Movies about the persecution of oppressed peoples cover all ethnicities and religions since time immemorial, and with Christianity at an all-time high in the 1920s/1930s it’s easy to figure out why Hollywood filmed The Sign of the Cross. Unfortunately, time isn’t kind and The Sign of the Cross was scandalous in 1932, but is painfully boring in 2014. Aside from a shocking scene of Claudette Colbert’s nipples, which you can probably find online, The Sign of the Cross is frustrating enough to make you hope all the characters are fed to the lions.
After the burning of Rome, Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) blames the events on the Christians with the belief he can slaughter them more easily. Things are complicated when Roman military official, Marcus (Fredric March) falls for the beautiful Christian, Mercia (Elissa Landi), angering Nero’s wife, Poppea (Colbert).
When you wade through the burning of Rome and the feeding of Christians to lions, The Sign of the Cross is, at its heart, a soapy melodrama with a love triangle at the center. Poppea loves Marcus who loves Mercia and the web’s tangled from there. Before there was Dallas, All My Children, and General Hospital you had The Sign of the Cross! The problem is Claudette Colbert’s seductive scenery chewing is infinitely more fascinating than anything going on between March and Landi. Colbert wanted to break onto the scene in a saucy role – preceding the sugary sweet types she’d personify in It Happened One Night and later films – and Empress Poppea is certainly that role. Colbert sells the anger, mystique, and sexuality of the character which surprised me because I thought, for sure, this would be an early role proving Colbert’s inability to act as the sexpot. Instead, she delights in the role, even if you’re meant to hate her. Her infamous bath in ass’ milk acted as proof a Production Code was needed, and the restored director’s cut even gives us a glimpse of Colbert’s breasts! For someone who takes in classic film and fans herself when characters kiss for lengthy periods of time, nudity left me swooning.
Unfortunately, Colbert’s character is the only tolerable one in a sea of self-righteous saints whose entire redemption stems from a wayward non-apology. I remain ambivalent about Fredric March and his Marcus is one of those male characters who strides in with his “rough wooing” and calls it charm. He’s not in the same league as Poppea and I couldn’t understand why she’d give this guy the time of day short of she was out of options. Elissa Landi is similarly one-note. Her Mercia is essentially the character every other character is obsessed over, whether it’s through love, loyalty, or hatred. Mercia ends up being the most popular person in all of Rome for reasons which seem unimportant. Poppea hates her because of Marcus’ love; Marcus is obsessed with her because she’s hot; the Christians resistance finds her important for…reasons. She ends up the de facto martyr for the entire group, and yet I remained cold to her. It doesn’t help that Landi’s dialogue is weak and her character is the blonde saint.
The shocking qualities of the movie, in the fully restored version at least, include the aforementioned bath, as well as the feeding of nearly-nude Christian women to alligators and lions. As the camera lasciviously lingers on the women, tied to the stake and wearing nothing but rose garlands to cover their bits, it’s superfluous. These are characters meant to be pitied so why not degrade the women in their final moments? Yes, it’s 1932 but at the same time what message are we sending about the Christians? The movie wants the audience to pity their persecution and understand that this can happen if people do nothing, but conversely the director plays up sexuality?
Removing all of that, the movie just feels interminably long despite very little happening. The persecution of the Christians is wrapped within this love triangle which appears very minute while driving the plot. At times, it feels like this love triangle is the only reasons the Christians are being killed. Charles Laughton’s fey Nero only arrives towards the end – he makes brief appearances before – but spends the entire film acting like a baby.
The Sign of the Cross is worth experiencing if you want to understand why critics were yearning for a censorship board. The movie’s gimmicks remain shocking, particularly Colbert’s nude sequence. However, the rest of the movie is adamantly boring with a soapy premise not nearly enticing enough to grip you. If I wasn’t watching this in a class, I’d have avoided it.
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