The Sign of the Cross

date 1932
by Cecil B. DeMille, director
medium Publicity Still

Cecil B. DeMille was one of the first Hollywood directors to build a successful career by carefully straddling the line between vice and virtue. Beginning in 1918, DeMille shifted his efforts from arty, psychologically complex narratives to movies that either exploited lurid and sensationalized content, such as in The Godless Girl (1929), or indulged in opulent big budget spectacles that preached strict Christian morality, as with The Ten Commandments (1923) and King of Kings (1927). In 1932, DeMille merged his two seemingly incongruous specialties into the pre-production code epic The Sign of the Cross. The film attracted huge audiences by displaying the stereotypically lavish bacchanalian excesses of Ancient Rome, including orgies, nudity, and suggested lesbianism, all the while insisting that such "depravities" were a scourge on society. One of the most notorious scenes includes Hollywood star Claudette Colbert bathing in a giant tub of asses’ milk. Due to the nature of the film, local censorship boards began editing out scenes from Sign of the Cross that they found offensive. Soon the Production Code Administration (PCA), Hollywood’s board of self-censorship, clamped down on such "obscenity" in films, thus making this type of salacious Hollywood fare far more difficult to produce. The Sign of the Cross’ controversial content, however, did not stop the film from being re-released in 1944, although many of the most lascivious scenes were omitted.