The reputation of Cecil B. De Mille has always been larger than life. Whether it was De Mille’s own predilection towards sporting the tough authoritarian exterior of a perfectionist, outwardly exemplified by being strapped into a pair of orthopedic boots and carrying a riding crop, or his enthusiasm for crafting Biblical epics with all the gargantuan spectacle that the studio system of his heyday would allow, the name ‘De Mille’ remains a call word for lavish escapism on the big screen.
One of the biggest spectacles of De Mille’s early talkie career at Paramount – the studio he co-founded - is undoubtedly Cleopatra (1934). Although Fox and Theda Bara had been first to immortalize the Queen of the Nile in a silent epic, it was De Mille’s sound version that became the template for Joseph L. Mankeiwicz’ bizarre soap opera in 1963.
Casting pop sensation Claudette Colbert as his serpentine conqueress was a no brainer for De Mille who had worked with the star on The Sign of the Cross (1932) – a faux Biblical epic in which Colbert appeared in the raw, taking a bath in ass’s milk. Colbert, a difficult personality behind the scenes who insisted she only be photographed in close up from the left side, was a genuine powerhouse in front of the camera. Ironically however, she worked well with De Mille, perhaps because De Mille’s tyrannical rule on set tended to intimidate and keep everyone in line.
In Cleopatra, Colbert is the sultry siren who rules Egypt with authoritarian gusto. She’s a clever, diabolical vixen who revels in her own pageantry and in the seduction of many male suitors to occupy her free time. But Cleopatra has met her match with Julius Caesar (Warren Williams); the supreme Roman ruler who chooses to form a political alliance that will bring stability to Cleopatra’s fledgling empire. The alliance turns romantic, however, and with Caesar’s seduction in Egypt there comes a definite downturn in his popularity back home. He is set up outside the Roman forum and murdered by a group of senators.
Vowing vengeance for this crime, Roman general Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) arrives in Egypt to discover Cleopatra a bitter and venomous rival. Until Antony can bring about the execution of all of Caesar’s conspirators, Cleo' will have nothing to do with a Roman alliance – or at least, so it would seem. Instead, she toys with Antony’s affections, as just another one of her many sexual conquests. Eventually however, the two become lovers locked in a passionate maelstrom of haunted desire. These lusts will ultimately destroy them both. In the final act, as a new Emperor marches toward Alexandria, Cleopatra chooses to take her own life by being bitten by a poisonous asp rather than survive capture and possible enslavement.
Reportedly, Colbert was deathly afraid of snakes and refused to do the scene with the asp. To help overcome her fear, De Mille rented the biggest python he could find from a local zoo, slinging it over his shoulders and approaching Colbert on the set. The terrified Colbert retreated into a corner where De Mille – keeping a respectable distance with the python around his shoulders – pointed to the relatively small garden snake in a nearby cage that Colbert would have to handle for the scene. Colbert was so relieved at the miniscule size of the reptile that she immediately seized it from the cage and performed the sequence without further complaint.
In viewing Cleopatra today what is even more remarkable than the lavish sets and costumes afforded the film is its’ rather blatant open sexuality. True enough, these were the days before Hollywood’s self regulating Production Code of Ethics, but De Mille had always utilized risqué sexuality in his Biblical epics. Curiously enough, the Production Code tended to be more lenient when it came to showcasing sexual aberrations in conjunction with the Bible – particularly where De Mille was concerned.
In Cleopatra, the love making between the queen of the Nile and Caesar is slightly more circumspect. With Antony however, passion gets exhibited full throttle. Colbert is barely concealed behind her flimsy beaded costumes and the positioning of arms and legs is most suggestive. In the final analysis, De Mille’s Cleopatra is a rather fascinating tableau into the sexual taboos of his own nation. The 1963 remake is much more of a character study perhaps, but this 1934 costume epic is still the best incarnation of that oft' told ill fated tale.
WHY ISN'T THIS ON BLU-RAY YET?
Universal Home Video has afforded a new and slightly cleaned up transfer of the film for its 75th Anniversary. Previously, Universal had released The Cecil B. De Mille Collection – a smartly packaged five film ensemble that also included De Mille’s other Biblical teaming with Claudette Colbert The Sign of the Cross. The transfer on the Cleopatra disc included in that box set was quite softly focused and marred by lower than expected contrast levels and a considerable amount of digitized film grain and age related artifacts.
Universal’s 75th Anniversary edition bests this aforementioned disc in all departments; chiefly in its contrast correction. The B&W image exhibits a more refined transfer, though age related artifacts and grain are still present and occasionally heavy in spots. The audio is mono as originally recorded, with a slight hiss and pop present. Overall, this disc is a marked improvement worthy of a repurchase.
Extras are disappointing. Apart from F.X. Feeney’s thorough and engaging audio commentary, the three featurettes included on DeMille, Colbert and the Code all utilize the most scant and poorly exhibited vintage newsreel and film footage. Contrast, grain and general deterioration are so bad that VHS quality does not begin to describe just how awful the visuals are.
Worse, the accompanying commentary is superficial and threadbare at best. Really, there are better documentaries on all three subjects to be found elsewhere. Ultimately, this disc comes recommended for the film itself – well worth the purchase price and definitely worthy of a second glance.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)