Cecil B. Demille’s extravagant 1934 historical melodrama “Cleopatra” announces itself to audiences with an image that conjures all the decadent spirit of a nineteenth century black-and-white ink illustration by Aubrey Beardsley: an Egyptian slave girl, holding aloft two incense burners in each of her upraised hands, is posed statuesquely between monolithic stone doorways, which open outward like the grand entrance to an ancient tomb to reveal her nubile but inscrutably sphinx-like semi-naked figure, wreathed by the dusky shadows within. In the teeth of a depression hit America, Demille had managed to revive a floundering career in the early years of sound after having become one of the key figures in the founding myth of Hollywood during the silent era, when he became the first man to direct a film in the town; and also through his involvement with the fledgling Paramount studios, where he instigated a series of high drama epics that recounted well-known Biblical and historical tales, filled with torrid romance and smouldering sex.
As real life grew more difficult and economically disadvantageous for Hollywood’s audiences in the 1930s the megaphone-wielding, celebrity director par excellence -- clad in his image-defining riding boots (for his bad ankles!) and jodhpurs – knew exactly what people wanted to see on the silver screen in order to relieve their concerns over their money woes -- great epics full of sin and spectacle! -- and just how to give it to them. Unfortunately, his hugely successful 1932 pre-Code Biblical drama “The Sign of the Cross” also came at a time when pressure was beginning to mount on the studios from campaigning groups such as the League of Catholic Decency, which began to lean on the banks financing the dream factory’s evermore risqué output (which, from their point of view at least was becoming a cavalcade of ‘corrupting’ horror films, violent gangster pictures and torrid melodramas). A naked Claudette Colbert in a marble bath, frolicking in goats ‘milk, her pert breasts bobbing enticingly into view above the nipple line, was not how the League envisioned a re-enactment of the persecution of the early Christians in Rome being conducted. It wasn’t too keen on the film’s salacious images of bound naked women being menaced by gorillas and crocodiles in the stadiums of Rome, either. And it certainly wasn’t going to have the sort of smouldering lesbian eroticism that was being overtly displayed between actresses Elisa Landi and Joyzelle Joyner in one of the film’s other famously over-the-top sequences of illicit temptation.
This kind of thing was seen by many as the sanctity of the Bible being trampled on while Demille raided its content for prurient titbits. It was the last straw … The film industry was soon forced to add some teeth to its self-administered Production Code, or face the money drying up. This left Demille in something of a quandary when his follow-up film, a contemporary tale also starring Colbert, conspicuously flopped. It was clear to all, and especially Paramount, that, whatever the censors and special interest groups might wish for, flamboyant historical melodramas with a hint of sex were still what Demille’s audience expected of him.
“Cleopatra” is thus a masterclass in cleverly evasive titillation, which emerged right on the cusp of the Hays Code clampdown; Demille pushes the risqué factor as far as he dare and ladles on the sumptuous Art Deco-themed sets and flamboyant but revealing costuming by Travis Banton (which often looks like some sort of gilded fetish gear), while emphasising the plot’s racier elements with images of bondage and a fervid atmosphere of decadent sexual intrigue. Large scale battle scenes are pitched as silent-era-mimicking grand spectacle and the impossibly detailed but highly stylised sets are frequently rammed with extras (‘Starring Claudette Colbert, Henry Wilcoxon, Warren William and a cast of thousands’ trumpets the theatrical trailer, quite truthfully). The apotheosis of Demille’s gaudily sex-centred approach is also the film’s key set-piece – Cleopatra’s seduction of Marc Anthony on her vast river barge on the Nile, where the queen reclines in luxury on a grand couch in an immense hall, being fanned by beautiful young servants before a carpet of peacocks’ feathers. Anthony is wooed and dazzled by sheer spectacle just like the film’s audience: a screen-filling riot ensues of semi-naked acrobats cavorting for him and us both through hoops of flame, or being dragged from the sea in a fishing-net wearing costumes made of seaweed then whipped into a frenzy by burly, muscle-bound overlords.
This is followed by a scene in which the playfully manipulative Egyptian queen, having finally conquered the reluctant Roman triumvir who was originally sent to take her country from her by force, consummates her new political union with Marc Anthony in a more traditional, physical manner -- as theatre drapes are lowered down to conceal their cavorting. The camera pans back as a stadium-full of scanty-clad dancers once again emerge, garlands flutter from the heavens and we pull-back yet further into a perspective shot that reveals lines composed of hundreds of trumpeters stretching into the distance, a drummer in the foreground sombrely striking a tattoo to mark the occasion. Never before in cinema history has a sexual act been so comprehensively obscured, while at the same time drawn attention to itself in such robustly baroque terms of high theatre!
