1919: Something NewMale and Female (Cecil B. DeMille, 1919)
It's rumored that DeMille retitled his adaptation of J.M. Barrie's 1902 play The Admirable Crichton
to Male and Female
because he worried that audiences would think it was about the navy. Well, dammit, he was right. I've heard the title many times before (probably in reference to the 1957 British film with Kenneth More) and always imagined Crichton to be an admiral. Gosh, am I dumb.
It turn out that Crichton is actually a butler, played in DeMille's adaptation by Thomas Meighan. Gloria Swanson, just 20 years old at the time, plays one of the spoiled people in the wealthy loam household that he Crichton waits upon. It's a big house. We spend what seems like forty minutes meeting everyone who lives there. It's pretty boring setup, to be honest, and the flowery intertitles are no help. The real highlight is seeing Gloria Swanson take a bath
amid the elaborate art direction. (The sex appeal on display is the more likely explanation of the film's title change.)
After the long introductions, the household takes to the seas, where a shipwreck strands them on an island. The shipwreck sequence is quite cool and well directed definitely one of the highlights of the film. From there, the story becomes one of class inversion (on the island, the once-pampered rich are now helpless, while the resourceful butler is king) intermixed with romance, mostly with a comedic bent. Unfortunately, the cleverness of the writing never matches the cleverness of the art direction (which is impressively inventive), so there aren't many laughs to be had. Then things take a couple of bizarre turns, first with a Babylonian fantasy sequence (visually cool, thematically meh, and narratively just wtf) and then with some random bursts of patriotic fever (USA! USA! USA!). It''s all very silly, and not usually in good ways, but it's also rarely boring, once things finally get moving.
I didn't quite like the film, but DeMille impressed me here. I've always been wary of him, having been burned by The Greatest Show on Earth
and finding its direction rather sloppy. I've otherwise only seen The Cheat
(1915) but under poor circumstances and with too little context to appreciate DeMille's contribution. Male and Female
has shown me what a talented director he really is, and for the first time I suspect that there's something in his filmography from the 1920s that will really appeal to me. Even in 1919, he displays as much or even more finesse with the craft than John Ford, say, shows a half decade later. DeMille's flair for lavish art direction and exciting set-pieces is part of the appeal of Male and Female
, but his finesse with his cast (particularly Meighan and Swanson) is the bigger revelation.Grade:
C+This review was meant to be accompanied by twenty or so screenshots, but I lost my copy of the film before I could gather them. Sad times.