Male and Female

Paramount (1919) 116 min.  NR

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Screenplay: Jeannie Macpherson from play The Admirable Crichton by James M. Barrie

Cinematography: Alvin Wyckoff; Editing: Anne Bauchens; Production Design: WIlfred Buckland; Costumes: Paul Iribe, Mitchell Leisen & Clare West

Stars: Gloria Swanson (Lady Mary), Thomas Meighan (Crichton), Lila Lee (Tweeny), Theodore Roberts (Lord Loam), Raymond Hatton (Hon. Ernest Woolley), Mildred Reardon (Lady Agatha), Robert Cain (Lord Brockelhurst), Edmund Burns (Treherne), Rhy Darby (Lady Eileen), Mayme Kelso (Lady Brockelhurst), Julia Faye (Maid), Henry Woodward (Eileen’s Chauffeur), Bebe Daniels (King’s Favorite), Wesley Barry (Buttons)

Best remembered now for his conventional historical and biblical spectacles, and on the basis of them written off as a great showman of negligible artistic consequence, Cecil B. DeMille once stood among the giants of the movie industry. A pioneering innovator, heavily influenced by the theatrical productions of David Belasco, he’d done much to raise the standards of photography (with his “Rembrandt lighting” effects) and scenic design on the American screen. Disappointed by the response to his daring, depressing psychological drama, The Whispering Chorus (1918), Demille turned his talents in the late teens to a set of trendy, mix-and-match marriage comedies centering around the rising divorce rate and the eternal battle of the sexes. In the freer, post-war climate, amusing romantic roundelays like Old Wives for New; Don’t Change Your Husband; For Better, For Worse; We Can’t Have Everything; Why Change Your Wife?; The Affairs of Anatol and Saturday Night, allowed DeMille to hone his delightfully sly wit, while raising eyebrows with his irreverent take on once sacred cows such as marital incompatibility and infidelity. Anticipating the later, ‘Lubitsch Touch,’ these films furthered the evolution of sophisticated sex comedy into a cinematic art form all its own, with Male and Female proving the single most sparkling entry in the series.

Based on The Admirable Crichton, James M. Barrie’s 1902 play about a butler who takes pleasure in turning the tables on his aristocratic employers, the exotic, provocative Male and Female, with its high erotic quotient, caused a sensation when released. The story involves Loam House, London, which is sharply divided along class lines. Upstairs resides the nobility, Lord Loam (Theodore Roberts), his daughters, Lady Mary (Gloria Swanson) and Agatha (Mildred Reardon), and their cousin, the Honorable Ernest Woolly (Raymond Hatton). Downstairs, in the servants’ quarters, toils their staff.Tweeny, the scullery maid (Lila Lee), is in love with the butler, Crichton (Meighan), but he’s too besotted with his mistress to pay her any mind.  For her part, Mary, on those occasions when she deigns to acknowledge the butler’s existence, takes the opportunity to upbraid or belittle him. When her friend, Lady Eileen (Rhy Darby), confides that she’s in love with her chauffeur, Mary is aghast at the idea, scoffing “it’s precisely as if I were to marry Crichton.” During a cruise, the Loams and their servants are shipwrecked on a desert island. When the other castaways prove incapable of fending for themselves, Crichton takes command.Mary is initially hostile, but soon softens toward her newly masterful butler, even sparring with Tweeny for his attentions. After saving Mary from a leopard, Crichton relates the legend of a Babylonian king who threw the Christian slave he loved to the lions, and was doomed thereafter to serve her down through the ages. Now social equals, the two decide to marry, but during the ceremony a rescue ship is spotted. Ecstatic, Tweeny informs Mary that Crichton will return to her since class is again an obstacle to their happiness.Back home, the Loams assume sole credit for their survival. Only Mary remains true to her butler. When Crichton overhears Eileen, now a social outcast, pleading with her old friend not to make the same mistake she did however, he announces his intention to wed Tweeny. The two will immigrate to America, where who you’re born need not be a determining factor in how far you go in life.

