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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Of the many screen incarnations of the romantically foolish,
politically shrewd Egyptian queen, this was Cecil B. DeMille's... His
Victorian puritan's approach to the sex and scandals surrounding
Cleopatra's throne reflected her continuing appeal to the imagination -
even if that imagination were really a childhood fantasy of adult
Authenticity, except as decorative embroidery, took second place to his desire to capture her timeless appeal on film... Facts and figures may vary, fashions and desirable objects may be ever changing, but sex, sin and punishment make up a triangle of eternal allure...
Travis Banton's wardrobe transformed Claudette Colbert from a flirtatious star into a splendid, seductive woman with fanciful art direction... The film had the opulence, the barbarity, the epic sweep and shocking decadence of certain books and paintings that were at the heart of so much of this film...
The French-born, American-raised Claudette Colbert made three films with Cecil B. DeMille, but felt more comfortable in contemporary comedies, for one of which, 'It Happened One Night,' she won an Oscar, and in all of which she identified herself with the most American of American secretaries, sweethearts, wives and mothers...
Colbert's popularity lasted well into the fifties... but her magic rests with 'Cleopatra'.
Since I am a fan of epics, particularly ancient and medieval ones, I
had been looking for this movie for a long time. The name of Cecil B
DeMille is probably most associated with his magnificent remake of THE
TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) where he made a total use of his imagination,
where, as one of the movie critics said, "lavish sets and grandeur
reach its peak." There are also people who love his silent THE KING OF
KINGS (1927). DeMille's films do not seem much dated. With these
expectations, I bought CLEOPATRA (1934), sat in my chair on one of the
frosty evenings and started to watch. The movie involved me so much
that after 20 minutes, I had to see it at least to the half, at the
half, I admit an undeniable need for seeing it till the end.
The story of Cleopatra has been put on screen several times. From Helen Gardner in 1912, Theda Bara in 1917 (presumed lost) to Claudette Colbert here. The impersonation of Cleopatra was later followed by the great performances of Vivien Leigh in CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945) and, of course, Liz Taylor in ultra long CLEOPATRA by Joseph L Mankiewicz, which had been the only Cleopatra film I had seen before this one. From the very beginning of watching DeMille's film, I was astonished by significant virtues of this high camp production, but realized fully that this film cannot be compared to any other film about Cleopatra.
HUMOR: Maybe this point will seem strange to mention at first, but what mostly struck me in this film was how excellent combination of history and humor it is. The script is full of very amusing contexts that lead a viewer to a wonderful atmosphere. "Together we could conquer the world," says Cleopatra to Caesar on one moonlit night, to which the Roman leader replies: "Nice of you to include me!" "I am dressed to allure you, Antony," says Cleopatra to her new Roman lover. Or after the moment when the half naked girls dance at the ox, Cleopatra says to Mark: "I wish you could see your face now. I'd have more chance with a stone wall." I know that some of these may seem dated, but they make a perfect sense in the scenes alone.
GREAT CAST: Claudette Colbert, though better known for playing in comedies, impersonated two historical figures on screen twice at DeMille's: Poppaea and Cleopatra. While her Roman empress was an object of lust and desire, her queen of the Nile is full of elegance and magnificence. In all these sophisticated fabulous costumes and gowns, she plays Cleopatra so well that she should have won an Oscar for this role. Unfortunately, Cleopatra lost to Ellie Andrews in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. The other great star of the film is Henry Wilcoxon who plays Mark Antony. He gives a marvelous, one of the best performances ever seen in historical epics. Pride, irony, love, and honor are presented by him so memorably that you will never forget this performance. I dare claim that he is a better Antony than Richard Burton in CLEOPATRA (1963). The third star of the film, in my opinion, is not Warren William as Caesar, but C.Aubrey Smith as a Roman soldier Enobarbus. I saw him in several roles, including DeMille's THE CRUSADES (1935), but here, he does an extraordinary job combining his role with honor, pride and wit. However, feminists... be careful! There are slogans said by Enobarbus that are unacceptable! Ian Keith, a mainstay of historical epics, does not give a very remarkable performance as Octavian. He is not bad; however, most historians imagine Octavian differently. Warren William is not bad as Caesar but indeed not the best.
