Tuesday, April 17, 2018

CLEOPATRA: Blu-ray (Paramount 1934) Universal Home Video

“…and God said ‘Let there be light!’ It might just as well have been Cecil B. DeMille of whom it has oft been stated, “D.W. Griffith invented the close-up, but C.B. invented Hollywood.” Interestingly, DeMille’s legacy in Hollywood today can be distilled into three words – ‘The Ten Commandments’ which DeMille made twice, first as a silent in 1923, then again, as that perennially revived and thoroughly gaudy spectacle in VistaVision in 1956. Curiously, DeMille began his work in silents as a rather prolific director of contemporary melodramas and comedies
(not Bible/fiction epics), his foray into the Old/New and Hollywoodized versions of these biblical Testaments opening up an entirely new sub-genre during the early days of sound and for which ultimately DeMille’s reputation as a film pioneer today is best recalled. DeMille might have gone on indefinitely with the Bible-fiction cycle (lots of material there), except that in 1933 the long-delayed implementation of the industry’s self-governing Production Code took effect, thereupon blunting the effectiveness of his deliciously lurid storytelling. Only a year earlier, DeMille had scored the biggest hit of his entire career, up to that point, with The Sign of the Cross (1932) – a picture to feature, among its many tawdry delights, a lesbian seduction dance, and, the even more titillating exposure of an obviously naked Claudette Colbert, luxuriating in a bath of ass’s milk. Yeow!
Far from tempting fate, the audience or the Code – all of which could be narrowly skirted around by the inference DeMille had thoroughly researched antiquity first and was playing true to the amoral attitudes of ye ole Pagan times, DeMille was a highly virtuous man in his own right; weaned on stories from the Bible and history, and determined to bring to each, not only authenticity but his own set of criteria for what he suspected would click with the audience in cinematic terms.  In some ways, DeMille’s remake of The Ten Commandments truly discolored his bequest to movie lovers everywhere; those, who only recognize and associate his name with this static and slightly stodgy box office-breaking super-colossus. For DeMille could tell a story like no other film maker of his generation. Had he disembarked the train in Tucson to make The Squawman (1913) we might never have known a Hollywood, California today. For DeMille and Hollywood would soon become synonymous with each other. A partnership between DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky and Adolf Zukor led to the creation of Hollywood’s first movie-making empire; Famous Players, later to morph into Paramount Studios. And all of this lovable nonsense was, at least in 1934, to culminate in DeMille’s last hurrah: a bold and classy remake of Cleopatra (first brought to the screen by William Fox in 1917).
DeMille adored Claudette Colbert (born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin). Indeed, the actress was riding high in 1933, having starred in three blockbusters eventually to take on a life of their own: Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and, her Oscar-winning turn in It Happened One Night – a picture she had not wanted to make. Only a few seasons before, Colbert had been mostly agreeable to DeMille’s barking chain of command. Now, she returned to the director’s side, but with newfound clout and a few idiosyncratic demands of her own; chiefly, to be photographed only from her left side – an insistence to create staging complications with the liquidity of DeMille’s constantly moving camera. Even without Colbert’s ultimatums, Cleopatra was a monumental undertaking; DeMille, forced to make concessions due to the Code and Colbert, but otherwise afforded every luxury Paramount could lavish upon it.
DeMille also surrounded himself with a seasoned troupe of performers, by 1933, something of his personal stock company. He ruled with an iron hand, usually clutching a riding crop. That, DeMille’s perfectionism and his affinity for orthopedic boots (in support of painfully weak ankles), helped to establish the perfect iconography we associate today with the classic Hollywood director; exacting, tyrannical and, above all else, driven by an artistry conceived in his own image and mind’s eye. DeMille’s enthusiasm for Biblical tales bode well with his passion for gargantuan spectacle; the name - ‘DeMille’ translating into a catch all for lavish escapism.  Although Fox and Theda Bara had been first to immortalize the Queen of the Nile in their silent classic, it was DeMille’s sound version that would serve as the template for Joseph L. Mankeiwicz’ bizarre and lengthy soap opera, costarring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1963.  Casting pop sensation of her time, Claudette Colbert as his serpentine conquoress was a no brainer for DeMille. But Colbert, a difficult personality behind the scenes, was frequently at odds with her director. This friction created genuine sparks of on-screen chemistry Colbert rechanneled towards her two male costars, Warren Williams (as Julius Caesar) and Henry Wilcoxon (a handsome and brooding Marc Antony). With the passage of time, each of these has sadly faded into obscurity in the collective consciousness. Only the most diehard fans will remember Williams today as originating the role of Sam Spade in the very first incarnation of The Maltese Falcon (1936’s Satan Met a Lady), or that Wilcoxon, in addition to being one of the hardest and longest working actors in the biz (his last film was in 1983, a year before his death), lived long enough to see his image as a DeMillian fav lampooned in 1980’s crass comedy, Caddy Shack (in which he appeared as a priest, brought to ecclesiastical epiphany before being rather unceremoniously struck down by lightning).