While it may now seem a none too subtle satire on the ruling class, Male and Female was startlingly topical when originally released. The Russian Revolution was still a fairly recent event, and the social unrest and paranoia it stirred up here at home had helped fuel America’s first Red Scare, resulting in suspected communists and subversives being rounded up wholesale and faced with deportation. In such a tense political climate, this far-fetched farce about a marooned servant who incites class mutiny was considered quite controversial. When Crichton wrests leadership away from the Loams, lording it over his former lords and ladies, comparison to the recent revolution is both invited and unavoidable.Furthermore, the island settlement is initially depicted as though it were a socialist collective. In the interest of the common good, each castaway must pool their resources, handing over private property like pocket watches to spark campfires, or mesh fringe to use as fishing nets. If any are to survive, all must pitch in by hunting game,  gathering fruits and vegetables, crafting utensils and pottery, or smelting iron for tools. As Crichton points out to Mary, who absurdly expects things to go on as before, “Those who are not willing to serve – are apt to find themselves both cold and hungry!” DeMille goes so far toward holding up this island utopia as the functional, working model of an agrarian commune, one might almost think he were endorsing this way of life as the sociopolitical ideal.But despite the movie’s apparent leftist slant, DeMille remained a staunch conservative, and to diffuse any potentially incendiary stance, shifts Male and Female’s focus from social to sexual politics. As its title would suggest, Male and Female is less about class warfare than the battle of the sexes, and it was this shift in tone that likely prompted the name change from Barrie’s long-established literary property to the far racier Male and Female. Rather than an apocryphal studio head, as Hollywood legend would have it, fearing ticket buyers would mistake the “admirable” Crichton for the “admiral” Crichton, at a time when sea pictures weren’t selling. DeMille had touched on the theme of gender role reversal in his earlier Joan the Woman, but with Male and Female he really brought it to the fore. We’re proffered a picture in which women, while presumably created as man’s ‘inferior,’ have in fact assumed a station in society superior to his own. Conversely, soft living is shown to have emasculated the men of Male and Female. As butlers, houseboys, chauffeurs, etc., they’re left to perform all the menial domestic duties traditionally relegated to the weaker sex. As a butler, Crichton himself has been shunted into the traditional female role of homemaker, preparing and serving meals, dusting and doing housework. He eagerly awaits Mary’s appraisal of her breakfast spread as if he were a nervous newlywed bride who’d just prepared her first dish. Denying his more masculine impulses has become second nature to him. Whenever eager to please, he’ll rub his hands together in obeisance, toadying as gratuitously as Dickens’ Uriah Heep. This is a topsy turvy world, in which modern civilization has become the exclusive province of the frivolous and feminine, and society’s most industrious, resourceful, pragmatic, hardworking, noble man is not an aristocrat but a butler. Everything’s already upside down, so the turnabout on the island is meant to be setting things to rights.

