Cleopatra (1934)

by Paul on September 21, 2012

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Cleopatra (1934) tells the story of, well…Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) the queen of Egypt and her love affairs with both Julius Caesar (Warren William) and Marc Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon), as well as the crumbling of her rein due to her controlling relationships with both of these men. She begins her affair with Julius Caesar because she knows that hisCleopatra power can help her to become sole ruler of Egypt, and after Caesar is under her sexual spell, she gets exactly what she wants. When she goes to Rome with Caesar, he is killed and her life is in jeopardy as well. Marc Anthony takes on the burden of getting rid of her, but he also falls for her charms. They head to Egypt together where their decisions force them to fight against Rome in order to stay together.

There have been more than twenty theatrical movies about Cleopatra made in the last 105 years. The most famous of course is the 1963 version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, that starred Elizabeth Taylor in the title role. It certainly is the most complete and “thorough” of the movies, but if you watch the director’s cut it runs at 320 minutes, and seems even longer. The 1934 movie runs at a short 100 minutes, and legendary director Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t waste a second. He covers the entire story from start to finish, without dragging it out. Obviously having seen the 1963 film numerous times, I fully understood the story and that made DeMille’s movie easy to follow. For someone who hasn’t seen these movies I would recommend watching the 1934 Cleopatraversion first, and if you continue to be interested in the story you can jump to the 1963 version where you can feel as if you lived through these events personally.

Claudette Colbert makes a wonderful Cleopatra. She plays the seductive temptress well, and not only has the men in the movie captivated, but the audience as well. After filming, she decided she preferred not to be seen as a sex symbol and began turning down these types of roles. She’s the Queen of Egypt today and the Queen of comedy tomorrow. Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon have wonderful supporting performances, but due to their lack of screen time they are hardly remembered. Each of them is the leading man for half of a movie.

The highlight of the movie is in the “extras” that Cecil B. DeMille always knew when and how to use. The extravagantCleopatra sets and numerous costumes highlight every scene, especially on Cleopatra’s barge. He doesn’t go over the top, but he knows exactly how far he can go without seeming ridiculous. (Unlike the 1963 movie.)

Cleopatra was released just after the “Hayes Code” had been instituted, but DeMille still got away with plenty of sexuality that would soon disappear from American films completely. The costumes are revealing, and whenever possible DeMille filmed Colbert from behind as she walked away. The opening credits include the naked figure of a woman, cleverly lit to conceal showing “too much”. This would be the last time something this risqué would be seen in American cinema during DeMille’s lifetime.

The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The other highly deserving nominations were Cleopatrafor Film Editing (Anne Bauchens), Sound Recording (Franklin Hansen), Assistant Director (Cullen Tate), and it’s one win for Cinematography (Victor Miler). Claudette Colbert wasn’t nominated for Best Actress because she was already nominated for It Happened One Night, for which she would win. If there had been a category for costumes in 1934, Cleopatra surely would have won that as well.

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