SPECTACULAR MOMENTS: The whole movie is filled with DeMillean splendor. Scene by scene leaves a gorgeous experience for the fans of lavish sets. But three scenes are a must see: first, the royal barge which is elegantly setting off when Cleopatra and Antony are making love (flower petals, dancing girls, enormous sets); second, the gowns and art direction when Cleopatra awaits Caesar on the day of his tragic death (every movement she makes in a gorgeous gown is worth admiration); third, the final shot, one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema ever (this one is hard to describe, it must be seen)! Moreover, Cleopatra's entrance to Rome, which was the moment that the movie with Liz Taylor boasted so much, is more natural in DeMille's. Here, we get the most realistic picture of Roman streets instead of a huge Sphynx statue and rather a parade than an entrance.
HISTORY: The movie is not a very good historical lesson. In this respect, Liz Taylor version supplies you with more knowledge of history. Nevertheless, we all must take into account two aspects: the period the film was made in (the 1930s required more of entertainment than of facts) and by whom it was made. It was Cecil B DeMille, a spectacle lover of crowds, gowns, peacocks, leopards, and lavish sets (late Zygmunt Kaluzynski, a Polish movie critic, once joked that when DeMille was making THE KING OF KINGS, others feared that he would entail 24 Apostles because 12 is not spectacular enough). Therefore, it is important to watch this film as a part of Cecil DeMille.
All in all, it is absolutely right to say that it is not TEN COMMANDMENTS, KING OF KINGS, or SIGN OF THE CROSS that define DeMille most. These are absolutely gorgeous films in all respect. However, the film that gives the picture of his soul and talent is CLEOPATRA. It is, however, not only an unforgettable experience of DeMille's fans, but for all fans of historical epics, Hollywood elite of the 1930s, and love stories. It is simply a must see and a must release on DVD! Though more than 70 years old, some films never fade... it is, undeniably, CLEOPATRA. 9/10
For one moment in History, she is the world's most powerful
woman. Devious, dangerous & entrancingly beautiful, she
controls a kingdom while swaying an empire. She is Queen
the Nile. She is Egypt. She is CLEOPATRA.
Claudette Colbert is perfectly cast in the title role - deadly & fascinating, it's almost like watching a desert viper act. Exhibiting mega star wattage in arguably her best role, Colbert is one of the legendary actresses who could hold her own without being swallowed by the lavish costumes & sets which fill her every scene.
This is not to say she runs away with the entire film, however. Her male co-stars more than hold their own. A much underrated actor, Henry Wilcoxon as Marc Antony is excellent & shows what he would have been capable of in other roles if given the chance. In what amounts to little more than a cameo, Joseph Schildkraut gives a malicious turn to Herod the Great. Warren William & Ian Keith as the two Caesars strive mightily with their characters and generally succeed. Irving Pichel is very effective in his understated role as Cleopatra's advisor. Wonderful old Sir C. Aubrey Smith gives his usual first-rate performance, this time as an elderly Roman general. Film mavens who listen carefully will hear the voice of John Carradine a time or two as a Roman extra.
Cecil B. DeMille generally liked to portray as much sin as possible, usually wrapped around a sermon. Here, in the sensuous barge scene, he simply opens the floodgates & lets his bad taste flow out - to the viewer's fascination. Aided by Rudolph Kopp's throbbing music, this entire episode has PRE-PRODUCTION CODE emblazoned all over it.
Was Demille more daring than any other director or was he just clueless?
What does one say when the curtains close on Antony and Cleopatra and
suddenly the screen erupts with more sexual symbols than any moment in
Hollywood's history? From the phallic symbols (oars) to the yonic
(curtains) until finally both orgasmically mesh together in a final
combination (a drummer with his drum), the scene tells us we're viewing
artistry of a kinky genius or a shameless carney.
