Leatrice Joy is hell on wheels and in a designer gown. She plays a wild heiress whose naughty ways catch up with her when she accidentally kills a police officer with her reckless driving. Her prosecutor boyfriend throws the book at her and she ends up in prison. Also, Roman orgies. Why yes, Cecil B. DeMille did direct!
When in Rome…
In the early twenties, Cecil B. DeMille spent his time swinging between marital dramas with a foothold in reality and loony romantic melodramas. Never one to do things by halves, DeMille created crazy, decadent fantasies with bonkers scripts and wacky costumes. Manslaughter is definitely on the madder end of the DeMille spectrum.
(By the way, my three main sources for this review are Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood by the late Robert S. Birchard, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman and the Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille.)
Leatrice Joy was DeMille’s preferred leading lady after her sensitive performance in Saturday Night (a movie in the realistic-ish marital dramedy box) and she stars here as Lydia Thorne, a madcap heiress. Lydia’s a menace in her speedy sports car but she always manages to get out of trouble with a bit of flirting and maybe the exchange of some cash or jewelry.
Dan O’Bannon (Thomas Meighan) is a moralizing and crusading prosecutor. He’s madly in love with Lydia but disapproves of her wild ways. When he sees her drinking and engaging in a pogo stick race at a New Year’s party, he freaks out. This young generation! It’s just like Rome! (I’m not exaggerating, there’s a Roman orgy fantasy sequence here.)
The whole scene reminds me of the Ya Got Trouble sequence in Music Man.
“The minute your son leaves the house, does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee? A dime novel hidden in the corn crib? Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang? Are certain words creeping into his conversation? Words like, like ‘swell?’ And ‘so’s your old man?’”
Pogo sticks? Women in boxing? Card games? Balzac? Oh, I shall swallow my bonnet! The horror is too much! Next thing you know, they’ll be playing pool!
This scene is particularly ridiculous because the events that follow really show Lydia at her worst. Her maid, Evans (Lois Wilson), has an ill son who needs a warmer climate if he is to survive. Evans asks Lydia for a loan but is immediately blown off. In desperation, the maid steals a ring and pawns it. Lydia sees Dan comforting Evans and vindictively chooses to prosecute to the fullest extent despite his pleas for mercy and the ex-maid is given three to seven. Lydia couldn’t even be bothered to show up at the trial, though she does have enough of a conscience to send Evans’ son to California.
Yeah, I think that says more about her moral and ethical failings than hopping on a pogo stick.
Another of Lydia’s mistakes soon comes back to bite her. She bribed a young officer named Drummond (Jack Mower) to let her out of a traffic ticket but his wife (Julia Faye) convinces her husband to return the bribe. Drummand has just received a promotion and is the protégé of Dan the prude. He wants to be a clean cop and so when he spots Lydia speeding, he gives chase.
Lydia hopes to lose Drummand by making a sharp turn onto a dirt road. Instead, she spins out and his motorcycle hits her car, throwing him headfirst onto a boulder. Drummond is dead but Lydia expects to get off with a fine and a stern warning. Instead, Dan opts to throw the book at her. Because he loves her. Yes, he does say that.
Dan’s prosecution strategy is to portray the fatal accident as an intentional assassination of Drummond. She meant to skid her car! And then for good measure, he goes into another Roman flashback sequence and fantasizes about abusing Lydia’s patrician doppelganger as the conquering barbarian. Um, ew. That’s a glimpse into the character’s fetishes that I did not need.
Dan: And then Golthar the Terrible wrapped his brawny arms around the defendant’s nubile body, her soft lips—
Judge: Mr. O’Bannon, is this really necessary for this case?
Dan: Of course, your honor. We have an all-male jury. Now, to continue, her soft lips—
Defense: Objection, your honor, the prosecutor has been reading smutty books again! I don’t care what he does in his private life but I didn’t ask for Cliff’s Notes!
Judge: In the name of good prose, objection sustained.
Instead of inspiring us with his righteous indignation, Meighan’s character comes off as a hopeless prig and a vindictive one at that. He’s so unlikable and his crusade is so sanctimonious that I found myself rooting for Lydia to get off. (And keep in mind, I absolutely thought she deserved jail time for what she did.) Plus, Dan’s personal connections to the case (Lydia’s unsuccessful suitor, Drummond’s sponsor) make it ethically shaky for him to act as prosecutor. Lydia’s defense attorneys really fell down on the job by not demanding his removal.
