Cecil B. DeMille
Review by Stephen Snart
Posted on 12 January 2009
Source Image DVD
Even the most casual movie fan can recognize the line “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” and identify its source as the tragic faded star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. While the movie and character name might easily spring to mind, less frequently is the actress who delivered that iconic line identified as Gloria Swanson. Even scarcer is the recognition of the full ramifications of that line and its fundamentally self-reflexive nature. Blurring the border between an actor’s character and the actor herself is generally considered a postmodern exercise, a trend that has become prevalent in recent years, exemplified in the recently released JCVD. But what is often forgotten is that way back in 1950 Billy Wilder was dabbling in that same sort of experimentation by drawing upon Gloria Swanson’s real career and casting Hollywood creative types as themselves, including Cecil B. DeMille. The plot draws from reality in that Gloria Swanson, like Norma, was an enormously popular silent film star whose fame declined after the advent of sound cinema.
Swanson even starred in a handful of DeMille’s films in her early career. Between 1919 and 1921, the pair made six films together, with Male and Female (1919) considered their most controversial collaboration.1 DeMille’s post–World War I films tested boundaries by addressing issues of extramarital affairs and improper relationships. Film scholar Robert Sklar points out that DeMille’s content was nothing new, but his approach stirred attention: “He was able to free the subject of marriage from the overstuffed parlors of Victorian melodrama, to infuse it with wit, style, vicarious pleasures, and above all, practical hints on contemporary ways to behave. DeMille’s triumph was one of manner, not matter.”2
The relationship at the center of Male and Female is the restrained love affair between a woman of nobility and her respectful butler. Adapted from a 1904 play by J.M. Barrie, DeMille changed the original (very British) title of The Admirable Crichton to the more suggestive Male and Female—although the opening titles indicate it is a reference to a passage from Genesis. The film begins with the dutiful butler, Crichton, waiting on the spoiled Lady Mary Lansbury and her family. The first half hour takes place in a grand London estate and focuses on the way the members of service are treated by the nobility and the different modes of behavior the two classes employ. An out-of-left-field sailing accident then steers the plot to a deserted island in which a handful of the house members and their employees are stranded away from civilization and, as a result, the social hierarchy becomes inverted. Crichton transforms from the genteel and reserved butler into a hunk with a natural survival instinct and a muscular physique; in kind, the proper English gents are now revealed to be the useless ponces they really are.
The class reversal conceit reaches a pinnacle in a blithely executed scene in which Lady Mary and former maid Tweeny squabble over which one will get to serve Crichton his dinner. Here, the class commentary is played entirely for laughs. For a large portion of the island segment, the film appears to be more about the rituals of courtship than sociological experiment, more closely resembling Overboard than Pygmalion. However, the final ten minutes insert a George Bernard Shaw-esque sting when the islanders are rescued and returned to the world of British aristocracy. Even though Lady Mary is still in love with Crichton, she is pensive about continuing the relationship, having seen what happened to a friend who married below her class. Meanwhile, Crichton reacts to the class flip-flopping with the reserve and resignation of a well-trained Brit (thus earning Barrie’s titular moniker). The unspoken longing that the two harbor is palpable, and their inability to act reflects the repercussions of briefly transgressing social class.
A major weakness of the film is that DeMille shoots the island in fragmented snippets. We get plenty of remote rocks, caves and fields, but never a cohered whole, which leaves the viewer with no perspective on the islanders’ situation. The sense of isolation and desperation is sorely lacking from the film and detracts from the believability of the class structure upheaval. Male and Female also suffers from some very explicit intertitles that foreshadow the plot clumsily: “if all were to return to nature…” precedes a shot of the ship setting sail. But neither weakness matters that much, because despite the contrived plot, this is really an actor’s showcase.
As Crichton, Thomas Meighan demonstrates a nuanced naturalism that can be difficult to find in early silent cinema. Close-ups of Meighan’s face telegraph Crichton’s emotions without the actor resorting to exaggerated miming or embellished facial expressions. While his performance is remarkable, he is of course overshadowed by the presence of the inimitable Gloria Swanson. With her sharp facial features, alabaster skin, and full-figured body, Swanson is a screen siren for the ages. At the height of her popularity, Swanson was regarded as the preeminent name in Hollywood fashion, and many of her roles were tailored to present her in an array of glamorous outfits—fans of her sartorial elegance will be appeased by Male and Female’s fantasy sequence of Swanson donning a leopard-print dress.
But it’s important to look beyond Swanson’s wardrobe and beyond her flashy Sunset Boulevard performance and acknowledge what a captivating actress she was. One of the most surprising things about her career is that she actually got her start in comedy. I was fortunate enough to see a five beatific minutes from Allan Dwan’s Stage Struck (1925) at a panel discussion on silent actresses this past March, and seeing Swanson’s brilliant comic timing and relentlessly physical approach to the material was enough to make me yearn for a whole retrospective dedicated to the actress. Male and Female offers a taste of her comedic talent in the scene featuring Mary and Tweeny wrestling over a dinner tray.
While Swanson has secured her legacy in cinema thanks to Sunset Boulevard, it’s a great shame that that particular film so often overshadows the rest of her career. In Male and Female, her enunciation appears so perfect that for once in a silent film I could read the performer’s lips routinely and consistently; there was none of the marble-mouthed miming or fast-talking gibberish that so often befuddles viewers. At the same time, her elocution never borders on histrionics. The effect made me feel like I could hear her speaking the lines of dialogue, which makes it all the more tragically ironic that it was the transition to sound cinema that signaled her departure from silver screen popularity.