And along with the jawdropping visuals, the film is crammed with juicy Demille-like dialog. Unlike other Demille films, this one has a wonderful cast to deliver his unique oneliners, and there are so many. My own favorites are the moments of dumbdowned Shakespeare. Instead of speaking of Cleopatra's "infinite variety" we are told she is always "many colored" and, of course, instead of "Et tu, Brute?" we get, "You? You too, Brutus?" What can you say about a movie in which Julius Ceasar says "Nope" to his senators? Nothing. One can only savor every delicious moment of camp that only a Demille could serve up.
The Taylor/Burton version is more spectacular, more intelligent, and more historical, but for those who relish kitsch--and this story always lends itself to it--this version is the best.
This movie is very different from the 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor. This version of "Cleopatra" doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as that film, and actually, it may be easier to watch for that very reason. However, Cleopatra as played by Claudette Colbert is definitely over the top. At times, she is so campy in her role that it seems inappropriate given some of the situations she is in and the gravity of the moment. I often had the sense that Claudett Colbert was straining to bring out a great performance of Cleopatra but that the director was guiding her to overdo it against her wishes and she somehow is letting the audience know! "Cleopatra" walks a fine line between being a tongue in cheek film and between being a serious drama, and sometimes the lines get blurred. Warren William is a bit irritating in his role as Julius Caesar. Henry Wilcoxon fares much better as Marc Antony and this film picks up steam as soon as he arrives on the scene. Several of the bit players are very good in "Cleopatra." This movie has an odd fascination to it. I actually found it to be better the second time I watched it than the first. It's worth watching for film buffs, but perhaps not everyone's cup of tea. I'd give this one an 80/100 despite the fact that it was nominated for "Best Picture" in 1934.
I have been very fond of this movie for years, particularly as compared with Fox's bloated monstrosity of 1963. Colbert is admittedly somewhat miscast (her face is altogether Parisienne), but she handles the part with considerable charm. Warren William, usually a very limited actor, is as good a Caesar as I have seen on film, commanding and uncomfortable by turns; while Henry Wilcoxon is the definitive Mark Antony, laughing, brawling, swaggering, crude and brooding. C. Aubrey Smith as Enobarbus, the last of the hardcore Roman republicans, is perfect. Victor Milner's cinematography is superb, if old-fashioned. There is one magnificent pullback shot aboard Cleopatra's barge, with more and more stuff entering the frame, which as pure cinema is worth more than all four hours of the Liz Taylor version for my money. Shakespeare and Shaw have both been drawn upon here and there, and the movie has generally good (and fun) dialogue, not always one of DeMille's strengths. Consider also the scene of Cleopatra's entrance into Rome: contrary to DeMille's usual reputation, this scene is underplayed, depicting a plausible parade through a very real Roman street with authentic trappings, compared to the outrageously bogus and overblown spectacle given us in 1963. A word is also in order for the music of Rudolph Kopp, an extremely obscure Hollywood composer, who turns in an atmospheric score redolant of the old silent movies. This style is easy to make fun of, but see how effective it is in the highly theatrical opening credits! DeMille used silent film technique well into the talkie era, particularly in crowd scenes, and it still works. The battle scenes are the weakest point, since evidently Paramount ran out of cash and C.B. had to make do with a bunch of short shots put together with Russian cutting; nevertheless, this is still as good a picture on the subject as has yet been made, a bit of extravagant old Hollywood at its most polished.
