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DVD SAVANT

The Cecil B. DeMille Collection
Sign of the Cross, Four Frightened People, Cleopatra, The Crusades, Union Pacific



Universal

Produced and Directed by
Cecil B. DeMille

B&W
1:37 flat full frame
Street Date
May 23, 2006
59.98

Reviewed by
Glenn Erickson


We come to tell the truth about Cecil B. DeMille, not to praise him. DeMille was a genuine cinema pioneer who had an excellent camera eye; his silent movies were lavish spectacles and sophisticated sex comedies. His silent The King of Kings is an admirable and tasteful story of Jesus that endured in special screenings until the middle 1950s.

The five titles on this Universal collection all come from the 1930s, by which time DeMille was an institution unto himself. He at his worst he had little more to offer than bigger spectacles and (in my opinion) laughable notions of drama infused with outdated and hypocritical sentiments. Some of his pictures are outright offensive, and in plain rotten taste. Everything phony and wrong-headed about elitist 30s ideas can be found here. But several of these expansive epics are also great entertainments, and his pre-code sex & martyrdom Sign of the Cross is one of those crazy pictures that has to be seen to be believed.



Sign of the Cross
1932 / 125 min.
Starring Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton, Ian Keith
Cinematography Karl Struss
Art Direction Mitchell Leisen (u)
Film Editor Anne Bauchens (u)
Original Music Rudolph G. Kopp
Written by Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman from a play by Wilson Barrett

Leading off is this 1932 pre-code sizzler, C.B's prime entry in the "Jesus & Sex" hypocrisy sweepstakes. The pattern is well known: Censors nix nudity, violence, sexual perversion and sadism in normal films, but The Sign of the Cross avoids censorship by framing its salacious content in a melodrama shot through with "Christian" values. All of DeMille's sound-era clunkiness is in evidence, with Insultingly lame and obvious writing and direction. On the other hand, the film exhibits DeMille's essentially solid visual sense and surprisingly good acting within the script's simplistic characters. DeMille's general attitude toward his audience is summed up by scholar Robert S. Birchard's old adage "A Simple Story for Simple People." That's no different than "A Sucker is Born Every Minute."

Synopsis:

Prefect Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) is in a fix -- he's fallen in love with a Christian, Mercia (Elissa Landi) even though he's sworn to uphold the law condemning all followers of that faith. He entices Mercia to a lavish and decadent party, not realizing that his enemies will use his love against him. Worse, Marcus' relationship with Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) suffers because of Nero's wife Poppea (Claudette Colbert). She's murderously jealous of Marcus, and will use her influence with her husband to make sure Mercia is thrown to the lions. To make matters worse, Mercia has no intention of renouncing her new faith -- the only way Marcus thinks he can spare her life.

The Sign of the Cross will be the big draw for this collection, at least among well-read cinephiles. The UCLA Archive restored its long, uncut version in the early 1990s and it has since been shown on cable channels like TCM. Before then it was seen only in a radically censored and re-cut wartime version that has to be the absolute height of ugly revisionism. Paramount (DeMille?) trimmed it of material offensive to the Production Code and hired Dudley Nichols to write a new "wraparound" framing story that takes place in an Allied bomber heading toward Germany. To explain the righteousness of their mission, an army chaplain tells the story of The Sign of the Cross in flashback. The message is that God is behind the Allies. The original film's martyrdom finale is followed by a new shot (if I remember correctly) of the plane flying into a cross-shaped light pattern in the clouds. Onward Christian Soldiers!

This new disc contains only the original version, which has plenty of eye-opening content that proliferated before the Production Code cracked down in 1934. Fans of pre-code films are accustomed to a salacious costume or two; very often the censorable material was racy or lewd dialogue, some eyebrow-wagging inferences or a situation that compromised Church values. The Sign of the Cross mixes its Sunday school theme with erotic and violent excess.

