Male and Female (1919)

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  • directed by Cecil B. DeMille
  • starring Thomas Meighan, Gloria Swanson, Lila Lee, Theodore Roberts, Raymond Hatton, Mildred Reardon
  • An aristocratic British family always gets their way until shipwrecked with their house staff.

“I was a king in Babylon and you were a Christian slave.”

Like most of DeMille’s work, Male and Female deals with issues and themes that are so enormous that there’s trouble in fitting them neatly into the boundaries of the more traditional story he’s trying to tell.  As far as the overflow, I refer to his inability to resist shoehorning in a relevant but superfluous ancient Babylon sequence, which attempts to contextualize but in my opinion disrupts what was a captivating story with a lot of moving parts constantly at work. Guided by the play The Admirable Crichton, by J.M. Barrie, the story of Male and Female most of all hinges on the concept of power; the power within, the power man holds or lacks in society, and ultimately the power of nature to turn all of that on its head without a moment’s notice.

The film begins at the Loam manor in which we see the well-off family relying on staff to draw them rosewater baths, braid their hair, serve dinner, and strictly follow convention by staying out of the way in any social capacity. The family is clearly on the greedy, class-conscious, and ignorant side of the wealth spectrum. A family boat trip along with Crichton the butler and Tweeny the maid leads to the main portion of the film whereby the boat crashes onto a deserted island and the crew must now work–some for the first time–and struggle to survive. At first Crichton and Tweedy maintain their roles of subservience. After a while of pulling all of the weight, though, the butler begins demanding equality, something he gets and then some as we cut to two years later and his physical strength and strategic know-how have led to his becoming something of a King to the group.

During the island section of the film there is a lot going on at once with each of the stranded minute by minute either having their status or point of view completely changed due to the long-held traditions of aristocracy now being an irrelevant, distant memory. It was then surprising to see Crichton, a principled and loyal servant albeit one with suppressed ambitions, quick to take a turn for the greedy and corrupt in his style of island dominance. The ensuing rescue cuts shorts his time on the throne and it also disrupts a spontaneous wedding between him and Lady Mary, something that they both know will be ignored completely upon homecoming.

Aside from power, the film dealt with disparities in class, the strength of love and relationships, and the flimsiness of a lifestyle run by money and inheritance alone, but what was it saying exactly? I thought that what happened when they returned home from the island would hold the answer, but it was as if on the boat home they all had their memories wiped clean. Crichton held no shame for getting carried away with his authority and the Lords and Ladys weren’t thankful in the least for his stewardship through years of desertion. They were all desperate to just make it the way it was with the one exception being that Lady Mary is finally able to work up the courage to ignore tradition and open herself to love the butler. He walks away instead and marries Tweeny.

Overall it was a very busy film, always entertaining, and one that relished much more in proposing themes and provoking thoughts than it did provide any kind of final judgment.  If anything, I suppose the answer to many of the questions the film poses is that whether you’re in or out of power–in the rosewater bath or preparing the towels nearby—the accustomed groove of life is quick to kick in and something resembling happiness could occur. A fairly bleak interpretation but an apt one for Male and Female I think.

The performances leaned more towards slowed down and natural than they did theatrical, something that I am quick to notice and appreciate in silent films. Standing out the most was Thomas Meighan, an actor who because of age was mainly a silent film star and therefore gets short shrift in the household name department. I really enjoyed the film but I don’t think it would have been the same without his solid performance as both the dedicated servant and the more-egomaniacal-by-the-minute island ruler.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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