While it seems to sway the jury, frankly, I think Dan’s little Roman orgy flashbacks say a lot more about his fantasy life than Lydia’s wild behavior. I mean, this is a thing for him, isn’t it? I’ll bet all the orgy sections of his Roman history books are well-thumbed and dog-eared.
Lydia is convicted but seems to think she can get off with a fine. She is shocked when she learns she will be getting three to seven. (Does every crime get three to seven around there? It strikes me that stealing a ring is a little less serious than driving recklessly and killing a cop but maybe that’s just me.) And so off to prison she goes. Lydia swaps her designer duds for prison togs (which, like, don’t even have a designer label) and she finds herself working under Evans, who holds a grudge.
At visiting time, Dan shows up at the prison and starts whining about how hard Lydia’s incarceration is on him. Um, maybe he should have thought of all this before his bizarre prosecution and his delusional insistence that Lydia intentionally killed Drummond. It’s pretty clear that he was mainly angry that she wasn’t doing what he told her. (To prove the point, Drummond is never mentioned again, despite Dan’s constant harping on the “boy” losing his life.)
Lydia tries to smash something over Dan’s head (yay!) but is overcome with emotion and faints (boo!) before she can give him to the walloping he deserves. Dan goes sniveling into the night and turns to drink. Lydia decides that she’ll be nice and she and Evans become besties, eventually opening a soup kitchen together when they are released early for good behavior.
Will Dan and Lydia get back together or will he fall into an open manhole? I’m rooting for the latter but we all know the former is more likely.
Let’s talk about what works in the film first. Leatrice Joy proves that she has what it takes to be a DeMille leading lady and, truth be told, her performance is a little too good for the ridiculous story and dialogue she is saddled with. Lois Wilson is always a pleasure to watch and while she is somewhat underused, her turn as Evans is effective.
Thomas Meighan? Well… I often marvel at his talent for floating above the silliest material on a cloud of dignity and pipe smoke but Manslaughter is his Waterloo. His character is so priggish, so obnoxious, so weird that even Meighan is unable to maintain his poise. We’ll get into that a little bit more later.
Manslaughter is a sort of a practice run for many story elements that DeMille would later refine. He would return to the courtroom in Chicago, prisons in The Godless Girl and Roman orgies in The Sign of the Cross. He used the ancient-to-modern world parables more effectively in The Ten Commandments (1924) but would eventually abandon the conceit after The Road to Yesterday (1925) disappointed at the box office.
The direction is a bit staid but it must be remembered that DeMille had just recovered from a bout of rheumatic fever. (It’s a nasty ailment, especially in the pre-penicillin world.) He was bedridden and unable to even walk until April of 1922 but starting filming Manslaughter on May 2 of that year. On one hand, he gets points for being a trouper but on the other hand… Owch! Still neither rain, nor sleet, nor rheumatic fever will keep Cecil B. DeMille from a Roman orgy.
Despite its over-the-top reputation, Manslaughter seems a bit subdued in its sets and costumes, at least compared to other DeMille offerings. It is significant that the picture was made after Natacha Rambova took to designing costumes exclusively for her husband, Rudolph Valentino, or for the films of Nazimova. Rambova’s delightfully tacky vision suited DeMille’s style perfectly and her designs were showstoppers in Why Change Your Wife and Forbidden Fruit. DeMille would find another kindred spirit in Adrian but their first film together was still three years away.
The costumes seem quite derivative in Manslaughter. Leatrice Joy’s Roman getup is just Gloria Swanson’s swimsuit from Why Change Your Wife with a longer train. The formal gowns are all things we have seen before. This would not normally be a problem but when DeMille makes pictures of this kind, the crazy costumes are a huge part of the draw.
I should point out that while the orgy scenes are rightly called out for their lack of subtlety, DeMille does include less overt parallels. For example, Lydia’s prosecution of Evans and her own subsequent legal woes were clearly inspired by the Parable of the Unmerciful Slave found in the book of Matthew. In it, a man’s large debt is forgiven but he immediately refuses to forgive a comparatively small debt owed for him. The initial lender hears of this and rescinds his previous promise to forget the large debt and the unmerciful slave is thrown in prison.
