A New Eroticism or Merely a New Woman? Cecil B. DeMille's Adaptation of Alice Duer Miller's Manslaughter

Article excerpt

Now almost completely forgotten, novelist and scenarist Alice Duer Miller (1874-1942) was once a best seller, a consistent producer of still readable romances, and an intermittent but sought-after worker on other authors' scripts in Hollywood. Her writing career started while she was an undergraduate at Barnard, from which she received her mathematics degree in 1899, and continued to her death, at which time she was adapting her narrative poem White Cliffs into the film The White Cliffs of Dover, released posthumously in 1944. Apparently only three of the silent adaptations of Miller's works remain; of these, Manslaughter is certainly the most discussed, although Sumiko Higashi critiques its heroine "turned saintly" as a "boring [imitation] of a Victorian [stereotype]," while Robert Birchard dismisses it as "exhibit[ing] all of the excesses and none of the virtues of [Cecil B. DeMille's] other work," a failing that he attributes to DeMille's bout of rheumatic fever in spring 1922, which permitted what he considers Jeanie Macpherson's inadequately supervised adaptation of the novel.1

The purpose of this essay is not to offer a rediscovery either of Miller as author or of DeMille's Manslaughter, but rather to argue that Manslaughter the novel and Manslaughter the film represent contrasting visions of women alienated from their own sexuality. Given the alternation between female and male authorship (or a male/female collaboration between DeMille and Macpherson in the case of the film), the pair of texts may be viewed as a corporate effort to define how female eroticism might operate in an era of diminishing gender differences. Much of the examination of 1920s film eroticism has been collapsed into studies of the flapper; analyzing the two Manslaughters together suggests how allowing the flapper to become the type specimen for self-determined female sexuality excludes important conceptualizations of female eroticism produced by an earlier generation of New Women. Additionally, I argue that although the film adaptation appears to deform Miller's heroine, in part by turning her into a flapper, it nonetheless offers important visual metaphors for the psychological problem that the heroine confronts in the novel, namely the place of female self-possession in romance. Indeed, the shooting script of DeMille's Manslaughter adapts a key scene from the novel multiple times in an effort to explore feminine sexual passivity and masculine sexual brutality in ways that are surprisingly faithful to Miller's original conception of their place in contemporary romance. In exploring the construction of the car metaphor in both novel and film, however, I argue that Miller's heroine comes to understand even her desire for revenge as a form of eroticism, while DeMille's film imagines a female sexuality fundamentally expropriated from the woman who experiences it.

Despite Birchard's aspersions on the text, the production history of Manslaughter suggests a striking durability of appeal across a variety of media and a span of eighteen years. Miller's Manslaughter was sold to the Saturday Evening Post for $10,000, serialized there in summer 1921, and published in book form by Dodd Mead the same year; the motion picture rights were sold to Famous Players Lasky in November 1921; production on the film commenced in May 1922, with release taking place in September. The film cost $384,000 to produce and returned $1.2 million,2 a ratio of cost to gross that makes it De Mille's second most profitable film of the 1920s after The Affairs of Anatol. George Abbott remade the film in 1930 for Paramount, and the story was apparently broadcast on the radio in 1938 and again in 1940.3 Clearly this material remained of interest to Miller as well, since she was to rework it in two late novellas, And One Was Beautiful (1937) and Hit and Run (1943).

The novel tells the story of Lydia Thorne, a young woman who runs down a traffic cop, an offense for which she is ultimately imprisoned. …