Male and Female (1919) A Silent Film Review

What’s the difference between an aristocrat and his butler? Silent era audiences found out when this film opened and a ship filled with rich swells and their servants wrecks off the coast of a remote island. The survivors soon realize that the shoe is very much on the other foot.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Those Lion Eyes

J.M. Barrie is most famous for penning Peter Pan but the boy who wouldn’t grow up was just one of many creations. The Admirable Crichton was a 1902 stage play that the film industry found to be irresistible. It had everything: forbidden love, class conflict and an excuse to dress the cast in skimpy castaway outfits.


Male and Female was the play’s big Hollywood adaptation and it’s significant because it proved to be the blueprint for Cecil B. DeMille’s career, at least for the next few years. Splendor and opulence filtered through extreme eccentricity, elaborate bathroom scenes, historical flashbacks, epic scenes, plenty of sexiness on display.

DeMille had experimented with all of this before, of course, but this was the film that combined them all in just the right proportions to hit the box office jackpot and establish him as a top tier director of big, big, big pictures. DeMille’s earlier work was lean, taut and zippy but he had been wanting to move on to bulkier things. Alas, his last big budget picture, Joan the Woman, had merely broken even.

According to Gloria Swanson, the play’s original title was deemed unsuitable. Potential moviegoers scanning the title might mistake “Admirable” for “Admiral” and assume it was a war picture and the name “Crichton” was deemed too risky due to that silent “ch” so DeMille substituted the more biblical Male and Female. And since a story of class conflict wasn’t exactly epic, the famous Babylon sequence was added by DeMille and screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson.

The story opens in England. Crichton (Thomas Meighan, a last-minute replacement for Elliott Dexter, who had suffered a stroke) is the unflappable butler of the Loam household. Despite his lower position on the class scale, he admires Lady Mary (Gloria Swanson), the spoiled and glamorous daughter of the house. Meanwhile, Tweeny the maid (Lila Lee) pines for Crichton.

Crichton has notions.

Despite their difference in rank, Crichton and Lady Mary share a taste for the poetry of William Ernest Henley, specifically Or Ever the Knightly Years and even more specifically, this line: “Or ever the knightly years were gone, With the old world to the grave, I was the King of Babylon, And you were a Christian Slave.”

It’s all hopeless, though, because Mary is going to marry Lord Brocklehurst (Robert Cain, last seen here playing Alan Breck in Kidnapped). Brocklehurst is a very suitable match but monogamy clearly ain’t his thing because he’s already eyeing the maids of the Loam household.

Brocklehurst has an eye for the maid…

Mary’s best friend, Lady Eileen Duncraigie (Rhys Darby), is also looking to marry but the man she loves is her chauffeur. Mary advises her against it, telling her that the class divide is too great but Eileen elopes anyway. Foreshadowing…

(DeMille would later visit the specific scenario of an heiress marrying her chauffer in Saturday Night. Given DeMille’s tendency to reuse, remake and revisit his own material, this was almost certainly an intentional callback to Male and Female.)

Go to sea, they said. It will be fun, they said.

The Loam family decides to go on a sea vacation, led by their patriarch, Lord Loam (DeMille regular Theodore Roberts) and accompanied by a clergyman, Treherne (Edmund Burns from Made for Love), and Ernie Wolley (Raymond Hatton, another DeMille favorite). Crichton and Tweeny are on hand to attend the traveling party.

After a rather impressive shipwreck scene, the party finds themselves washed up on an uninhabited island. At first, the social roles stay intact but it quickly becomes clear that rescue is not forthcoming and survival depends on everyone pitching it. Tweeny gives Crichton her petticoat to keep him warm but he immediately hands it over to Lady Mary. The noive!

Tweeny gets no respect.

The servants and their employers soon find that they are on opposite ends of Maslow’s famous pyramid. While the servants salvage supplies from the wreckage, build a fire, gather oysters and generally set up camp, the wealthy employers complain about wrinkled clothing, messy hair and a late breakfast. This cannot go on and Crichton stages a hostile takeover by withholding soup from anyone goldbricking. After some resistance, the aristocrats agree to follow Crichton on the strength of the fact he is the only one who knows what he’s doing and, also, soup.

Two years pass, Crichton is their king and Mary has become the group’s chief hunter. Tweeny has been shuffled aside and it looks like the butler and the lady are bound for matrimony, courtesy of the convenient clergyman. Will the wedding take place and if so, will the pair be able to overcome the social divide? See Male and Female to find out.

Glorious Gloria.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the secret weapon and key the Male and Female’s success was Gloria Swanson. Swanson had successfully made the jump from comedies to dramas and had been working steadily before being winning roles in Don’t Change Your Husband and For Better, For Worse, both directed by DeMille.

DeMille tended to favor actors who would go all in under any circumstance and Swanson committed to the outrageous and frequently silly material with gusto. And, despite her petite frame, she was also fiercely committed to the eccentric Mitchell Leisen costume design and managed to avoid being swallowed up in them. The commitment came in handy when the Babylon sequence was shot.

Well, then.