When washed up on shore, all the castaways are stripped of their class, rank, status, titles, and again set on equal footing, allowing those best equipped by nature, to rise to the top. As Crichton philosophically forecasts, with just a slight rumbling of class resentment, “one cannot tell what may be in a man, my lady. If all were to return to Nature tomorrow, the same man might not be master – nor the same man servant – Nature would decide the matter for us!” It’s suggested that the natural world, rather than society, offers the more valid assessment of a man’s true mettle. This is natural selection, Darwinism at work. The fantasy island, with its unlikely mélange of flora and fauna, doesn’t appear far removed from Neverland, that enchanted realm whimsical Scottish author Barrie dreamed up for Peter Pan. In actuality, however, it’s meant to be taken as Paradise rediscovered, a new Eden, where life can be lived in the raw, away from the corrupting influence of civilization, closer to the soil and traditional bedrock values. Full of wide-open spaces, it proves a liberating landscape for the butler, a cousin to the fastidious valet who goes west in the Ruggles of Red Gap, as he casts off his inhibitions. Once out of his native habitat, he finds himself in his element for the first time, speaking out and taking charge. Here he becomes his own master, displacing the Loams in the social pecking order. Crichton is also meant to be restoring the ‘natural’ order of things by becoming lord and master of his former mistress. Where Crichton had served Lady Mary meals, she now waits upon him. Having reclaimed the dominant, ‘male’ role in their relationship, this previously passive butler can now begin aggressively pursuing his romantic interest in her.Just as DeMille believes God, who he invokes in that opening quote from Genesis, had intended, the shipwreck is meant to reinstitute the ‘natural’ order of things, by again allowing man to assert his supposed ‘supremacy’ as the ‘superior’ of the two sexes. And it’s this slant that seems the movie’s most contestable today. Once back to nature, Crichton’s domineering masculinity, strength, size, brawn, stand him in better stead to weather the harsh conditions of this inhospitable island environ. Clinching proof that Crichton and Mary have, for the time being, accepted their assigned Male and Female designations, is immediately forthcoming. When a leopard threatens, Crichton instinctively assumes a protective stance, placing a frightened, now helpless Mary in a small shoal grotto for shelter, while he stands guard, brandishing an oar for a weapon. The Freudian symbolism here is quite frank and, frankly, unmistakable.On the island, Crichton’s virility is constantly being stressed, whether assuming the captain’s role by going down with the ship, teaching Mary to shoot a bow and arrow, defending her from a leopard, or wielding oars, ram’s horns, axes, all phallic props intended to accentuate his masculinity. If the aged, impotent Lord Loam, the puny Woolly, and the handsome but chaste young priest who accompanies them on their cruise (for no other reason than to sanctify the marriage nuptials!), are any indication, the other men of Male and Female have been effectively neutered, leaving nothing more virile to recommend them than money, titles, position. Amidst this collection of inert bluebloods, Crichton, fittingly for a story with such strong socialist sentiments, appears to be the lone red-blooded man of action, the one best equipped by nature to take up the reigns of leadership.