Claudette Colbert bathes in a pool of Asses' milk, splashing around so the scene becomes a peek-a-boo peepshow. It ends with Colbert inviting a female guest (Vivian Tobin) to undress and join her, inviting us to imagine that casual lesbian sex will take place. At his afternoon party, Marcus' guests watch Ancaria (Joyzelle Joyner) dance the "Dance of the Naked Moon." She cannot follow through with her wanton gyrations because of the loud singing of some Christians being led to the arena. "We haven't even seen one moon!" a guest complains. Among Marcus' female guests (many of whom appear to have slept with him in the past) are women in almost 100% see-through gowns. It's hardly believable that male patrons sat through The Sign of the Cross thinking pious thoughts, although many may have said as much to explain why they were going back to see it again at the first opportunity.

Cecil B. DeMille didn't invent this kind of double standard. Similar content appeared in American silent films, which often used glimpses of nudity in a reasonable artful content, as with the 1925 Ben-Hur. Nudity was also common in European pictures, especially the Italian spectacles. But nobody makes this kind of pious claptrap seem as sleazy as DeMille. His voyeuristic attitude is saying "Ah yes, I'm above all this debauchery" while encouraging every viewer to think, "Gee, this kind of thing really goes on in Hollywood? DeMille must be like a Sultan in a harem."

Perhaps the idea is to make the American audience feel so guilty for enjoying their Roman sex show, that they become more enthusiastic about the film's Bible messages. It's sort of like Shelley Winters in Night of the Hunter proclaiming "I feel so clean now" after repenting for having dirty thoughts of the marriage bed, or a warped father making a girl feel ashamed of having an attractive body, the vessel of sin. DeMille's had a corner on the pseudo-devout racket and it made him a lot of money, but it's fundamentally unhealthy, I tells ya.

DeMille really cuts loose in the arena finale. It's an opportunity to present the Roman Circus pretty much as it was, an afternoon's entertainment resulting in hundreds of dead gladiators and 'fun' victims of wild animals. That's before the Christians are thrown to the lions. Although DeMille's direction doesn't dwell on the gore, it certainly encourages a sadistic imagination, as Karl Struss' camera lovingly shows men battling bears and tigers, and gladiators fighting to the death. The sadism gets kinky as a squad of blonde Amazons do combat with a dozen pygmies played by dwarves in black greasepaint and Fuzzy-Wuzzy wigs. One female warrior impales a pygmy on her sword and holds him screaming over her head, while another Pygmy is beheaded on camera.

Sadism mixes with perverse sex as well. A pack of alligators (I guess Nero's expeditions to the New World were successful) is let loose on a maiden (Sally Rand!) clothed only in garlands of flowers and trussed at a perfect snack-time height. A beautiful woman is lashed naked to a post, much like Fay Wray, as a huge ape approaches menacingly. We get quick cuts of debauched spectators making bets, laughing, drooling with erotic excitement or happily crying at the scene. A few atrocities later, the beautiful woman tied to the post is still alive, leading us to think that ape raped her.

Back down in the "conventional" scenes of The Sign of the Cross, DeMille tent-show dramatics are pitched at the level of entertainments twenty and even thirty years out of date. Just like "The Drunkard," the script has every character openly state his or her 'motivation' and position in the morality play: "Can you forgive my behavior yesterday, when I tried to take your soul?" It's a 1932 sound movie but the acting is firmly in the expressionist mold, almost like Metropolis: Fredric March even clutches his chest when he speaks of his love for Mercia. From this point on many of DeMille's films would be completely out of touch with the times.

The stars struggle to act inside the confines of DeMille's stiff pageantry, and basically do well. Fredric March handles the flowery language beautifully, even when he has to declare his love to Nero and the entire court. Claudette Colbert is a classy seductress and plays the role straight, showing not a bit of intimidation in the bath scene, where DeMille makes her a literal fish in a voyeur's barrel. Frankly, with his faux-domineering authoritarian style, we have a hard time not thinking of DeMille as something of a puritan sex pervert: "Let's take that bath scene again, Claudette, you know, for my private reel."

