US (1934) Dir. Cecil B. DeMille
In 48 BC as a dispute over the rule of Egypt rages with her brother Ptolemy, Queen Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) is abducted and left to die in a desert. She manages to make their way to Rome just as Julius Caesar (Warren William) is about to sign a contract with Ptolemy, and persuades Caesar to side with her. This doesn’t sit well with Roman people and Caesar is assassinated on the Ides Of March. The senate hand over joint rule of Rome to the noted soldier Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) and the reserved Octavian (Ian Keith). Still hoping to gain sole control over Egypt, Cleopatra sets her sights on seducing Marc Antony to be her next saviour.
This will probably be another black mark against my film buff credentials but I genuinely was not aware that this film existed until this Blu-ray reissue appeared. Obviously I knew of the 1962 Taylor/Burton epic and the now lost silent version from 1917 starring the first screen “vamp” Theda Bara but this one slipped under my radar. Two things struck me about this film that piqued my curiosity – that it is was directed by the early master of the overblown epic Cecil B. DeMille and that the titular role was played by Claudette Colbert. The uptight, prissy rich girl from It Happened One Night would be the most famous sexually provocative, ice cold manipulator from history? This I had to see.
DeMille’s telling of this famous story doesn’t take itself so seriously, largely due to his feeling that classical stories are too high brow, resulting in some historical liberties being taken; Octavian for example was an 11 year-old boy in the original tale and not a grown man as he is here, although his does displays some childish traits. Elsewhere some of the dialogue is not only a little hammy but sometimes incongruously modern – I’m no expert but I don’t think ancient Romans would greet each other with “Hello dear”. Presumably 1930’s Americans would have been confused had the script followed Shakespeare’s a lot more closely.
The famous carpet scene that was lovingly lampooned in Carry On Cleo is here in all its kitsch glory to introduce us to the scheming side of Cleopatra as well as supplying us with a taster of her scandalously skimpy outfits. A somewhat pompous Caesar scoffs at her attempts to flirt with him until Cleo mentions that Egypt leads to India which is rife with treasures. Suddenly he plans to divorce his wife and wed the Queen of Egypt, raising concerns that he will declare himself King of Rome. Despite an impassioned plea from his ex-wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael) following a foreboding dream she had, Caesar arrives at the senate with his new lady to announce his plans and the infamous “Et tu brute” murder takes place.
Upset that Caesar didn’t love her (and that he died) Cleo turns her attention to Marc Antony, a soldier with a huge misogynistic chip on his shoulder. He arranges to take the Egyptian Queen as his prisoner but soon falls under her spell and under her bed covers. This may have been 1934 but DeMille manages to make this is as sultry and sensual an experience as possible with the dreaded and draconian Production Code looming. With Antony now heading the Roman branch of the Cleopatra Fan Club he is now declared a traitor to Rome and Octavian declares war on both Antony and Cleo.
From her very first moment on screen Colbert absolutely looks the part with her high cheek bones, arched eye brows and sharp eyes (not to mention the slinky outfits) and it is not long before she fully convinces as this duplicitous and galvanising character. Even hampered with an often clumsy script Colbert expertly makes every word feel credible no mater how daft it may sound. She exudes sex appeal with a potent touch of intelligence and poise, while displaying a rather charming playful side! The fact this is in complete contrast to the typical good girl/dutiful wife types she enjoyed playing shows Colbert’s versatility and skill as an actress.
Her male co-stars seem to have some difficulty with the script and initially come across as stiff but over time they begin to adapt and soon prove worthy support to Colbert. Henry Wilcoxon seems to enjoy himself as Marc Antony, hitting his stride during the fallout of the climactic battle siege, while Warren William’s Caesar is aptly smug as the over confident leader.
The other star of the film is of course the set with DeMille living up to his reputation as the King of the Historical Epic. Whether it is a bijou chamber or a lavish royal court, no expense has been spared in creating this visual wonder. The Egyptian barge setting where Cleo seduces Antony is a particular highlight with an ostensible parade of decadent activities on display, each beautifully photographed and staged. The only noticeable weak spot would be the mighty battle scenes which are a mixture of gruesome deaths and some very dodgy over laid imagery that simply doesn’t work.
And of course there is the vast array of daring and stunning costumes worn (or barely worn) by Colbert and the other ladies which drew many gasps for its time. With the now vanquished Production Code on the way DeMille took advantage of this last chance to be naughty, opening the film with a shot of a strategically lit naked woman, the cheeky little scallywag!
The 1962 version may be more lavish, twice as long and historically more accurate by DeMille’s Cleopatra is arguably the more fun and concise telling of the saga with – dare I say it? – a much sexier interpretation of the main character. Ambitious for its time, this film still stands up 80 years later.