MALE AND FEMALE (Cecil B. DeMille, 1919, USA, 116m, BW)
Cast: Robert Cain, Bebe Daniels, Julia Faye, Rhy Darby, Mildred Reardon, Mayme Kelso, Edmund Burns, Henry Woodward, Sydney Deane, Wesley Barry, Edna Cooper, Lillian Leighton, Guy Oliver, Clarence Burton, Thomas Meighan, Lila Lee, Gloria Swanson, Theodore Roberts, Raymond Hatton
Director: Cecil Demille, Cecil B. DeMille
Writer: Jeanie Macpherson
Running Time: 99 min.
Aristocrat Lord Loam (Theodore Roberts) takes his family and servants on a leisurely boating trip. Unexpectedly, a violent gale obliterates the yacht, and the Loams and their help end up stranded on a remote island. There, the wealthy family suffers from a lack of practical knowledge, while butler William Crichton (Thomas Meighan) assumes control of the situation and ensures the party's survival. Meanwhile, Loam's gorgeous daughter, Mary (Gloria Swanson), develops eyes for William.
J.M. Barrie's 1902 play The Admirable Crichton was a witty farce about the pretensions of the English ruling class. The comic idea was that if these twits were reduced to a state of nature, they would be completely dependent on - and inferior in their attainments to - their own servants. The play's humor is primarily verbal, as one would expect. It's understandable, then, that something would be lost in the translation of this work to the silent screen. What is less understandable, however, is the complete dumbing down of the material in long-time DeMille collaborator Jeanie Macpherson's screenplay, and ultimately in the action itself.
Instead of elaborating on the central theme as the play did, the movie restates this simple idea over and over again with numbingly obvious intertitles. The preliminary scenes at the mansion do have a few nice moments - particularly Swanson's famous bathtub scene that accentuates her character's pettiness about comfort. But as we move to the desert island, the humor - already leaden - sinks to an idiotic level. Furthermore, instead of demonstrating the equalizing effect that the shipwreck has on class, the film establishes a reverse hierarchy - the butler Crichton is now the dominator for whom the others work, and the primacy of gender (the women now compete for the virile butler's attention) is presented as a punishment for Swanson's uppity ways.
This is all very crude and embarrassing, but it is made even more so by DeMille and McPherson's penchant for pseudo-historical tableaux of forbidden pagan eroticism. Crichton, you see, has a fantasy of himself as a Babylonian tyrant and his mistress as a Christian slave (a motif from a poem that is repeated ad nauseam throughout the film) and so we are made to endure a flashback to a former life in which Meighan, an absurdly dressed up potentate, has Swanson (similarly attired) thrown into a pit of lions. The famous scene with the star about to be mauled by one of the beasts was filmed with Swanson lying down in front of an actual lion.
Male and Female cemented Gloria Swanson's status as an international star. Her beautiful eyes and uncanny ability to wear clothes fascinated audiences. For the next half dozen years she was the undisputed Queen of Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille, the master of excess and opulence, had made history in 1914, when his The Squaw Man became the first feature length movie ever produced in Hollywood. He continued directing for more than forty years, culminating with his remake of The Ten Commandments in 1956. The island scenes for Male and Female were shot on the then pristine shores of Catalina Island. This one is a masterpiece in the fact that it is both high camp and a profound statement on the human class struggle.
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