In Cleopatra, Colbert is the sultry siren who rules Egypt with authoritarian gusto. She is a clever, diabolical vixen who revels in pageantry and the seduction of many male suitors to occupy her free time. But Cleopatra has met her match in Julius Caesar, the ordained ruler of Rome. Caesar has chosen to form a political alliance with Egypt, hopefully to bring stability to Cleopatra’s fledgling empire. Indeed, at the cusp of our story, Cleopatra and her trusted man servant/adviser, Apollodorus (Irving Pichel) are taken prisoner, abandoned in the desert by their captors, under Pothinos’ (Leonard Mudie) edict. The Queen has other ideas, resurfacing a short while later in Caesar’s court, much to Pothinos’ chagrin. Caesar is much amused by Cleopatra’s flirtations. But perhaps the minx has overestimated her sexual allure? Only after she confronts Caesar at the point of a spear, used to put to death Pothinos (hiding behind a curtain in her bed chamber) does the Roman monarch fall completely under her spell. The two become lovers; the affair gradually made public to Caesar’s devoted wife, Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael) at a house party where conspirators, Brutus (Arthur Hohl), Casca (Edwin Maxwell) and Cassius (Ian MacLaren) are already plotting his infamous public murder. Upon the revelation this horrendous deed has been carried out, Apollodorus hastens Cleopatra’s retreat to Egypt.
Vowing vengeance for Caesar’s murder, Roman general Marc Antony arrives as Rome’s emissary in Egypt, only to discover the Queen full of bitterness and venom. Until Antony can bring about the execution of all Caesar’s conspirators she 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 of her many sexual conquests. To their ever-lasting detriment, these two also become lovers, the tempestuousness afflicting their affair gradually transformed into carnal passion, destined to ensnare both in a maelstrom of haunted desire. In his absence, Antony’s reputation in Rome is debased. Indeed, and despite his valediction to Rome, he is now viewed as the conquered of this Egyptian harlot, the Roman forum voting to send another adversary to pick up the crusade. In the final act, Antony dies by his own hand and, as the newly appointed Emperor Octavian (Ian Keith) marches on the undefended city of Alexandria, Cleopatra chooses death rather than suffer the humiliation of becoming a Roman protectorate.
Cleopatra often gets chastised for its Americanized colloquial dialogue. In most cases where the ancient world is brought to the screen, I would sincerely agree. Miraculously, Cleopatra escapes such ridicule for this artistic liberty.  To be sure, Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw’s loftier interpretations of this historical tragedy are equally superb. But DeMille has wisely pegged their histories as luxuriant stagecraft. By contrast, DeMille’s pursuit here is to make a movie – an entertaining one no less – to appeal to the American masses on their own terms, yet without ever talking down to them. On every level, DeMille succeeds. Reportedly, Claudette Colbert was deathly afraid of snakes. To this end, she absolutely refused to do Cleopatra’s penultimate suicide scene with a live asp. To help the actress overcome her fear, DeMille rented the biggest python he could find from a local zoo, slinging it across his shoulders and approaching Colbert on the set. The terrified actress retreated into a corner, whereupon DeMille – keeping a respectable distance – produced a relatively minuscule snake from his pocket.  Colbert was so relieved she immediately seized the serpent to perform the death scene without further complaint.