In the 1956 The Ten Commandments, it's pretty obvious that Anne Baxter's awful pantomime is modeled on Colbert's villainess in this film.

As the Christian virgin, Elissa Landi (The Count of Monte Cristo) almost rescues the film's religious theme. She plays confusion, suffering and righteous indignation well, and although we don't feel ready to join Marcus and die with her, she transcends the material as do none of the other actors ... they're all play-acting.

Making play-acting into a hammy art form is Charles Laughton in a Roman putty nose. Realizing he's in a dramatic sinkhole, Laughton pulls out all stops to preen and pout while Rome burns. Relaxing, he stretches and wiggles about like a spoiled pig. It's a great piece of throwaway kitsch, which is also a perfect description of The Sign of the Cross.

DeMille's film can't be faulted technically ... the optical department turns the burning of Rome into a mass of flaming dissolves and the arena scenes are arranged as a shocking sideshow attraction. Perhaps MGM's Thalberg heard about the excesses in this movie, jumped to a hasty conclusion about audience taste and green-lit Tod Browning's Freaks.

Somewhere among the cast are Mischa Auer (a condemned Christian) and Henry Brandon (a spectator). Angelo Rossito is one of the pygmy warriors. We don't see John Carradine but we definitely hear his voice in the arena.



Four Frightened People
1934 / 78 min.
Starring Claudette Colbert, Herbert Marshall, Mary Boland, William Gargan, Leo Carrillo
Cinematography Karl Struss
Art Direction Roland Anderson
Film Editor Anne Bauchens
Written by Lenore J. Coffee, Bartlett Cormack from a novel by Arnot E. Robertson

There are plenty of non-PC movies from the 1930s that are quaint or harmless or completely understandable. It's not unusual to run into an amusing comedy or drama with a thoughtful plot, that suddenly confronts us with an anti-Semitic joke or a racial smear.

It's another thing to run into a movie written and directed with an essentially rotten social-political mindset. Four Frightened People is a movie about 'civilized' people lost in a Malay jungle that shows almost nothing beyond the prejudices of its makers. DeMille's attitudes here are really depressing.

Synopsis:

A cholera outbreak on a ship at sea maroons four Americans on a Malay island. Radio journalist Stewart Corder (William Gargan) takes a tough-guy attitude, while social matron and progressive activist Mrs. Mardick (Mary Boland) proves herself resilient under pressure, if a bit too talkative. Meek chemist Arnold Ainger (Herbert Marshall) has been made too passive by a domineering wife, and schoolteacher Judy Jones (Claudette Colbert) is initially overwhelmed by the situation.

Besides hogging credit (it's amazing how many key contributions to these films are 'uncredited'), Cecil B. DeMille considered himself an expert at writing inter-titles and narration. The first two minutes of Four Frightened People are an unnecessary series of static cards that display DeMille's bigoted viewpoint. The first badly overwritten line describes a "perspiring Malay coast" and distinguishes between Malays, coolies and "people" -- showing that our director definitely considers some races to be inferior. DeMille then describes the less wealthy characters, a chemist and a mousy geography teacher as 'unimportant.' DeMille wants to make a social statement, but only reveals his exclusive, country-club bigotry.

The castaways stumble through the forest making mistakes and blaming each other, and their values slowly change as they become 'more primitive' -- e.g., start thinking about sex. The inflexible leader Corder humiliates Judy and gets them all captured by natives. Mrs. Mardick stays in the village as a hostage while the rest keep wandering, wasting time making elaborate camps and tangling with more forest natives. They're given a 'funny' guide in Montague (Leo Carrillo), a native who wears an English necktie. He emulates the white man's ways so fully that he's too proud to ask for directions.

Nothing really happens until a Chimpanzee steals Judy's clothes, forcing her to make do for a costume with a few rags and ferns. The very un-gentlemanly men watch her bathe in a waterfall and then compete for her attentions. Judy Jones has started as a completely repressed "librarian" type (sorry, Jaci) and now blooms into Jane of the Jungle. We're supposed to think that the three of them are doing well in the wild, as we soon see Judy wearing panther skins. Here's where Herbert Marshall's Arnold Ainger character takes over, wooing Judy with completely idiotic poetic drivel about the moon. He's married, you see, and Jane doesn't want them to ever be rescued so they can stay together.

