The 1920 publicity photo of De Mille that graces the cover of this otherwise unadorned DVD release of Male and Female shows the director as a confident young man in his late 30’s, already one of the legends who created Hollywood (DeMille’s first full-length movie, The Squaw Man, is reportedly the first feature length film made in Hollywood.) This copy has no extras, and there isn’t even a soundtrack, so watching it is a little like watching the rushes before a soundtrack is added. But the film is so dynamic, you pretty soon forget that it is completely silent. Silent movies were never silent, as they always had a coordinated piano, organ, or orchestral score. But this DVD was released with nothing added at all, which is admittedly a little unusual.
Even if you have seen the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments (who hasn’t?), you have not really watched DeMille until you have taken a look at his silent films, which are more diverse, and generally better, than his talkies. Only five years after The Birth of a Nation made feature length essential for films, this is a visually arresting, exciting, witty, affecting, and wholly satisfying full length film (running about 2 hours). Except for a few nods to old-fashioned morality messages and inter-title cards with doggerel poetry, the film could have been made in the last few years, and it is very much still enjoyable today.
The source material is Edwardian and British, based on J.M. Barrie’s play “The Admirable Crichton” from 1902. Barrie (of “Peter Pan” fame) tells a story that parodies the class structure of British society. De Mille injects a little pro-American moment toward the end, as he shows his butler and scullery maid finding a new life free of artificial class distinctions in the New World.
Gloria Swanson stars in her heyday. What more famous moment in screen history than Swanson playing a later faded iteration of herself, now in her dotage, in Sunset Boulevard (1950), telling an imagined ghost of DeMille that she is ready for her close-up? The irony is that, while she played a washed-up silent film star in the 1950 film, that is the film for which Swanson is now best remembered. She achieved the comeback that her character on screen could not. Swanson’s original super-stardom was largely due to DeMille, who starred her in something like seven of his movies after they met in 1918.
In Male and Female, Swanson is one of the spoiled, rich sisters of the Loam family, who are tended to by a subservient butler (played by Thomas Meighan–huge matinee idol of early Paramount films, all but forgotten today.) The snobby Edwardian family goes on a yachting expedition and ends up shipwrecked, where it turns out that the butler is the only one who can keep them alive, which elevates him to a king-like status as long as they are on the island. The breakdown of British class structure while facing the adversities of a tropical island, and the reversal back to the norm after the rescue, are the stuff of J. M. Barrie’s parody. De Mille handles the material very well, and through an American lens that makes the ridiculousness of a rigidly stratified society all that much more pointed.
Paramount Pictures only commands 6.4% of movie market share as of 2018, but it is still one of the current “Big Five” major studios, and the only one still headquartered in Hollywood (although its parent company, Viacom, is based in New York City.) Male and Female was released when Paramount was only seven years old and on the ascendant as a major studio and still called Famous Players–Lasky. Cecil B. DeMille helped build that empire, starting right where they are still making movies today, in sunny Hollywood, California.