At his height, actor Thomas Meighan towers over the rest of the cast, diminishing them by comparison. His presence dominates the screen whenever he’s on it. Squaring off with Mary in a contest of wills over who her maid should take orders from, for instance, the director must crowd both women, along with Mary’s sister Agatha, and a boulder to the left, simply to balance out the frame. It seems almost comically incongruous for this hulking man to be delicately polishing silver and pouring weak tea. The discrepancy of Meighan’s substantial physique in these miniature surroundings provides the movie’s most subtle visual gag concerning the constrictions imposed on individuals by a social order devised to keep them down. The point Male and Female makes is that the natural aptitude of men like Crichton is unjustly squandered by a restrictive class system that doesn’t permit them to reach their full potential. This butler by trade, though a born leader, has instead been reduced to the level of menial who must march to the orders of others. He has all kinds of hidden talents that his station in life has never afforded him the chance to exercise. It’s only on the island where Crichton’s inherent skills and common-sense know-how can assert themselves. For example, during the shipwreck, that penultimate ordeal calling for a chivalrous display of gallantry, aristocrats Wooly and Loam fail to adhere to the time-honored code ‘women and children first,’ making a beeline for the lifeboats and leaving it up to their butler to carry the collapsed Mary out of the thundering surf. In our eyes, this heroic act elevates Crichton to titanic proportions.Though Meighan, who sports a granite demeanor to rival William S. Hart, doesn’t seem the comic sort, much of Male and Female’s humor is derived from his Crichton’s quips and flippant remarks. When Mary crabs at breakfast that her toast has gone soft, he counters, with a thinly veiled gibe, “Are you certain, my Lady, that the toast is the only thing that’s spoiled?” Emboldened by the distance separating the castaways from home, he delights in ruffling Mary’s feathers even further with his insolent behavior. Like his survival skills, Crichton’s droll wit is much keener than the nobility’s, and even in the jungle, Crichton never loses his very civilized sense of humor. Later, when the Loam’s disregard the substantial part Crichton played in their survival, he saves face by cleverly twisting his words, as would Christ in DeMille’s King of Kings, so that he reveals the truth of the matter without actually contradicting their more self-serving version of events. He’s not only more of a man, in relation to his betters, but more of a gentleman as well.Interestingly, at first, Crichton doesn’t set himself up as king over the island community, instead expecting everyone, himself included, to pull their fair share. But what begins as a co-op becomes a stratified monarchy to mirror the one left behind, with Crichton’s absolute authority as the castaway’s uncontested autocrat going to his head. He’ll strut about like a crowing rooster, blowing his horn as if it were a factory whistle, to bring his workers running. He no longer seems the first among equals, having promoted himself to a loftier position. Serving simply in a supervisory capacity, he oversees the work of the rest, evaluating the quality and quantity of their daily production. Meanwhile, he himself lounges about comfortably indoors, reading and soaking up the easy life. The castaways now prepare his meals, file in for inspection, and bend over backward trying to please him, just as Crichton and his staff earlier had Mary. Waited upon hand and foot, when Mary actually puts herself in harm’s way to secure the figs Crichton had requested for dinner, it’s clear that his outlandish demands have become every bit as unreasonable as her own seemed to him beforehand. It’s now Crichton who’s been spoiled. Offering some wry observations on the immutability of human nature, even in this new Eden, the social equivalent of original sin rears its head. By the second anniversary of the shipwreck, Crichton has “firmly established his kingship.” And when eventually exiled from paradise, he’s well aware of what caused his fall. “There was just as little equality on the island as elsewhere,” he ruefully recalls, “I didn’t even take my meals with the family!” Crichton’s in fine company. For DeMille, despite the lip service he pays to the wholesomeness of the simple life, likewise betrays his own decadent conditioning. From force of habit he can’t help turning his Garden of Eden into a worldly garden of earthly delights. Lushly sensual, Male and Female is so slickly polished it’s like unadulterated material bliss. The cameraman Alvin Wycoff, assisted by a young James Wong Howe, uses his lens as though it were a velvet keyhole. Only instead of Lady Godiva, we play Peeping Tom on Swanson’s Lady Mary, in bed or, becoming increasingly intimate, following her into an ornate sunken bath that comes across like an architectural shrine to the aesthetic. This déclassé dip was such an eye-popping smash in its day that DeMille would virtually restage it, with characteristic aplomb, for The Sign of the Cross (1932), filling an ancient Roman bath with gallons of Grade A milk.The stark shifts in locale, ranging from the high fashion heights of London’s Loam House to the survivor chic of the island, present a veritable tour de force in window dressing. The craftsmanship of DeMille’s imaginative art director, Wilfred Buckland, is most strongly evidenced in Male and Female’s other classic bit, where Swanson is thrown to the lions. Clearly, Buckland’s fanciful reconstruction of the king’s court, an incident not to be found in Barrie, took its inspiration from the Babylonian episode of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.Under a new title, The Fall of Babylon, it had been re-released as a separate feature, earlier in the year, so was still fresh in the mind. DeMille had theatrical costumier Mitchell Liesen specially brought in to design Swanson’s fanning, peacock headdress, along with her skirt, which seems strung together from pearl drops, but his contribution was well worth the trouble and expense. In these fine feathers she’d make fitting kitty kibble for any self-respecting king of the beasts. Just leave it to Swanson, a notorious silent film fashion plate, to dress for the occasion.

Although DeMille and scriptwriter Jeanie MacPherson were criticized at the time for departures like this one, they thankfully treat their source material with less reverence than they would later on, when turning their hand to lavish transcriptions of The Good Book. The clever captions they composed are fun to read, full of humorous puns, quips, and plays on words, and help make the movie so much their own that it has surpassed its source. Male and Female’s basic premise has lent itself to such diverse reworkings as TV’s cartoonish Gilligan’s Island and Lina Wertmüller’s angry polemic Swept Away.

