CLEOPATRA, in 1934, was a Big Deal. As she was in 1963, and will no doubt be again. She’s been one of history’s most famous women for going on 2,100 years. This first sound version of her triumphs and tragedies with Rome’s Julius Caesar and Mark Antony was extravagantly produced and emphatically directed by Hollywood’s own great conqueror, Cecil B. DeMille. It was a box-office royal flush in ’34, with crowds massing to see whatever they may have missed of saucy Claudette Colbert’s slinky body in the director’s previous antiquity-rama, the scandalous Nero v. Christians saga The Sign Of The Cross.
Twenty-one centuries back, all-powerful Rome seeks to pacify quarrelsome basket-case Egypt. Ever-ambitious Julius Caesar (Warren William) meets the crafty Queen Of The Nile (Colbert) and they soon appear to have an unbeatable power-lock, until The Ides Of March leaves Rome in disarray. Possible salvation for the Republic/Empire lies with trusted warhorse Mark Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). But lusty Antony’s sword is no match for Cleo’s lips, let alone her scanty attire and legion-defying eyelashes. Destiny lays a trap for both. …and the rest is
history sex, violence and some hearty laughs. *
As for the divine Cleo’s diva Claudette, DeMille later recalled “She wanted to do something different with Cleopatra, not make her lofty or fussy or superstitious, nothing like that. She set out to give her humor and humanity, and stamped her own personality on the role. She emerged from it most vividly, I thought.” This was C.C.’s third mission for the demanding C.B., having debauched in the camp-out The Sign Of The Cross and survived as one of the silly Four Frightened People. Acting-wise, she owns the film, with William a disreputable and unsympathetic Caesar and newcomer Wilcoxon rather a lummox Antony: befitting her part and bringing a relaxed and self-aware modern style to contrast their stagy theatricality, Colbert coolly thesps rings around them.
She does this in an array of teaser outfits, Travis Banton’s costumes revealing as much as the director felt he could slip by the Censorious Ones, as the dreaded Hays Code (like Hammurabi’s, minus reason and justice) had not yet slammed its door shut on All The Good Stuff.
The first half is okay, with the legendary roll-out-of-a-carpet introduction to Caesar, Cleopatra’s provocative entrance to a suspicious Rome and Caesar’s forewarned date at a one-sided knife-fight. The rowdy second half with Antony starts with an insane orgy of dance seduction and plunges towards wild action scenes including the decisive naval clash at Actium: William Cameron Menzies designed the furiously brutal battle montages.
Best line has Cleo talking to Mark, alluding to the stars overhead: “…they must think we’re funny people. Scheming to destroy each other, as if we had forever to live.” That wise, age-old irony fits neatly with our present day ‘leaders’ and their idiotic procession to annihilation. Where’s a sage Queen when you need one? (probably performing at a club downtown, but that’s another saga involving gowns and eyelashes)
Holy Nile Delta!, that “lets’get-it-on, Rome-boy” dance is one of the craziest in a long line of abandon-numbers that decorate the ancient spectacle genre. On Cleopatra’s boink barge, after a fishing net dumps a gaggle of slippery maidens at Antony’s agog feet (yes, this seafood salad would make even your feet open their mouths), there is a rush mob of vixens dressed as leopards and tigers that crawl across the floor and wrestle with each other while a guy cracks a whip over their cat-ears. Then they tumble and leap through fiery hoops! Soon enough, giddy guest and happy hostess retreat to the royal pillow-stack, as the barge rows down the river to the beat of the hortator laying on the, uh…strokes. Ramming speed, coming right up, Highness!
Come Oscar time, it won for Victor Milner’s cinematography, while nominations accrued for Best Picture, Assistant Director (Cullen Tate), Film Editing and Sound. The $842,908 gamble paid off with a gross of $5,500,000, the year’s #2 performer (a different kinda girl charmer ruled #1, Bright Eyes 6-year-old American princess, Shirley Temple).
Rudolph George Kopp provides a music score of caressing exotica. With Joseph Schildkraut (scheming King Herod), Ian Keith (seething Octavian), C. Aubrey Smith (fuming Enobarbus), Gertude Michael (Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, bummer), Irving Pichel (Apollodorus, counsel duty) and Eleanor Phelps (Cleo loyalist Charmion). Somewhere in the mob lurks John Carradine, while toiling as one of the slaves is a hopeful 23-year-old extra named David Niven. 102 minutes.
* A few Cleo teasers….Cleopatra VII spoke ten languages. Her famed ‘pleasure barge’, the Thelamos , was over 300 feet long and 80 feet high. She died at 39, having ruled for 21 years. Colbert was 31 when she played her, and Elizabeth Taylor was 30 in the 1963 colossus. Along with Caesarion, the son she had with Julius Caesar, she bore three children for Mark Antony. Though history knows her (and face it, most people ‘know history’ through movies) as a seductress, it is likely her only two lovers were those fabled Roman chieftains.
** The animation that enlivened DeMille’s milling mob was goosed by the tireless king of the set and canny hitmaker’s directive, as recalled by Henry Wilcoxon: “I don’t want any ‘extras’ on my set. I only want actors and actresses. During the making of this picture, if I come up to you, and I say ‘What are you doing, and where are you going?’ and you can’t tell me, either you or the assistant director who is responsible for your segment will be fired. I want you to think, and act.” Your humble scribe was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Wilcoxon in 1973. My brother-in-law (Larry Pennell) was doing a season of Lassie and Mr. Wilcoxon had a role in one episode as a Native American healer who rescues Lassie from a trap. He was 68 at the time, an impressive and friendly gentleman. P.S.—the dog was amazing!