Meanwhile, we have Mary Boland's meddling Mrs.Mardick overturning the native village for cheap laughs. She's a social reformer promoting a lower birth rate, and she instigates a female revolution among the natives -- the women want to be able to stop having so many babies (really, stop having sex). Cowed, the men-folk are all to eager to take their hostage to safety themselves. Ms. Mardick's ideas of population control are funny until we realize that plenty of conservatives in America and Nazi Germany were expounding the idea that "inferior" populations should be controlled through involuntary sterilization.

Four Frightened People was partially filmed on location, with C.B.'s opening copy telling us that it was shot in the "exotic" jungles of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa .... in actuality, touristy Hawaiian mountains. But it has a "Tarzan chic" attitude toward primitivism, as if DeMille had gotten the idea for the film because his wife made 'going native' a theme of a yard party. Compared to this pastiche, the guiltless sex-in-the-jungle ethic of the pre-code Tarzan and his Mate is a picture of healthy human relationships.

Among the small cast are Japanese-Americans Tetsu Komai (M'ling in The Island of Lost Souls) and a very young Teru Shimada (Osato in You Only Live Twice).


Savant overreacts to the snobby ignorance of Four Frightened People because it hides a contemptible political conservatism. DeMille was right wing and his attitudes found their way into his movies. It's too bad that Universal skipped his 1933 This Day and Age as it's a much clearer picture of the director's pro-Fascist sentimentality. In a happy American town, a bunch of college frat boys win roles in a yearly Student's Day at city hall, playing the roles of Mayor, police chief, City Attorney, etc. for 24 hours. When a loveable (but patronizingly stereotyped) Jewish tailor is murdered by a rotten gangster (Charles Bickford), the boys form a vigilante mob, seize and torture suspects for information, and finally extract a confession from the gangster by suspending him over a pit of rats! The movie ends with a torch-lit rally and a march to a bonfire. It's as if the movie had been funded by the German-American Bund as pro-Nazi propaganda. It promotes a lynch mob, terror tactics and Hitler Youth sentiments. The students don't burn books but they let it be known that the law is for sissies.

Fifteen years later, C.B. DeMille was a Hollywood leader in the HUAC housecleaning, and tried to pass a rule in the Director's Guild demanding loyalty oaths from all members. Although many UCLA students in the early 70s were definitely politicized, I didn't always feel certain of my attitudes. But there was nothing ambiguous about This Day and Age, a Fascist film plain and simple!



Cleopatra
1934 / 100 min.
Starring Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Gertrude Michael, C. Aubrey Smith
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier (u)
Film Editor Anne Bauchens (u)
Original Music Rudolph Kopp
Written by Bartlett Cormack, Waldemar Young, Vincent Lawrence

Cleopatra is a little on the silly side, but it isn't half bad -- it's easily better than Joseph L. Manckiewicz's ridiculous studio-busting bore from 1963. Savant's not up on his Shakespeare but the film appears to incorporate big pieces of Julius Caesar into its mix. The basic story is straightforward and the acting from the three main leads is fine -- Claudette Colbert plays Cleo of the Nile as a sympathetic version of her Poppea from Sign of the Cross two years earlier.

Synopsis:

Julius Caesar (Warren William) arrives in Alexandria and is told that Cleopatra has fled the country leaving her brother in charge. The Queen has actually been kidnapped and left to die in the desert, but she manages to get back and smuggle herself into Caesar's presence hidden in a carpet. Caesar thinks he's impervious to Cleo's charms but she entices him with promises of riches from India. Caesar returns to Rome with Cleopatra, and her presence is just enough to make the senate (the usual gang of thugs headed by Brutus & Cassius) think he's planning to announce himself King. After the Ides of March, Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) goes forth to bring Cleopatra back in captivity, but is also seduced ... and not by the Queen's strategy. They spend a glorious night rowing on Cleo's barge ...