In viewing Cleopatra today, what is even more remarkable than Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier’s lavish production design, immeasurably aided by Vicky Williams’ costuming and Victor Milner’s absorbing ‘sin in soft focus’ cinematography, is the picture’s blatant sexiness. Although DeMille could no longer get away with the bacchanals on display in The Sign of the Cross, he managed still to bypass many of the edicts outlined in the Production Code, beginning with the impressive ‘nude’ of a woman reporting to ‘be’ Cleopatra under the main title card. Aside: for decades, speculation has arisen whether or not Colbert modeled for this shot herself. The low angle of the camera, the severe tilt of the actress’ head, and finally, the softly lit proscenium, further diffused by smoldering fire and smoke pots, makes it virtually impossible (even in freeze frame) to know for certain. If it is not Colbert, it remains an extremely bold and voluptuous opener to the picture nonetheless. Nothing – not even the orgy aboard Cleopatra’s royal barge, in which Antony is seduced – (as spectacular as this sequence remains), comes anywhere close to such cinematic daring. DeMille had one advantage here: the iniquitous behaviors in formally researched B.C. antiquity ran true to form. In the days before the Code, to misquote Cole Porter “anything went” in Hollywood. Afterward, artists needed a damn good reason to circumvent its precepts. Therefore, aberrant sexuality could be, if not excused, at least parceled off in controlled flashes of flesh, provided the sinners paid dearly for their indiscretions in the final reel. 
Oddly, in Cleopatra, love-making between the Queen of the Nile and Caesar is more circumspect than with Antony, a passion lent its full throttle/open-mouthed tilt. I suspect DeMille was testing the censors here – like a good orgasm – building gradually, before unleashing his climax. Until then, Colbert exudes a highly suggestive, playful wantonness, barely concealed in form-fitted and/or flimsy beaded costumes, a strip of satiny fabric, lazily strewn to conceal a breast, or the positioning of arms and legs to lend a ‘come hither’ enticement that is even more suggestive than the act we never get to see, though surely to follow. In the last analysis, DeMille won the war on Cleopatra, a rather enthralling tableau, produced right on the edge of Hollywood’s collective loss of creative freedom, destined to leave most every sexual taboo on the cutting room floor for decades thereafter. Joseph L. Markiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) may be lengthier and more resplendently tricked out in all the gaudiness its costlier 4-hour plus run time could provide, but DeMille’s far shorter ’34 version still remains the very best adaptation. It covers the same ground but with an economy of wit and style, easily to outclass all the soapy garishness that would follow it three decades later.   
Well, glory be! Has Universal Home Video turned another corner in their deep catalog mastering acumen? For some time now, I have lamented the studio’s decision to cut corners so severely that they went from creating lavishly appointed Blu-ray booklet ‘collector’s editions’ of some of their most treasured classics to releasing bare bones discs authored so crudely they could not even provide us with a main menu or chapter stops. And this, to say nothing of their willy-nilly ‘farming out’ of such high-profile titles as ‘Death Becomes Her’, ‘For Richer or Poorer’ and, ‘The Paper’ in horrendously authored 1080p offerings, cribbing from digital files at least two decades too old to keep up with modern expectations. But I digress. For its 75th anniversary, Cleopatra received a lavish restoration and clean-up. Alas, then, it was only made available on DVD. But now we have the Blu-ray. Has it been worth the wait?
In a word – yes! The higher resolution has produced an image that, while occasionally showing its age, has nevertheless been sourced directly from archival 35mm elements, digitally remastered and cleaned-up with noticeable improvements. All of the subtleties in Victor Milner’s spectacular use of diffusion filters are recaptured here, arguably for the very first time since the picture’s premiere. Where once we had to guess at the detail on tap under lower light conditions, the Blu-ray resolves both the picture’s grain and finer resolution into a finite science, revealing far more overall image clarity and, with minor exceptions, a lot of minute detail in background information. There are occasional hints of edge enhancement, particularly in the opening credits and sporadically scattered throughout the transfer thereafter. But these appearances are brief and never distract from the storytelling. Tonality in the grey scale is superb with bang-on contrast levels. 
The DTS 1.0 mono audio has been remastered for impressive clarity.  Extras are all hold-overs from the aforementioned ‘anniversary’ edition DVD and include a thoughtful audio commentary from F.X. Feeney as well as three featurettes: one on DeMille, another on Colbert, and, finally, a Coles Notes exploration of movies pre- and post the Production Code. None of these featurettes goes beyond the usual junket puff piece – disappointing, since there is so much good stuff yet to be unpacked. Bottom line: Universal has spent its money correctly – on Cleopatra’s 1080p remastering. The results are very impressive and will surely not disappoint. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

2.5

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