Male and Female made major stars of its principal players, boosting the careers of Meighan, Swanson, and Lila Lee, all of whom would go on to major stardom in the coming decade. Film historians tend to lump Meighan in with other popular but stolid stars of the day, workmanlike but unimaginative leading men such as Milton Sills and Lewis Stone. But as the British butler who bests his betters here, he isn’t impeded by his stoic style since it blends rather nicely with the stiff upper lip national character. According to Joe Franklin in his Classics of the Silent Screen, “Meighan did particularly well in a role ideally suited to his personality – the ultra-capable but undemonstrative English butler.” Male and Female hands the actor a part tailored to his stiff-necked reserve, then cleverly subverts it so that he can loosen up a little by going native once shipwrecked. And Meighan’s self-contained underplaying certainly seems easier on our eyes today than the florid theatrics one more associates with silent movie acting. With that curly hair, strapping frame, and jutting brow ridge imparting the unfortunate impression that he’s wearing a perpetual scowl, Meighan bears more than a casual resemblance to such later DeMille stalwarts as Charles Bickford and Henry Wilcoxen. I think his best scene is when his butler’s gesture of obsequiousness, which had, for a time, disappeared entirely, reemerges once the rescue ship is sighted.

As Mary bears  witness, Crichton slips back into his earlier state of servility, ripping off his royal raiment of lion skin and, unconsciously wringing his hands, deferentially bows his head low before her. The complex emotional effect, on Mary, as well as viewers, is equal parts pity, horror, and revulsion. While it was Paramount’s The Miracle Man, released the same year, which won Meighan the most superlative notices of his career, he seems to have been at his best and most relaxed in the light romantic, comedy-dramas of the DeMille brothers. Cecil’s Male and Female and Why Change Your Wife?, and William de Mille’s Conrad in Quest of His Youth, offered the actor a genial change of pace, and the chance to considerably lighten his dour image.

The supporting cast, headed by DeMille regulars Theodore Roberts and Raymond Hatton, is also uniformly fine, as the island here exerts a transformative influence on all concerned. Each castaway is changed for the better. Lord Loam, initially as sedentary as that ancient tortoise he mistakes for a pillow, becomes alert and spry, the feckless Agatha more useful and practical, foppish Woolly learns the value of a hard day’s work, while featherbrained Tweeny develops a mind of her own and starts thinking for herself. The biggest sea change, however, occurs in Mary. Over the course of her island stay this vainglorious peacock, all fuss and feathers beforehand, becomes progressively less spoiled and helpless (she now spears pheasants for food, the hunted has become the hunter). Most importantly, Mary becomes less class-conscious. In London, she had cautioned her friend against marrying beneath her with “Would you put a Jackdaw and a bird of paradise in the same cage? It’s kind to kind Eileen – and you and I can never change it!” By movie’s end, in an echoing scene, her snobby, elitist views have undergone a radical revision. Now able to understand and sympathize with fellow feeling, she urges her friend to follow her heart, regardless of all impediments, “If you really loved him it wouldn’t matter if he were king or chauffeur.” This is Swanson’s showcase all the way, with Male and Female being the most flattering vanity piece DeMille ever mounted for his greatest star. When the director waxes nostalgic about the young Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, I’d wager he’s specifically recalling Gloria Swanson in this film. He even took to calling her ‘young fellow’ out of respect for her boyish bravado when performing dangerous stunts. According to Swanson, DeMille let her select a priceless bauble from a platter of precious jewels, as reward for allowing that roaring lion to place its paws on her bare back, while recreating the 1908 Gabriel Max painting The Lion’s Bride. All synthetic and sybaritic, the two together reached the limits of artistically licensed insanity. DeMille may not have been a cinematic visionary like Griffith, but he was ahead of the curve in all the garish, gaudy ways that  make his colossally campy movies such guilty pleasures to watch now. Hokum of the highest order, Male and Female remains among the most unabashedly entertaining of all silent movies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.