-light and shadows disguising the lack of lavishness.

Better yet, the constrained budget seems to have pushed DeMille to concentrating more on the poetry and beauty of what we see. Unable to dazzle us with scale or special effects, he makes full use of his talent for flowing, dreamlike imagery. Sign of the Cross features some of the smoothest camera-work and carefully choreographed movement of extras of this period. He even makes effective use of slow-motion with the pouring goats milk. DeMille was not the only director to turn to simple camera trickery when money was tight – Rouben Mamoulian's earliest pictures for example are end-to-end cheap tricks. It's just that DeMille is doing it better than almost everyone else – it adds sparkle to the picture without being distracting.

But it's not just with the images that DeMille shows his talent. Unlike some directors who were sceptical about the coming of sound and tried to work around it, or some producers who naively thought it automatically made pictures twice as good, DeMille really explores the possibilities of sound. In an early scene, we cut to a close-up Elissa Landi while we hear from off-screen the calls of Romans searching for Christians. We see her reaction to the calls, and this is something that could not be achieved so succinctly in a silent movie. A more obvious example is the torture scene, where we hear the boy's screams, while the camera is pointed elsewhere. The point is, we do not need to see him being tortured because the scream alone has enough impact. However what we do see – the eagle of Rome, a sentry unconcernedly marching back and forth, a flaming torch – adds layers of meaning to the scene.

Of course, this being DeMille, and it being the "pre-code" era, he also seeks to dazzle us with a bit of bare flesh and other assorted depravities. It's one of the great ironies of DeMille's work that his pictures often revel in the very "immorality" they seek to preach against. So the poster advertising the attractions at the Colloseum is as much to whet the appetite of the real-world audience as to show the barbaric tastes of the Roman one. DeMille spends ten minutes of screen time (not to mention more precious money on tin-hat manufacture and zoo rental fees) on the promised blood-fest, which can only be for our entertainment since it is inconsequential to the plot. And, in another bit of audio/visual juxtaposition, while the martyrs' chanting drowns out the "Naked Moon" song, it is the notorious Lesbian dance that DeMille shows us, not the Christians outside.

The acting in Sign of the Cross is a bit of a mixed bag, although it is of a higher standard than many of the DeMille talkies. Charles Laughton is hammily brilliant, laying down a blueprint for Emperor Nero which Peter Ustinov would follow to a well-deserved Oscar-nomination in Quo Vadis (1951). However Laughton's part is fairly small, and the screenplay makes Claudette Colbert the real villain. Colbert is fantastic, playing the Empress as an ancient world vamp, giving by far the best performance of the bunch. It's almost a shame that It Happened One Night re-invented her as a major romantic lead, because she really was at her best when she played villains.

The weakest link in Sign of the Cross, as with many DeMille pictures, is the screenplay. However DeMille's inventiveness, careful construction and strong imagery, not to mention the fact that his pictures are great fun if you don't take them too seriously, transcend the limpness of the script. It was perhaps because DeMille refused to allow his style to be compromised by a limited budget that makes many of his 1930s pictures among his greatest.


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