Cleopatra starts out with a still image of a naked female behind the titles, but after that it's a Production Code feature all the way. The dancing girls in Cleo's traveling burlesque show -- I mean, royal court -- are all reasonably covered up, although Claudette remains fetching in minimal Queen of the Desert outfits. The funny thing about the revealing gowns in Sign of the Cross was that no matter what else was shown, female navels were always modestly covered up!

Without any pre-code naughtiness to detail, Cleopatra needs to be taken on its merits. Even with the nobles speaking modern colloquial English the script is more literate for this kind of film and the show frequently manages a heady atmosphere, as when an entire scene is dedicated to showing off one of Cleopatra's dresses.

Henry Wilcoxon's sturdy Marc Anthony succumbs to Cleo's charms by first being teased with an interesting feast -- especially some tiny roasted birds that he pops into his mouth like corn chips. Cleopatra is presented as all women to all men, the perfect consort-Queen for any would-be world conqueror. Roman politics prevents a union with Julius Caesar, and when Cleo allies with Antony they become a B.C. version of Bonnie & Clyde -- misunderstood lovers (sniff!) to be plowed under by the unfeeling armies of fate. (spoiler) The ending is a bit penny-dreadful in conception ... Cleo goes out to deal with the enemy without telling Marc; Marc jumps to a wrong conclusion and then jumps on his sword. With the enemy breaking down the gates, Cleo reaches for that Asp she's kept handy all these years.

Cleopatra is lacking in nude bathing scenes but C.B.'s second unit people and his long-time editrix Anne Bauchers (notably unbilled) contribute a suitably violent war montage. It's always interesting that the Production Code removed all hints of sexuality while allowing gory stuff like soldiers impaled on spikes and sword blows that give the impression of heads being cleaved in twain.

C.B. politicizes the show as well. Julius Caesar might as well be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a demagogue President trying to be elected King. His main deal with the Egyptians is to get tons of grain to flood the "unemployed" boroughs of Rome, thereby cementing his popularity. The implication is that the Republic is in danger because a too-popular Democrat is paying too much attention to the needs of the people.

Warren William's Caesar is a more interesting character than Henry Wilcoxon's Antony, but neither strikes real sparks with Colbert. Her sexuality is better described as "self-contained." DeMille has little interest in her except as a pretext to mount his elaborate pageants, which come off as stage effects, a la Florenz Ziegfeld. Even Cleopatra's barge has a broad, shiny dance floor. The special effects and art direction are appropriately lavish, with Cleo's hoochie-koochie dancers making a unique entrance. She tells Antony that the fishermen are hauling up clams for their dinner, and the nets turn out to be full of dancing girls.

Joseph Schildkraut (The Diary of Anne Frank) plays Herod, and director/narrator/actor Irving Pichel (Dracula's Daughter) is Cleopatra's major domo. C. Aubrey Smith (The Four Feathers) looks hale and hearty as Antony's most trusted General. David Niven is supposed to be an anonymous slave somewhere. C.B.'s famous niece Agnes de Mille had a role as a dancer, but was cut out.



The Crusades
1935 / 125 min.
Starring Loretta Young, Henry Wilcoxon, Ian Keith, C. Aubrey Smith, Katherine DeMille, Joseph Schildkraut, Alan Hale, C. Henry Gordon
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Roland Anderson (u)
Film Editor Anne Bauchens (u)
Original Music Rudolph G. Kopp
Written by Harold Lamb, Waldemar Young, Dudley Nichols

This entirely loopy version of history gets its basic facts right but otherwise interprets the Crusade (there seems to be only one in this telling) in completely contradictory terms: The sworn pact to destroy the Infidels eventually boils down to a tame truce with the Saracen Sultan Saladin. The Muslims remain in military control of Jerusalem, yet Richard the Lionheart's new bride calls the entire affair a victory by redefining the word. It sounds an awful lot like "Mission Accomplished."

