Universal // 1934 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // April 7th, 2009
"Who is this poisonous snake that racks our men, Caesar first, and then Antony?"
The answer, of course, is Cleopatra first, and then Claudette Colbert, who starred in 1934's Cleopatra.
"I made this picture because the historical facts of her life are far more interesting than any fiction," director Cecil B. DeMille somberly tells viewers in the theatrical trailer. In the features, it's suggested that the historical setting provided an excuse for immodest attire. You don't think he made this picture to test the then-new Hays Code, do you?
Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition is a Universal DVD honoring one of Paramount's most famous early films. It's been restored by UCLA's Film and Television Archive.
As the movie opens, Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert, Four Frightened People) is being left out in the desert. She wants to get home to Alexandria, "where Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra struggled for sole possession of the world's greatest throne," as the legend on the screen says. How can she do that? By meeting with Julius Caesar (Warren William, Imitation of Life), who's in the neighborhood to demand tribute. Cleopatra has to sneak in, rolled up in a rug given to Caesar as a gift. While she comes borne in a gift, Cleopatra's gift for casting a spell on men comes with a price for Caesar: upon his return to Rome, he dies at the hands of an angry mob.
Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon, Mrs. Miniver) thinks he's smarter. "Look at the Roman Eagle with half the world in his claws -- tamed by a woman!" he said mockingly to Caesar. Still, he finds himself alone, considered a traitor to Rome and fearing that the woman he loves will betray him.
The basic facts of history are present in Cleopatra, but as far as I can tell, this bears as much relation to actual Egyptian and Roman history as your average Saturday matinee space opera. It does adhere to one Roman truism, though: In the era of bread lines, Cecil B. DeMille distracted audiences with bread and circuses. Cecil B. DeMille treats the historical story as an excuse for elaborate dance numbers and scenes of pageantry, with lots of beautiful women waving palm fans. When Cleopatra tries on a new dress, even that is like a Busby Berkeley number. Every set is beautiful and seems impressive, even in full-frame black-and-white.
DeMille also distracted audiences with sex -- or at least skin. You'll see a lot of all those beautiful women. Their minimal clothing often shows off bare midriffs, legs, and backs. There's no actual nudity, but a few of Claudette Colbert's many gowns come close, or look it. Beyond that, Caesar isn't shown sleeping with Cleopatra, but it's strongly implied with lines like, "This is the first morning he's been late since the day he was born," before Caesar, looking like he hasn't had much sleep, greets his men after spending the night with her. The most over-the-top scene features a whip-wielding man trying to "tame" leopard-skinned women.
Even without knowing what Cleopatra was like in real life, it's a safe assumption that she didn't sound like she was doing her Mae West imitation. Claudette Colbert hits the screen with a tough-talking manipulative sexuality, with lines like "It's not the Senate I'm worried about, it's their fat wives" or "I was just thinking of the great Caesar trying to unhook it," as she tries on a dress. Marc Antony prides himself on being above temptation, but Cleopatra uses that pride and confidence against him when they first meet. Rather than being lured into a humiliating encounter in the public square, Cleopatra lures Antony to her dinner table. Colbert does this well; you may fall for her yourself as she's seducing Antony. Of course, she seems to actually fall for her prey; if she didn't, she'd have poisoned Antony without a thought and been done with her problems. With the movie resting on her often bare shoulders, it's fortunate that Colbert is as talented as she is beautiful and shapely, allowing the film to get away with a lot.
The men in Cleopatra are overshadowed by Colbert's performance, but Warren William as the empire-obsessed Julius Caesar comes off a little better than Henry Wilcoxon as the cockier, prouder Marc Antony. I could rant about the histrionics in the performances, but I don't think naturalism was what DeMille was aiming for.
A lot of it seems ridiculous, but it mostly works. The part that's absolutely disastrous, a final battle that's a chaotic mess with people running every which way so I couldn't tell what was going on, is attributed to William Cameron Menzies' direction.
The restored picture looks surprisingly good most of the way through, although the battle scenes look rather shabby, with lots of grain. The sound was decent, if not spectacular.
He may be very forgiving of DeMille's imperfections, but F.X. Feeney delivers a good commentary. He's good at pointing out DeMille's adept "silent film grammar," or visual storytelling techniques. His observations will be interesting to film students. He also has a lot of good trivia, telling us that Warren William is responsible for the leaf blower and Henry Wilcoxon later made his mark behind the camera.
"Cecil B. DeMille: Hollywood's Epic Director" talks about how his father's history and Bible readings inspired his epics. "Forbidden Film: The Production Code Era" reveals that it was DeMille's The Sign of the Cross which sparked the controversy that led to the Code and discusses how the Code worked. "Claudette Colbert: Queen of the Silver Screen" concentrates on a 1934 run of well-received films that also included It Happened One Night and Imitation of Life. These three shorts take up about half an hour of your time to briefly introduce the topics. They're not bad, but they'll leave you wanting more.
DeMille, as the commentary reminds us, didn't think Shakespeare's seriousness was the best medicine. Instead, he provided flashy, fleshy cinematic spectacle as a balm for Depression-era worries. From that perspective, Cleopatra could still provide an hour or two of economic relief.
The overdone style of Cleopatra might seem cheesy by today's standards, but it's an important part of film history and the 75th Anniversary Edition treats it well. If you're in the right not-so-serious frame of mind, you'll like, if not love, the so-bad-it's-good excesses, and Claudette Colbert's definitely a looker.
Cleopatra is guilty of every trick in the book, just as Cleopatra was.
It does win points for shamelessness, though.
Review content copyright © 2009 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1934
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer