Wednesday, May 13, 2020

By the Gods!

CLEOPATRA (1934) starring Claudette Colbert, Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

The film starts with this startling scene.

The 1930s saw very few PEPLUM movies, well, compared to previous years during the silent era and mostly compared to the upcoming 1950s and 1960s. There were a few here and there, with the two biggest and splashiest being SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) and CLEOPATRA (1934), both Cecil B. DeMille productions. Though both movies were box office hits, their successes didn't spur a trend of PEPLUM productions. These movies were costly to make and studios back then weren’t too keen in splurging big budgets for Sword & Sandal epics. CLEOPATRA was the last epic made by De Mille set in Antiquity until SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949), 15 years later.

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra. Lush production.

I won’t summarize the story since everyone is pretty much familiar with the story of Cleopatra, including her tragic end.

Everything about it is lush and luxurious. It looks like a million bucks.

Like all DeMille movies, the direction is always assured and solid. It rarely wavers into pointless scenes and the sets, composition, framing, etc, are all beautifully done. But some of the edits are odd, mostly due to the period the movie was made. In one scene, we see Mark Antony standing at the wall and then it fades into a different angle of the same scene. No one does this today. A fade out like this usually means some time has passed but the moment is the same continuation. The soundtrack is another weak aspect. There are long moments without music, or even any atmospheric or background noise. It makes for a quiet movie. Again, this is mostly due to the style of filmmaking of the period.

Mark Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) greets Cleopatra (Colbert). This scene obviously inspired the scene between Hercules and Omphale in HERCULES UNCHAINED (1959).

Some of the acting is more stylized of the era. I won’t fault the movie for this but some of the ‘boisterous’ acting is a bit hard to take. The same thing can be said with the dialogue or reading. And to make things more colourful, with clashing accents, of course.

Only the battle scene, at the 83 minute mark, looks rushed and sorta cheap (a mix of old stock footage edited with quick shots of the movie’s actors). Some shots during this scene don’t make any sense at all (see below)

An incoming army on horseback approaches another army in the foreground. The men in the foreground look tiny compared to the men on horseback. A surprisingly ineffective shot from the usually reliable DeMille.

Caesar (Warren William) and Cleopatra (Colbert) in a tender moment. Notice the scratches on their faces. The HD print is an improvement but it still shows its age.

The only issue I have with this 100 minute epic is the pacing. It’s very languid and relaxed. This is just me but this movie puts me to sleep, not because I find it boring (DeMille movies are never boring) but because the pacing is so casual and easy, along with the quiet soundscape mentioned above, and before you know it my eyes get heavy and sleepy. In comparison, this sleep-inducing effect I experienced while watching this movie doesn’t happen when I watch SIGN OF THE CROSS. It’s an odd thing to point out but I just can’t help it. It has a dream-like pacing that puts me to sleep.

Though not as 'scandalous' as SIGN OF THE CROSS, this movie has some startling scenes of quasi-nudity or faux nudity.

Claudette is not nude but she looks like she's nude from the daring costume and angle.

A cat fight is interrupted by a 'lion-tamer' in a daring costume.

I have the regular and the High Definition versions of this.

Though very grainy in parts, and the age of the film is still visible throughout, the high definition version is a vast improvement over previous releases. It’s quite stunning in some scenes, even in black & white. You can see all the details of the elaborate costume, some of which are works of art unto themselves.

A lush Hollywood recreation of the life of Cleopatra that only DeMille could have done. If I had to choose between SIGN OF THE CROSS and CLEOPATRA, I would go with SIGN OF THE CROSS. It's wild!

A solid 7.5 out of 10.


Scott Ochiltree said...

DeMille's CLEOPATRA remains far and away the best treatment of this story in my view.

Cecil never missed a trick. Note that the slavegirl is wearing wrist chains in the opening title frame.

Similarly female slaves are chained in the milk bath scene with Claudette Colbert in SIGN OF THE CROSS.

Young Christian women being sold into slavery after the Moslem capture of Jerusalem are also chained in THE CRUSADES.

Anonymous said...

I think Cleopatra moves much faster than Sign of the Cross, but that's just my opinion. The scenes with Colbert and Laugton are great but some of the "Christian" scenes really drag. I don't think any of Cleopatra drags. The score for Cleopatra is beautiful although, as you mention, there are long scenes without any music. FIlm scoring was still finding its way at this point. The battle scene you discuss is mostly made up of shots from DeMille's 1923 version of The Ten Commandments.