Ex Broadway lead Claudette Colbert had starred in several of Demille’s films before this one, but was now coming to “Cleopatra” as a big star after the sudden success of Frank Capra’s romantic comedy “It Happened One Night”, in which she played the pampered socialite lead role. Here, she’s given at least half-a-dozen grand entrances as the titular Cleopatra -- anyone of which would have satisfied the egos of most Hollywood dames. A succession of ritualistic processions, in which Colbert is carried aloft before crowds on gilded thrones among towering sets, dressed in ever more outrageous Egyptian-themed gold Deco design headdresses, conjure the memory of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” with their almost futuristic opulence; and of course Cleopatra’s famous method of thwarting her brother Ptolemy and his court’s attempts to banish her from Alexandria while Ptolemy makes his own alliance with Rome, is turned into a snappy screwball comedy sequence of back-and-forth repartee when she famously emerges from a rug delivered to Warren William’s Caesar as a present, and then sets about persuading and cajoling him into accepting her as Egypt’s ruler, topping the display by spearing an assassin she’s earlier spied lurking behind a curtain.
The film’s screenplay by Waldemar Young (“Island of Lost Souls”) and Vincent Lawrence, is a giddy romp of anachronistic 1930s mores glibly attached to the drama of the ancient world -- grand history written as simplified, witty ‘30s soap melodrama and rendered in popular American idioms -- and was heavily criticised for the fact in some quarters, as well as for not exactly being Shakespeare! But the implied distrust of women being given too much power(‘Women should be but toys for great men – it becomes them both!’) and the contempt for the concept of rule by kingship that’s expressed back home in Rome by Anthony’s brother Octavian (Ian Keith) when news leaks back that Caesar has been beguiled by the prospect of expanding the Roman Empire into India by making himself King to Cleopatra’s queen of Egypt, its gateway (‘the Roman Eagle, with half the world in its claws – tamed by a woman!!), all seems to resonate with ‘30s American attitudes and prejudices and ideas of democracy. At the same time Cleopatra is still represented as a sympathetic ballsy 1930s gal, prone to tantrums but always trying to stand up to fate and stem the tide of history by resorting to affairs of the heart and loins in order to affect events which often end up conquering her own heart in return. Colbert is magnificently cast to render this conceit, and smoulders in a succession flimsy gowns and robes throughout the grand spectacle of it all.
Warren William always looks the part of an imperious Julius Caesar during the first act of the movie, and the back-and-forth dialogue between him and Colbert (CLEOPATRA: ‘together we could conquer the world.’ CAESAR: ‘thanks for including me!’) provides numerous examples of classic light-hearted 1930s wit. Henry Wilcoxon plays Marc Anthony like a handsome, vain, surly child that’s been mesmerised by a new toy. Surrounded initially by fluttery Roman groupie girls, he travels to Egypt after Caesar’s assassination by paranoid conspirators (who were convinced because of his new Egyptian bride that he planned to make himself an oriental-like King of Rome) to show it who’s boss, put Cleopatra in chains and take the country by force rather than union -- but is soon even more smitten by the sights on display there than the always-far-more-strategic Caesar ever was. The ensuing love affair and the mistrust eventually sown by a serpent-like King Herod (Joseph Schildkraut) adds romantic melodrama to the relationship that culminates in Anthony’s estrangement from Rome and his eventual suicide, believing Cleopatra has betrayed him by offering herself to Octavian. It’s all played in the traditional epic style of vintage Demille, the odd anachronistic mixture of elements in which the film’s version of narrative history is re-enacted with contemporary ‘30s mores and ‘20s designs somehow gelling into a unique cinematic tapestry of popular entertainment, gains even more traction today by virtue of its own historical interest.
Needless to say, this new Master of Cinema HD transfer for Eureka Entertainment’s new dual-format (Blu-ray & DVD) release (a DVD-only version is also available, as well as a Limited Edition Steel Book dual-format version) is something special: an immaculate, shiny detail-rich presentation which still retains the grain structure of the original print. There’s a fabulous forty-page booklet with the discs, containing an extract from Demille’s autobiography and an essay by Craig Keller, but it’s the magnificent production stills it includes alongside the text which are the real highlight. Other extras include the film’s theatrical trailer (starring Demille himself) and an audio commentary by film critic FX Feeney in which he mostly quotes from the Demille autobiography chapter that’s included in the booklet, although he also delivers his own observations on the action which are worth a listen, at least. In addition, the film is placed in historical context by three well-chosen featurettes: the first is on Cecile B Demille and his role in the founding of Hollywood; the second covers the career of the film’s star, Claudette Colbert; and the third focuses on the establishment of the Hays Code. All are excellent, very informative, and last for about ten minutes each. A recommended release from the Golden Age of Hollywood talkies.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!