Manslaughter (Cecil B. DeMille / U.S., 1922):

Cecil B. DeMille's Jazz Age, when "pleasure drugged the conscience of its youth." The bonny sinner, Leatrice Joy, is introduced racing a locomotive to the crossroads, an absolute encapsulation of a decade's need for speed. Having bought off a highway patrolman with one of her priceless baubles, the heiress is next seen about to dive into a bowl of champagne in a decadent soiree that counts pogo-stick racing among its sundry depravities. The spoilsport is the district attorney (Thomas Meighan), who loves the heroine "for the girl he thinks she could be, but not for the girl she is." The ramrod Meighan mentions Bacchus, DeMille's cue to dissolve to a writhing pagan tableau that has Joy as a bouncy Messalina; another dissolve (from gladiators to a boxing match) brings it back to the present, where the director, thinking of the coma victims in the audience, feels the need to spell it out ("You see? It's just the same"). Nobly suffering maid Lois Wilson, Victorian yin to Joy's dissolute yang, swipes one of the jewels to finance her ailing son's treatment and is convicted. Joy's turn at the slammer comes when Meighan prescribes tough-love after a tragic joyride -- the karmic outcome, worthy of a Robert Minor cartoon, finds the bourgeois bitch ordered by her former servant to scrub the prison floors. The narrative is structured as paralleling paths of redemption (guilt-racked, the D.A. trips into an abyss of his own), but DeMille is the Griffith of Snark, and his poor little rich girl spots the sketch artist during her trial only so that she can adjust her furs and feather boas. Consequences are traced to Renoir's La Petite Marchande d'Allumettes, Cromwell's Caged and, why not, Demme's Caged Heat. With John Miltern, George Fawcett, and Julia Faye. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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