The Henley poem was meant to be taken literally as Crichton and Mary discover that they had lived before in Babylon. Crichton, as king, demands Mary’s love and when she refuses, he feeds her to his lions. The lions are kept in a convenient pit in the throne room for the purpose. Swanson was obliged to lie underneath a trained male lion and play dead. Yikes. (DeMille was later furious when Victor Mature declined to wrestle a toothless lion in Samson and Delilah. Perhaps he should have cast Swanson.)

Swanson recounted the scene in her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, and while she surely embroidered on the experience a bit, there’s no doubt that she was in very real danger during the shoot. Swanson was not the only imperiled cast member as Thomas Meighan nearly drowned during the shipwreck scene and had to be rescued from the rough water by a propman.

Can we not drown Tommy Meighan?

Meighan did not seem as at home in his role as Swanson and his Crichton comes off as a bit smirky, though some of these issues can be blamed on the adaptation. He was a lot more fun in Why Change Your Wife, which reunited him with DeMille, Swanson and Bebe Daniels, who had a small role in Male and Female as the Babylonian king’s favorite.

(DeMille wasn’t as happy to be working with Meighan again after Male and Female, in part due to the latter’s elevated clout and increased salary demands. Hey, a man’s gotta eat and Meighan could be excellent in the right part, as shown by The Canadian. I don’t know Meighan’s side of the story regarding the DeMille tension but I do wonder if he had some strong objections to being nearly drowned. People tend to be funny like that.)

A not-so-humble butler.

The biggest difference between the play and Male and Female is Crichton’s attitude toward the class system. In the play, he is a firm believer that everyone is in their rightful place and class creates order. He is mortified when his master proposes regular parties in which servants and gentry mingle. Raising his eyes to Lady Mary would be unthinkable until the island shipwreck.

“The divisions into classes, my lord, are not artificial. They are the natural outcome of a civilised society. There must always be a master and servants in all civilised communities, my lady, for it is natural, and whatever is natural is right.”

Crichton of Male and Female is a lustier creature who openly admires Lady Mary, talks back on occasion and generally entertains notions. One gets the sense that he was always looking for an excuse to buck societal norms.

Now, this is not a flaw in the adaptation but it does rather change the tone of the thing, making it far more American. Having Crichton never really believe in the whole class thing does make his climactic decision to (spoiler) summon a passing ship to rescue the castaways somewhat muddied. If he was always on the cusp of rejecting his society, why be so determined to return? I would have liked to see some explanatory title cards showing that he was thinking of the others or something like that.

Not quite Harold Lloyd, is it, Bebe Daniels?

These changes to the story were likely made out of concern that American audiences would not accept the class system in British society but this is also the film that asks the audience to accept random fictionalized Babylonian monarchs feeding ladies to lions, so I dunno. (Also, wasn’t Babylon a bit meh and not at all a grand power by the time Christianity was a thing? William Ernest Henley seemed a bit confused on that point.)

Another change that rather alters the tone of the material is Crichton’s island title. In Male and Female, he is referred to as a king but in the play, he is given the informal title of Gov. Gov (I’ve seen it more commonly spelled as “guv”) is a working class slang equivalent to “boss” and doesn’t carry nearly the prestige or baggage that “king” does. Frankly, cinematic Crichton seems to have delusions of grandeur.

King Crichton.

The other major difference between play and film is the treatment of Lord Loam. Loam of the play liked to affect a democratic view and to make a show of hating the class system all the while benefitting from it. For all his upstairs-downstairs parties, he didn’t volunteer to wake up at daybreak to draw baths and make toast. After a taste of island life, he proclaims that he has put activism behind him and may even become a Tory. Movie Loam puts on no pretenses of activism and instead contents himself to being a blustering peer.

Theodore Roberts as Lord Loam.

On the plus side, Robert Cain is excellent as Lord Brocklehurst, who can’t even wait for his fiancée to ship out before coming to an understanding with her made, played by Julia Faye. Cain did roguish rather well and it’s a pity more of his stuff isn’t available. I do regret the diminished role for his character’s mother, as Lady Brocklehurst was easily the drollest character in the play. Her interrogation of the castaways regarding potential island hanky-panky is truly hilarious.

“Horrid of me, wasn’t it? But if one wasn’t disagreeable now and again, it would be horribly tedious to be an old woman.”

The gentry freezes.

In the end, the picture doesn’t have much to actually say about the class system other than “Wouldn’t it be funny if…?” The flaws of the film are the flaws of the play, in this case. Barrie had a great hook but he didn’t seem to know what to do with it, so the status quo is restored and other than some slight awkwardness within the household, nothing really changes. And there’s no commentary on the invincibility of class barriers either, everyone just kind of goes home. Not every film requires earth shattering changes, of course, but when you bite off something as big as class hierarchy, you need to be prepared for a little chewing.

Off to America.

The film softens things a bit by (spoiler) having Crichton and Tweeny head for homesteading in America but when he announces their engagement, he looks like he just swallowed a mouthful of cod liver oil. Um, thanks? I am Team Tweeny all the way here. The poor kid spends the entire film as an also-ran with Crichton only paying attention to her when it’s convenient for him and then acts like he’s being led to his own execution when he finally pops the question. Tweeny can do better.

(Spoiler) J.M. Barrie had considered a happy ending with Crichton and Mary staying together but opted for something more conventional with the title character leaving service. DeMille and Macpherson added an epilogue with Crichton and Tweeny going to America for a happily ever after on a homestead. Meh.

The spy.

Whole I am not sold on the movie in general, there are some very nice touches that I would like to draw attention to. The film opens with a clever sequence in which a young servant (Wesley Barry) peeps through the keyholes to watch various members of the Loam household awaken.

Macpherson also incorporates literature into the fabric of the story. The one advantage enjoyed by the Loam household is literacy. They keep a large library and read voraciously. Books are included not only in the famous Babylon sequence but in an island scene that has Lord Loam getting ideas from remembered passages of The Swiss Family Robinson.

The famous bath.

What’s interesting is that the extreme wealth of the Loam family is intentionally exaggerated for effect, rather than being presented as a serious, realistic portrayal. DeMille had shown the lives of the wealthy on film before Male and Female but his portrayals had been par for the Hollywood course. This time, the lady of the house bathes in gallon jugs of rosewater. As is the case in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess, the extreme wealth of the family is overblown outrageously for the sake of wry humor.

(For a look at DeMille’s “normal” wealth scenes, see Don’t Change Your Husband, also starring Swanson, which was released earlier in 1919. The characters are still in the 1% but it’s all far more subdued.)

Ye olde product placement.

However, DeMille’s distinct flourishes became so iconic that he was obliged to incorporate them into his pictures forever after. Well, maybe “obliged” is too strong a word since he had a predilection for decadence, at least on the screen. He was quite amused that visitors to his home wanted to see his bathroom and were disappointed that it was just plain, normal porcelain without any waterfalls or built-in cologne dispensers.

It may seem odd for me to say this, given the mad lion sequence and extravagant costumes, but Male and Female feels almost… timid. As though DeMille and company hesitated at the opulence and ostentation they were throwing on the screen. DeMille would soon get into the swing of things and have Thomas Meighan sacking Rome in Manslaughter and staging a bonkers bit of past life wildness in The Road to Yesterday. I just feel that Male and Female needed more oomph, more zaniness, more… just more more.

One more of Gloria for the road.

Male and Female is well-made and has some genuinely excellent sequences but the whole thing doesn’t quite gel for me. Gloria Swanson is magical on the screen and I dearly wish there had been more scenes with Robert Cain and Julia Faye but the picture in general just slightly misses for me. Fans of Gloria Swanson will want to see it and anyone interested in DeMille’s evolution as a filmmaker will be similarly interested. It’s not bad but it’s also not my favorite DeMille by a long shot.

Where can I see it?

There are some discount versions available but the best print was the out-of-print Image disc. I am hoping for an HD release just for those costumes.

Silents vs Talkies

Male and Female (1919) vs The Admirable Crichton (1957)

Social comedies that also include potential for bikini scenes are always going to be attractive to the film industry and so The Admirable Crichton enjoyed a few remakes, including the very, very loose We’re Not Dressing. The 1957 film was a British production but was released in the United States as Paradise Lagoon, of all things.

This version of the picture is considerably more faithful to the original play, with much of the dialogue imported intact and both Crichton and Lord Loam being for and against the class system, respectively. There are a few changes, such as a suffragette subplot. (No mid-century period film was complete without a few gags at the expense of suffragettes. Women voting? The next thing you know, they’ll want jobs and their own credit cards.)

Needless to say, there’s no Babylon sequence but the castaways are improbably clad in fashionable miniskirts, bikinis and capris. Shockingly impressive tailoring skills were another must in a mid-century picture. (Director Lewis Gilbert no doubt put this experience to good use as the director of three James Bond pictures.)

Crichton and Tweeny.

The highlight of the picture is Diane Cilento as Tweeny, a cute little working class maid who enjoys the not-so-fine things in life, like a pub lunch and a free concert. She comes off as so genuine and appealing that Kenneth More’s Crichton has a hard time justifying dumping her for Mary. Tweeny comes off far less piteous in this version as she is the object of desire for all the aristocratic gents on the island, just as Crichton is the most eligible bachelor among the ladies. Sally Ann Howes isn’t bad as Mary but the film never properly establishes what her appeal is beyond being forbidden.

Lady Brocklehurst’s interrogation.

Fortunately, the film also has Martita Hunt as the domineering and eccentric Lady Brocklehurst and she is given her head during the final scenes of the picture, chewing scenery and reciting Barrie’s dialogue with relish. If The Admirable Crichton had just been the Tweeny and Brocklehurst show, I wouldn’t have objected.

And the winner is…

The Talkie

While it’s not a perfect film and the mushy romance scenes between Crichton and Mary are a bit much, the supporting cast saves the day here, especially Cilento and Hunt. The 1957 version gives us as better look into Crichton’s psyche and makes it easier to understand his motivation and behavior.

Cilento in island apparel.

While it lacks the bonkers design of the 1919 movie, the spirit of the story is better translated in the sound production, and so it squeaks out a victory.

Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.


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