February 13, 2020
Male and Female – US, 1919
There is a stanza of William Ernest Henley’s poem “To: W A” at the center of Cecil B. DeMille’s century-old film Male and Female. It goes like this:
“Or ever the knightly years were gone
With the old world to the grave
I was a King of Babylon
And you were a Christian slave”
It is read and reminisced upon by a pampered daughter of privilege named Mary Loam (Gloria Swanson) as well as one of the family servants, Bill Crichton (Thomas Meighan), and - as interpreted by Crichton, at least - it implies that there was a time when their souls found themselves placed into different social roles. The powerful was once powerless; the poor was once rich. It is a rather bleak assessment, for it implies that there is never a time when society is classless, and, therefore, the protagonists in this film will never be allowed the bliss of a happy ending in either this life or the past or future. If that isn’t a spoiler alert, I don’t know what is.
The film has an intriguing opening scene. In lieu of showing us the characters and informing us who is playing them, DeMille introduces us to the members of the Loam family through the eyes of a young servant as he peers through the key holes of each of their rooms. It is mildly amusing, but it serves a greater purpose, one that I’m pretty sure DeMille was intending. Simply put, by looking through the boy’s eyes, we become similar voyeurs. We are looking at the men of the house as they wearily greet the new day, and it is our eyes that fix on the removed clothes of Lady Mary. The boy is soon forcibly removed by Crichton, and he, ever the gentleman, shows incredible restraint. We, on the other hand, follow Mary into her rather enormous washroom, where her servants are preparing her bath. We watch as she approaches her servants, one shoulder exposed. Then the servants hold up a translucent cloth, one that, I might add, then falls, fully exposing Swanson’s shoulders and bare back, and briefly giving them an obscured glance at her backside. The scene doesn’t serve a narrative purpose, but I’m sure it made Swanson a permanent fixture in many young boys’ fantasies.
But I digress. The film also introduces us to Tweeny (Lisa Lee), a servant who is in love with Crichton. How do we know? Well, she has a picture of him in her room, and she places a kiss on it before she begins working. We also meet Lord Brockelhurst (Where do they come up with these names?), played by Robert Cain, another member of the upper class and a suitor for Lady Mary. After getting engaged, Mary and her family embark on a trip to the South Seas. Along the way, their boat crashes into some rocks and the family is forced to take shelter on an island that just happens to have an ample supply of fruit and meat, but no humans. There are even ruins, hinting at previous inhabitants, which, if you think about it, doesn’t make any sense. Humans have rarely abandoned areas that still could still provide them with the means to survive. Pitcairn, this is not.
There’s a naiveté to the rest of the film. For much of its duration, the film places eight individuals – 5 men and three women – on an island, and the consequences of this are remarkably trivial. Sure, there’s the intriguing, if not slightly predictable repositioning of authority – Crichton is the only one who knows how to survive in such a place – yet beyond that the only question the film seems to want to pursue is just who will be successful in their pursuit of the big man – Mary or Tweeny. This part of the film is much more akin to Swiss Family Robinson, a book that is even reference in one scene, than Cast Away. In other words, no one suffers any mental trauma or depression. Instead, they build amazing huts, erect fences for livestock, and even become rather skilled hunters and gatherers. Everyone smiles, the family patriarch does silly things, and the ladies all remain visions of beauty – their hair sparkles, their cheeks remain rosy, and their figures ensure that they’ll return to civilization in the same shape that made the actresses playing them so desirable in the first place. Who knows? Maybe there was a pharmacy on the island.
Into this fantasy world, DeMille inserts one of the most superfluous sequences in film history. In it, we are swept back in time to ancient Babylon, where we see a king that looks remarkably like Crichton and a Christian slave who is the spitting image of Mary. From there, we witness a visual representation of Henley’s poem, one which ends with Swanson’s character choosing death at the hands of lions over a forced life with her Babylonian enslaver. In other words, DeMille did not trust the audience to understand the implications of Henley’s words on their own; we had to see them.
There is a stronger version of Male and Female to be made, one that could not have been made in 1919 or even in 1935, and that version would resemble Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away far more than Gilligan’s Island. There would be madness, savage competition for companionship, perhaps even pregnancy. There would be more to the switch in power than the realization that only one of them was equipped to made soup, and there would be growing resentment that someone who was once an employee was now be proclaiming himself king. Instead, we get joviality, outdated humor, and one of the chastest pursuits of the only available man on an otherwise uninhabited island that you’ll ever see. It’s a G-rated version of what would likely be an R-rated reality. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars
*Male and Female is a silent film.