Evincing Cecil B. DeMille's unequaled flair for glamorized decadence and wry social comment, Male and Female is a tongue-in-cheek morality play that playfully examines the codes of conduct of class-conscious Britain when the film was made in 1919.
In the role that made her a star, Gloria Swanson stars as Lady Mary Lasenby, complacent in her status and happy when being pampered by handmaids in her luxurious boudoir and bath. Less certain that merit and social rank are equivalent is the admirable Crichton (Thomas Meighan), a selfless butler who serves Mary and her spoiled clan. When the vacationing swells and their hired help are shipwrecked on the shores of a desert island, the follies of class are displaced by matters of survival; Mary and Crichton are mutually attracted and the resourceful servant is soon king. To this already bubbly mix, DeMille adds a lavish Babylonian flashback for no discernible reason except to show a gorgeously plumed and gowned Swanson descending into a den of lions. This sequence pushes an already outrageous film into a stratosphere of visual excess, assuring its place among the glittering landmarks of silent film history.
While D.W. Griffith’s contribution to the development of film technique has been widely recognized, Cecil B. DeMille's equally influential career has been largely ignored by film historians. DeMille’s critical reputation is based almost entirely on The Cheat (Lasky-Paramount, 1915) and its early acceptance by French film critics. Among his contemporaries, however, Cecil B. DeMille was widely recognized as a major talent, and other filmmakers were quick to emulate his methods in their own work.
DeMille came from a theatrical family. His father, Henry C. DeMille, was a writer best known for his collaborations with impresario David Belasco, "the wizard of Broadway.” Cecil’s brother, William C. DeMille, was also a leading Broadway playwright. In his early career Cecil worked as an actor, play broker and theatrical manager. He also collaborated with David Belasco on The Return of Peter Grimm, but his success in the theater was limited. In 1911 Cecil teamed with producer Jesse L. Lasky to write a series of musical playlets for the vaudeville stage, and this association led to a lasting friendship. When Lasky decided to try his hand at the movies in 1913, he enlisted Cecil as Director General of the newly organized Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Their first picture, The Squaw Man (1914) , was a hit, and DeMille boosted his reputation as a filmmaker with screen adaptations of Belasco-produced plays like The Rose of the Rancho (1914) and The Girl of the Golden West (1914).
In association with art director Wilfred Buckland, cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff and his brother William, Cecil B. DeMille brought a new sophistication to films by insisting on solid narrative technique, more realistic settings, and the use of lighting effects to enhance dramatic mood. By 1915, DeMille had developed a polished style, and his films were considered the best the movies had to offer.