So much to admire about Cecil B. DeMille and so much to lay at his door...
A highly-gifted director, he created America’s first feature The Squaw Man in 1914 along with the adult sophistication of The Cheat a year later. He seemed to effortlessly create good-looking, seamless stories yet he found out what he thought audiences “really” wanted and started to give it to them – the first director to sell out or the first director to just cash in.
Amongst his key themes were an unashamed focus on his female leads coupled with a penchant for historical epics that enabled the depiction of less inhibited times and, simply put… less dressed times.
|Gloria Swanson, Thomas Meighan and Lila Lee|
|Gloria and Claudette take their baths|
|Scantily clad and in animal peril...1932 and 1919|
Male and Female is an adaptation of JM Barrie’s highly successful stage play, The Admirable Crichton from 1902. One feels that the themes of class and entitlement examined by the play’s dislocation of the “natural order” were played down in DeMille’s film… starting with the re-titling – “now, why didn’t I think of that…” Barrie sardonically commented.
|The admirable Thomas Meighan|
Holding this all together is the head butler, Crichton (Thomas Meighan) a man of supernatural calm who most assuredly knows his place and that of his staff. In spite of this, Crichton hankers after the affection of young Lady Mary Lasenby (Gloria Swanson) who, inspire of her indolence and high-level airs, has an allure the seasoned servant cannot resist – is this a crush based on position or can there ever be anything more for them… as people and as a man and woman.
|Lila Lee and Crichton's shoe...|
How the attract such devotion is hard to fathom as Lady Mary is rude and exacting, her cousin Honourable Ernest 'Ernie' Wolley (Raymond Hatton) is a wastrel and even her intended Lord Brockelhurst (Robert Cain) seems more interested in other women… almost all of them. Clearly Mary could do better… but how? These people seem the victims of their status almost as much as the people in their service.
|Go on a boat?!|
The family manage to escape to a desert island (in reality, just off the coast of Santa Barbara) where Crichton soon proves his worth, much to the chagrin of his betters who cannot see why he feels so empowered – he may be able to start fires and build shelter, but they’re still “paying his wages” aren’t they?
Whether this Orwellian turn-about was in Barrie’s original play, I’m not aware, but it feels slightly at odds with the deference and respect he has otherwise shown the family: to suddenly start squad bashing and bullying them – even for their own good – seems like power has gone to his head.
Never-the-less, the new alpha male, finds himself the centre of attention as Tweeny and Mary compete for his affections… Lord Brockenhurst is a long way away…and up to no good anyway with a maid re-employed from Loam's household.
|What's good for the goose etc...|
Things don’t end well for the slave girl Mary and this is a guilt Crichton feels he still carries with him: now is his chance to put things right.
|Swanson, Bebe Daniels and Meighan in Babylon|
But, just as it seems that Mary and Crichton will become the island’s first couple wed in a Christian ceremony, a boat is sighted and his own expertly-constructed coastal fire alarm brings their rescuers to them…
Back in Blighty, will Mary stay true to Crichton once he is relegated to his old post and, more to the point, will he still feel it appropriate to marry this woman so clearly above his station.
The ending is not what you might expect but that’s maybe more down to the play than the film! I won’t give it away… it’s still an interesting premise.
|Back to life...|
It’s also worth mentioning Gloria Swanson who gives the kind of performance that made her one of *the* stars. Here at twenty I found it hard to reconcile her with Norma Desmond but you watch Teddy at the Throttle and her other earlier shorts of the post-war period and you start to understand her abilities. Maybe not as funny as Mabel or as energetic as Mary, she, never-the-less, brought her own unique sensibilities.
Her eyes were incredibly expressive and she was a demure clothes horse when she chose to be. She also has an intelligence that unpins her performance and a slightly quirky beauty which helped her to stand out. Was she well served by Mr DeMille? Certainly in this film she stars and her bravery in pushing on with the lion scene – in spite of his misgivings (reverse psychology?) – deserves respect.
Did it add much to the story? Probably not, but certainly did to the spectacle… no one ever lay down with a live lion!
Male and Female is available from Amazon on its own as part of the Swanson box set. This also includes a number of her shorter comedies and excellent new scores all round.