Actually, young Loretta Young's character Berengaria remains in control of The Crusades, which is awful history but an amusingly confected screen story. Once again C.B. combines kitschy mock-piety with his idea of racy sex. It is yet another DeMille movie that will do anything to keep its romantic hero and heroine from actually sleeping with each other.

Synopsis:

Non-believer Richard the Lionheart (Henry Wilcoxon) joins the Crusades to avoid marrying Princess Alice of France (Katherine DeMille). With his army starving in Marseilles, Richard barters with the King of Navarre for provisions. The price is marriage to the King's daughter, Princess Berengaria (Loretta Young). Richard sends his sword to take his place in the marriage ceremony, as he has no plan to be a serious husband. In the Holy Land Richard is part of an uneasy alliance that lays siege to the city of Acre. The French are threatening to leave over the slight to their Princess Alice, while the scurvy Marquis of Montserrat (Joseph Schildkraut) plots to murder Richard to help his brother John become King of England. Richard pledges not to bed Berengaria until his sword has taken Jerusalem, and Berengaria tries to get herself killed so she'll no longer be in the way of the alliance. To top it all off, the enemy Sultan Saladin (Ian Keith) is both honorable and a gentleman ... and smitten by Bengaria himself.

Mr. Entertainment Cecil B. DeMille forced the story of the Crusades into a commercial product perfect for 1935. It has tons of religious posturing from a non-denominational Holy Man called "The Hermit" (C. Aubrey Smith). This makes us wonder why DeMille purposely avoids any mention of Rome or The Pope being behind the Crusades, when it was a Catholic show all the way.

DeMille has some giant crowd scenes and a few minutes of busy battles with good montage work and under-cranked cameras, but his real subject is the relationship between Richard and his accidental bride Berengaria, a bashful blonde from Spanish Navarre. The dark-haired Loretta Young looks a little odd in ten pounds of blonde wig but is still a knockout; this was the girl who got her start in the business at age 14 when her older sister brought her to a Hollywood nightclub. Ruling queen of the dance floor Joan Crawford realized that nobody could take their eyes off the ravishing Loretta, and told the sister to take Loretta home and keep her there!

For all the begetting to be found in the Bible, DeMille sticks firmly with the principle that his quasi-religious epics should have no real sex. Therefore Berengaria and Richard stick to a crazy marriage plan that bests anything Luis Buñuel could dream up. She marries his sword by proxy, placing the sword as both a phallic symbol and a militant sign of the Cross. Their one chance at a marriage bed becomes a comic relief scene, until a Saracen attack saves Berengaria from a carnal compromise. Although it reinterprets every point of history in completely suspect terms, The Crusades does an excellent job of making its story events hinge upon a rocky marital relationship.

Berengaria smooths over several impasses between Richard and Saladin, motivates the battles and exacerbates the rift between allies. The amazingly peaceful outcome seems to be entirely her doing -- Jerusalem never falls, but peace and leniency are granted due to Berengaria's purity of heart. Saladin softens to allow generous peace terms -- a reminder that victorious Muslims of the time (I'm thinking Spain) were far more tolerant than their Christian counterparts. Richard finds God in a pointedly cheap bargain with heaven: He prays to get his wife back.

The Crusades moves quickly and has some funny scenes with Alan Hale as a loyal troubadour, warming up for his coming role in The Adventures of Robin Hood. The marriage to the sword is good for some laughs at Berengaria's humiliation, all dressed for the altar and having to exchange vows with a piece of steel. But the most fun comes when snooty Princess Alice finds out that her prize stateroom on the Jerusalem-bound ship is being taken over by her fiancée's sudden new wife ... it's a shame we're not given the pleasure of an all-out catfight. For that matter, a remake by Monty Python would have been ideal ... or did they already do that?

