Combustible Celluloid
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With: Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, Ian Keith, Arthur Hohl, Harry Beresford, Tommy Conlon, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Vivian Tobin, William V. Mong, Joyzelle Joyner, Richard Alexander, Nat Pendleton, Clarence Burton, Harold Healy, Robert Manning, Charles Middleton, John Carradine
Written by: Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman, based on a play by Wilson Barrett
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 126
Date: 11/30/1932

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hot Rome

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This early, pre-code Cecil B. DeMille spectacular is famous for pretending to be a religious epic, while actually being full of sex and violence. Claudette Colbert is the standout as the sexy, conniving Empress Poppaea, seen bathing (apparently naked, just below the surface) in a huge pool of milk, and being fanned by servants while a leopard lounges nearby. And Charles Laughton steals his scenes as a smug, ruthless Nero, who burns Rome and blames it on the Christians. (He reminded me of Donald Trump.) But unfortunately, the story focuses on duller characters. Fredric March — who won an Oscar the same year for his amazing performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — plays Marcus Superbus, Prefect of Rome, in charge of arresting and torturing Christians. During a fracas in the street in which two men are discovered as Christians, Mercia (Elissa Landi) tries to protect them. Marcus falls in love with her, and begins neglecting his duties while trying to track her down again. Eventually, of course, he must decide between the girl and his job. DeMille shows all kinds of incredible torture sequences, including a woman tied to a pole and threatened by a gorilla! The movie received an Oscar nomination for its Cinematography.

Kino Lorber released the full-length, restored version on Blu-ray for 2020; it's a nice, crisp B&W transfer. The disc comes with two commentary tracks, one by Mark A. Viera (co-author of a book on DeMille) and film historian David Del Valle. There's also a batch of trailers.

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