One of the greatest hits Gloria Swanson had under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille was "Male and Female" (1919). A satire on the British class system, "Male and Female" is based on James Barrie's play, "The Admirable Crichton." In this film, Thomas Meighan plays William Crichton, a very proper butler in an aristocratic British family. He is secretly in love with Lady Mary Lasenby, a very pampered and spoiled young lady, played by Gloria Swanson. Meanwhile, Tweeny, the household maid, is in love with Crichton. Much to the dismay of Crichton, Lady Mary becomes engaged to marry the stuffy Lord Brockelhurst. The aristocratic family which includes Lord Loam, his daughters Lady Mary Lasenby and Lady Agatha Lasenby plans a South Seas cruise and brings along Crichton, Tweeny and a young minister. They run the yacht into a rock and are washed ashore on a deserted island. Being of the spoiled upper crust, the family is unable to do anything for themselves. The crafty and self-sufficient Crichton steps up and takes command of the situation. He can build a fire, hunt and cook a good meal while the aristocrats sit and watch. The family at first refuses the idea of taking orders from their butler, but soon hunger and the need for shelter dominate. The family members gradually pitch in and learn to live off the land. Approximately two years pass and Crichton is now somewhat of a king on this island paradise. The castaways live in huts that look like rustic vacation cabins and wear pelts. In an ironic role reversal, Lady Mary actually fights with Tweeny over the privilege of serving Crichton his dinner. After Crichton saves Lady Mary from a leopard, they finally express their love for each other and make plans to marry. Just as they are about to be married, a ship is spotted and, after seeing their signal fire, comes to rescue them. The final scenes of the film are incredibly moving.
It is no surprise that "Male and Female" was Paramount's highest grossing film in 1919. Gloria Swanson is the film's main attraction. The famous scene in which Swanson prepares to take her morning bath helped make it a box office sensation. I love the beginning scene in which Swanson's undergarments are shown in close-ups spread out on a chair for the camera to linger over. Our first glimpse of her presents her sleeping in a magnificent bed of silk and satin. It seems like Swanson is primarily being used as a female fantasy figure. Even on the deserted island, she is dressed up in a couple of attractive outfits made of leaves and pelts, both of which have matching hats. Probably the most memorable scene in "Male and Female" is the Babylonian fantasy sequence in which Swanson lies down and lets a real lion put his paw on her back. The Swanson/DeMille trademark in the film is evident in the innovative interior designs, luxurious costumes, and exotic locale. Although the film is a satire, it is quite obvious that DeMille substituted sex and exotica for it. However, it is done in good taste and never trashy. The film's cinematography is simply top-notch and the performances still hold up amazingly well after ninety years. The tall and handsome Thomas Meighan, a popular leading man in silent films, delivers an incredible performance as Crichton, the butler. Swanson is first-rate as Lady Mary with a special charisma all her own. The film is quite entertaining and a must see for fans of silents. What I love the most about "Male and Female" is that it is essential to an understanding of the evolution of female roles in film.