Film review by Jason Day of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent sex comedy Male & Female starring Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson.
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The spoiled, lazy family of a Lord who enjoys practising role-reversal social experiments with his servants have their lives completely turned upside down when they are shipwrecked during their summer vacation. Their dependable butler Crichton quickly assumes the role of leader and starts to lord it over them for real leading to familial conflict.
Review, by Jason Day
“All right Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” cried Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film that harboured more than a few vicious ironies. That statement was one of the biggest though as in real-life Swanson had already been treated to quite a few by legendary director Cecil B. as they made a series of social sex comedies at Paramount between 1919 and 1921, this venture being the first.
Typically, they featured the lovely Miss Swanson as an immaculately attired, bizarrely coiffed lady of the fast set, either putting up with a lothario husband or faced with some other titillating relationship dilemma, the resolution of which was achieved by way of a bathroom scene with Gloria luxuriating herself in front of the eyes of modern and mature America. The box office tills rang a happy tune and Swanson and DeMille were soon at the very top of Hollywoodland’s aristocracy.
This mildly amusing adaptation of The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie, stars Meighan as Crichton. Now a long forgotten idol of the past, he was one of the biggest film stars in the world at this time and turns in a slyly comic, sarcastic performance. This is the role that posterity has remembered him by.
The supporting cast is also game for a laugh, particularly Roberts’ pantomime as Lord Loame and DeMille regular Hatton as the amusingly useless Woolley.
But the showcase performance is Swanson as Lady Mary, who is delightful and skilfully underplays the camera, recognising even at this early stage in her career how exaggerated acting can look fake and embarrassing.
The minuses come mostly from Macpherson’s cack-handed satire (Crichton is rather too rude for a butler when he asks uppity Swanson if her burnt toast isn’t “the only thing that’s spoiled”) with an irritating penchant for bawdy, Music Hall style comedy (the servant boy peering through the family’s bedroom key holes) and, of course, scenes accountable only for giving DeMille’s love of extravagant showmanship full reign (Swanson’s aforementioned dip in the tub and a dopey flash-back to ancient Babylon, with Swanson dressed in feathers and pearls and being gored by a lion, a hang-over from D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance released three years prior to this).
It is also strange that, given DeMille’s usually playful and light touch, the decorously witty lampoon of social-class in Barrie’s famous drawing room comedy is gone, though some of his best lines are rearranged and crop up at various points.
Cast & credits
Director: Cecil B. DeMille. 116mins. Paramount.
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky.
Writer: Jeannie Macpherson.
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff.
Music: Sydney Jill Lehman.
Sets: Wilfred Buckland.
Thomas Meighan, Gloria Swanson, Lila Lee, Raymond Hatton, Theodore Roberts, Mildred Reardon, Robert Cain.