DeMille and co-screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson never shove this parallel in our faces and it works quite well as a result. However, the effect will be lost if one is unfamiliar with the lesser-known parables in the gospels (I have never seen it discussed in any other reviews) and it’s easy to see why DeMille later chose more in-your-face methods to get his point across. I should mention that, being the son of an Episcopal lay minister, DeMille really did know his onions when it came to scripture.
There are a few subtle moments but, for the most part, Manslaughter teems with purple prose, much of which is likely to draw giggles from the audience. A real howler occurs when Lydia compares a donut to a lifesaver and says that prison has been a lifesaver for her. And then the donut theme continues when she runs into Dan at her donut giveaway, so I guess literal donuts save everyone. Anyway, I’ll go with the theory and I am hungry for a donut. (Glazed yeast, please.)
For all its flaws, though, Manslaughter is crazy entertaining. In fact, I dare say you won’t find a more amusing hour and forty minutes in film of any decade, silent or sound. Sure, we may giggle where no humor was intended but a grand time is to be had by anyone who gets into the spirit of the thing.
Alas, it seems that few people manage to get into the spirit. William K. Everson was particularly peeved about the picture. He resented the film’s popularity with audiences of the day, claimed that DeMille’s 1920s films were always panned by the critics and that Manslaughter specifically reinforces stereotypes about silent films in a damaging manner:
“Manslaughter is exactly the kind of picture that the unknowing regard as typical of the silent film—overwrought, pantomimically acted, written in the manner of Victorian melodrama.”
With all due respect to Mr. Everson, I think the only thing that is overwrought is his reaction. While modern reviewers dismiss Manslaughter as DeMille’s worst picture (it isn’t, I’ve seen The Plainsman) and claim that it damages the reputation of silent films (it doesn’t), or work themselves into a fever pitch over its moralizing (while letting D.W. Griffith off for the same offense) critics of the day actually took a far more balanced approach.
They called out the sanctimony of Meighan’s character, tittered at the purple title cards but they praised the film as entertaining and a sure box office success.
Picture Play hits the nail on the head:
In his speech to the jury, the young lawyer says, “Our dances of today are like the revels of the Romans,” and immediately out come the sandals and tigers and gladiators and wine bearers of a life-sized Roman feast. It lasts so long that we sympathize with the other attorney who tells the judge that they are in a courtroom and not a schoolhouse and with the judge who says, “Objection sustained.”
But all this has its box-office value, and it is excellently acted by a hand-picked cast. Never have we seen Leatrice Joy seem so beautiful and sympathetic or Thomas Meighan so appealing – in spite of a somewhat smug role. And the prison scenes – where Lois Wilson shines – are remarkably realistic and impressive. “Manslaughter” may make some of you laugh in the wrong places, but it will never bore you.
Motion Picture Classic was similarly incisive:
The theatrical note creeps in with a vengeance, for the holier-than-thou hero takes to alcohol and sinks to the gutter and stays there until the thoroughly redeemed girl emerges from prison and rescues him. Her reformation is convincing; his is not. In fact, he proves to be the weaker character of the two.
De Mille has used the entire Lasky equipment, studio, sets, costumes and extras, besides having a large and competent cast, to give breadth to the story. It will cause some discussion – this picture. It will be talked about. There is no denying that it contains a healthy punch – even tho that punch is aimed here and there at your intelligence.
In short, it was hokum, they knew it was hokum but they were perfectly willing leave their brains at the door in exchange for some eccentric, high concept entertainment.
Audiences of the day agreed and Manslaughter grossed $1.2 million on a budget of $384,000. It was considered a strong enough property to be remade in 1930 with Claudette Colbert and Fredric March in the leading roles (to my best knowledge, this version has not been released on home media).
By the way, one of my pet peeves with modern reviewers is their tendency to assume that previous generations took everything seriously and ironic viewing is a new invention. In fact, silent era audiences recognized hokum and melodrama and they sometimes appreciated it as being unintentionally funny, as the above reviews prove.
I advise modern viewers to follow the lead of the reviewers of 1922: this film is silly but it is also a blast to watch! While I have found myself staring at the clock during higher quality offerings, the 100 minutes of Manslaughter zipped by. This is some grade-A kitsch if you just sit back, relax and loosen up.
Where can I see it?
Manslaughter is available on DVD from Kino Lorber as a double feature with The Cheat, another DeMille picture with courtroom chaos. The film is scored by the Alloy Orchestra, it’s quite modern and I like it just fine. Ignore the bargain editions unless you think a film can be improved by bad transfers and canned music.