When C.B. succeeds in being entertaining, his restrictive attitudes become less offensive. The Crusades is fairly enjoyable. The ending twists are more than a little ludicrous, with Berengaria mediating between Christian and Islamic warriors with the anachronistic plea, "after all, we all worship one God ... what difference is it if we give him different names?" Love conquers all -- as long as there's no sex involved.

It's easy to spot a subdued Mischa Auer as a priest, but I didn't catch Ann Sheridan as a Christian Slave Girl or J. Carrol Naish as a slave dealer (strictly wholesale).



Union Pacific
1939 / 139 min.
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Henry Kolker, Anthony Quinn, Lynne Overman
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Hans Dreier
Film Editor Anne Bauchens
Special Effects by Gordon Jennings, George Tomasini, Loren L. Ryder, Barney Wolff, Jan Domela, Paul K. Lerpae
Original Music Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold
Written by Jack Cunningham, Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jesse Lasky Jr., Ernest Haycox from his novel Trouble Shooters

The last DeMille entry ends the collection on a high note. Union Pacific is a big and enormously enjoyable western saga with plenty of fun characterizations and exciting incident. The stars are so likeable we hardly notice DeMille's shameful warping of history and reactionary attitudes. The clever script manages to make every outrageous cliché seem like something to applaud.

Synopsis:

With the blessing of Abraham Lincoln, the visionary Union Pacific railroad forges ahead with its goal to girdle the country with rails. Engineer's daughter Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck) was born on the tracks and represents the Irish immigrants eager to do their part in the gigantic undertaking. But shifty Eastern financiers have bet everything on the failure of the project, and stock manipulator Asa M. Barrows (Henry Kolker) hires unscrupulous gambling-hall proprietor Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) to slow the work progress by distracting the workers with booze and bargirls. His partner Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is only half crooked, as he loves Mollie. The railroad hires Captain Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) as a "troubleshooter" to keep peace with the Indians and get rid of Campeau and his thugs ... including Dick, Jeff's old war buddy.

Union Pacific is a rousing epic that would be twice as memorable if it had an inspirational music score instead of a cheap stack of adapted themes. Its bold images of trains crossing the plains repeatedly evoked memories of Tiomkin's Duel in the Sun score.

But there's plenty here to like. Barbara Stanwyck's excellent acting brings to life Mollie Monahan, one of DeMille's ultra-thin characterizations conceived to embody the 'free spirit' of the "unimportant" (see Four Frightened People, above) workers come to build America. The naive love triangle between Stanwyck, Preston and McCrea works beautifully. Part of the thanks for this should go to the elevating and forgiving nature of the western genre, which generously embraces historical myths or philosophies of any persuasion.

Historians upset by the historical lies and distortions in Warners' They Died with Their Boots On will have apoplexy over Union Pacific. In this version of events the railroad was the lone progressive voice in the nation, forging ahead with the intercontinental railroad when everybody else said it couldn't be done. The main conflict in the story is between do-gooders who are for America and progress, and the vermin who are against it -- you know, the sinful types who make shady deals or traffic in liquor and vice.

Any high school course now teaches that the intercontinental railroad was the shady deal of the century worked up between congress and moneyed interests. There was nothing financially risky about it at all: Everyone wanted to go west to shoot buffalo, mine gold and homestead. And the rail builders held firm until they won ridiculous freebie concessions from the lawmakers, including easement rights that made them the property holders of a wide strip of land wherever the railroad went - for all purposes.  1 The latest scandals to even come close to this all-time no-risk deal is the FCC's giveaway of the public broadcasting spectrum to private interests, or the corporate cronyism profiting mightily from the Middle East war on terror.

Union Pacific is sufficiently entertaining to make us put all of that aside. Robert Preston (The Music Man) is a colorful good/bad guy, a murderer melodramatically delivered by the love of a good woman. Of course, Joel McCrea's lawman redeems them both. McCrea is as virtuous as Gary Cooper without the noble posing, and as sentimental as James Stewart without the sad-eyed pitch for pathos. We forget that he's basically a hired killer, a "regulator" on the payroll to "shoot trouble." Possessed of a pure heart and unsurpassed in is gun-slinging skill, he's a western natural. (spoiler) He blasts down C.B.'s son-in-law Anthony Quinn with an enviable backwards-facing fast draw, and outfoxes the rest of the bad guys with the help of two unwashed but immensely likeable backup men, Lynne Overman's Leach and Akim Tamiroff's "Fiesta."