This is an excellent adaptation of the life of Cleopatra, based mostly, I think, on Shakespeare. Claudette Colbert is not one of my favorite actresses, but this is probably the best part I've seen her in. Even better are those around her. The only actor of whom I had heard in the film is C. Aubrey Smith, the venerable character actor. He is excellent here as Antony's general, Enobarbus. Warren William is a very good Julius Caesar. Gertrude Michael plays his wife, Calpurnia, well. Ian Keith is just how I'd imagine Octavian. Joseph Schildkraut has only five minutes of screen time as Herod, which is truly unfortunate considering how good he is. The film's standout performance comes from Henry Wilcoxon as Marc Antony. Wilcoxon is very good at projecting Antony's conflicted interests. While the acting is great, Cleopatra is probably most memorable for its lavishness, DeMille's speciality, of course. Caesar's and Cleopatra's triumphant entrance into Rome is fantastic, while not going anywhere near as overboard as they did in the crappy 1963 version starring Elizabeth Taylor. The scene in which Cleopatra and Antony first make love is an enormous spectacle. And the film contains perhaps the best war montage that I've ever seen. The previous year's Best Picture, Cavalcade, had a horrific WWI montage. Cleopatra contains the most amazing scenes of ancient warfare. They all happen quickly, but the production in these bits is superlative. The sea battle, even if it may be only thirty seconds long, is a dozen times more believable than the stale, cheap naval battle of Ben-Hur, filmed over 20 years later. And there are also many moments of subtlety, which I didn't predict. Julius Caesar's execution is well done. DeMille doesn't try to overwhelm the audience at that point, preferring to film it simply. The aftermath is given more attention (of course, Caesar isn't the focus of this film). And Antony's emotional suicide is good, as well. It's a very good film. 9/10.
Actually, this movie was better than I thought it might be. (Sometimes
lower expectations help!) It had some good dance numbers, almost Busby
Berkeley-like extravaganzas held in Cleopatra's barge. It also had a
few decent action scenes and a fairly good and easy-to-understand
Claudette Colbert and few others surprised me a bit by showing off quite a bit of cleavage, but then this was released just before the Hays' Code was in effect. Colbert was not shy: she had been nude in an erotic milk-bath scene two years earlier in "The Sign Of The Cross."
Warren William, as "Caesar," and Henry Wilcoxen, as "Marc Antony," both overacted and looked almost like silent film characters with all the makeup. They were terrible.
Why this film won an award for cinematography, I don't know. Perhaps it was the elaborate sets by Cecil B. DeMille that caught people's attention.
If you are a fan of classic films, this is one to definitely check out.
Impossible to surpass, CLEOPATRA stands out as DeMille's finest work, without question the defining moment of his career. Colbert is ravishingly beautiful as the Egyptian Queen. Warren William is unsurpassed to this day as the quintessential Julius Caesar. Henry Wilcoxon, with his stellar good looks is the doomed Marc Antony in the greatest role of his career. Unquestionably breathtaking to look at down to the last detail of costume and performances. The only misfortune is that DeMille was not given a dream budget so battle scenes are lifted from some of his other pictures. However, this is the definitive CLEOPATRA of all time, superior even to the Elizabeth Taylor version nearly thirty years later. AN EPIC MUST-SEE!!!
I wasn't looking forward to this one as much as THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
(considered by many as De Mille's best film) but I must say that I was
just as impressed by it. The pacing here is smoother, and we do get to
see some wonderful action montages towards the end as opposed to the
rather middling arena stuff of CROSS.
Claudette Colbert, too gets a lot more coverage this time around and certainly clinches the title role far better than the positively annoying Elizabeth Taylor in the ill-fated 1963 version. However, the male leads here are less interesting, for lack of a better word: Henry Wilcoxon and Warren William are adequate but, naturally, no match for the thespian skills of Richard Burton and Rex Harrison respectively.
The supporting cast is notable (Ian Keith, Irving Pichel, Joseph Schildkraut, C. Aubrey Smith) and the film features a number of great scenes: Caesar's murder (partly filmed in a POV shot), following which is a delicious jibe at Antony's famous oratory during Caesar's funeral as envisioned by Shakespeare; the long - and justly celebrated - barge sequence, in which Antony (intent on teaching Cleopatra, whom he blames for Caesar's death, a lesson) ends up being completely won over by her wiles; Cleopatra's own death scene is simply but most effectively filmed.
Like in THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, the film's production values are truly awe-inspiring and, in fact, Victor Milner was awarded with a well-deserved Oscar for his lush cinematography here. Needless to say, De Mille's take on Cleopatra, despite feeling hurried since it runs for less than half its length, is a more satisfying viewing experience than the stultifyingly dull, overblown and misguided (if still worthwhile and not quite as catastrophic as the history books would have it) later version.
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