The Sign of the Cross (1932)
This sword-and-sandals curiosity is the most decadent of all the spectacles created by the currently rehabilitating DeMille!! Plumped and perfumed Charles Laughton, given a Roman-coin profile and a complete body-waxing by the Paramount makeup department, is the most debauched Nero ever essayed on film. The arena contests where hapless Christians face off in death-battles against a Noah’s arkload of savage beasts are wondrously effervescent and sadistic. No shortage of sexy, pre-code lesbians, either. With Fredric March and Claudette Colbert. A must-see for anyone who’s ever felt special in a toga.
Les Miserable (1935)Victor Hugo's massive novel Les Miserables has spawned many adaptations in many forms over the years. The superior version being the lavish 1935 take, for which producer Darryl F. Zanuck marshaled the studio's resources. While evocatively staged by director Richard Boleslawski and smartly condensed into punchy, vivid scenes, the movie is remembered for its indelible central performances: Fredric March as the hunted Jean Valjean and especially Charles Laughton as his letter-of-the-law pursuer, Inspector Javert. March, a sometimes stagey actor, is at his committed best, notably in the sequence where (in a single-scene second role) he plays the simpleton mistaken for the fugitive Valjean. But Laughton is completely fascinating: cruel and unforgiving, yet neurotic and weak; and Laughton brings out a tortured sexual undercurrent to Javert's pursuit. (Laughton didn't get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but he bagged one the same year for Mutiny on the Bounty; the film itself was nominated in four categories, including nods for Best Picture and Gregg Toland's cinematography.)