The third of Cecille B. DeMille’s Biblical trilogy, following The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927), this religious-themed movie actually upset Catholics so much that the Catholic Legion of Decency, an organization dedicated to identifying and combating objectionable content, was formed in 1934. I used to love checking out what movies they rated as O for Offensive, as quite often, those were the ones I sought out.
The scene that did it is when Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) bathes herself in the milk of asses, which was really powdered milk that soon went sour under the hot lights. Actually, more than one scene did it, as the Hayes also asked DeMille to cut Ancaria’s (Joyzelle Joyner) seductive dance for a woman, the orgy scene, a gorilla dancing around a nearly nude woman, a dead body-filled cart, elephant stomping on Christians and a crocodile getting ready to chow down on a tied-up girl.
Somehow, someway, this movie was sold to three audiences: regular movie fans, churchgoers and then students. It’s an early attempt at market segmentation and changing the ad message for each group. I have no idea how the religious and the young reacted to some of the insanity in this movie.
Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar (Charles Laughton) is burning Rome to the ground and blaming it on the Christians, but Roman Prefect Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) has fallen for one of the enemy, the Christian Mercia (Elissa Landi). This causes Empress Poppaea (Colbert, who hadn’t played an evil role at this time in her career), who yearns for Marcus, to team with Nero to kill every religious person left.
John Carradine plays numerous small roles in this — a Christian martyr, the leader of the gladiators and several voices — having been hired when the out of work actor’s booming voice was heard by DeMille on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s like Cannibal Holocaust, except at some point, everyone knelt and prayed instead of shredding a turtle to pieces.
The glory of DeMille’s Biblical epics is that they both want to save and damn your soul at the same time. It’s blood and circuses, spectacle and sermon, all at the same time. There really hasn’t been anything like these Pre-Code movies ever since.
You can get the new Kino Lorber reissue of this film, complete with two commentary tracks by film historians Mark A. Vieira and David Del Valle, here. This is a moment of history that demands to be in your collection.