True to his conservative roots, DeMille also depicts McCrea as a tough-guy strike buster. A goonish "agitator" at the rail head has stirred the workers up because they haven't been paid, and is proving himself to be a typical Bolshie by breaking their tools. McCrea puts paid to him right away. The scene looks harmless unless one is familiar with the 1930s. Big industry and the government colluded in the illegal suppression of the labor movement, labeling it as Communist agitation and sending in troops with machine guns to put it down.

Finally, DeMille exonerates Barrows, the bad-guy industrialist responsible for many deaths (and the only conflict in the film) by having Leach and Fiesta force him to walk 26 miles of track resetting loose rail spikes. Through this honest sweat-atonement, Barrows somehow redeems himself and is shown hammering the last spike like a pro. Big Business crooks are thus above the law. Clearly, the elitist DeMille saw himself as a worthy Man of the People because he took pains to have himself photographed in masculine pursuits like camping and polo.

The movie has two or three exciting finales -- robberies, a train wreck and an Indian battle. Also some typical dumb-Indian humor: The braves react with shock at a cigar-store Indian and raid the goods on a train they've wrecked by fastening ladies' corsets around the necks of their horses, etc.. Yet they're smart enough to overturn a giant water tower to derail the train. The film barely has anything to say about the Indians except the opportunity they afford for action. Both this film and John Ford's Stagecoach use the "save the last bullet for the virgin" gag when it looks as if all is lost. It doesn't work quite as well here. Who could shoot Barbara Stanwyck, even if she's passively asking for it?  2

Joel McCrea made a lot of westerns but Union Pacific is the best one to compare with his farewell masterpiece Ride the High Country. That film's impoverished but noble old-time lawman could very well be Jeff Butler thirty years later. The old studio system encouraged typecasting to the point that the films of stars like McCrea could almost represent individual chapters of a bigger story --- perhaps Jeff took to preaching for a few years, an effort recorded in Jacques Tourneur's The Stars in My Crown. If the timelines and wives aren't consistent, the McCrea character certainly is. We love Peckinpah's retiree-gunman, and seeing him back in his prime in Union Pacific is a lift to the spirits.

I'm told that uncountable thousands of Chinese were imported to build this railroad. The way DeMille tells it, I guess they all dressed and talked like Irishmen to avoid problems with discrimination. The film has an enormous cast of notable bit players. Savant only recognized a few of the following: Fuzzy Knight, Lon Chaney Jr., Don Beddoe, Monte Blue, Ward Bond, Iron Eyes Cody, Richard Denning, Will Geer, Noble Johnson, Elmo Lincoln, Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Joe Sawyer and Frank Yaconelli.


The Cecil B. DeMille Collection packs five separate discs in a folding holder, itself held within a book-like case. These are all Paramount pictures now owned by Universal but all seem to be in fine condition, with sharp pictures and robust sound tracks. The earlier titles have more grain, especially in optical sequences; Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra were restored by the UCLA Film Archive. For the record, all of the shows appear to be uncut, and Sign of the Cross has intermission cards and Entr'acte music. There are no extras on any of the discs.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sign of the Cross rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None
Four Frightened People rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None

Cleopatra rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None
The Crusades rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None

Union Pacific rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None
Packaging:
five discs in folding card and plastic holder in card box
Reviewed: May 26, 2006


Footnotes:

1. This is how the unscrupulous logger in Come and Get It becomes rich: He builds miles and miles of barely-necessary rail lines into virgin forest. The automatic easement rights give him full title to all the lumber on both sides of the tracks .... a free harvest of millions.
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2. And don't answer, "Fred MacMurray."
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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