Sunday, January 8, 2012
Cecil B. DeMille returns yet again to the genre of historical epics by bringing to life the story of seductive Queen of the Nile in Cleopatra. Starring the lovely Claudette Colbert as the title character furthering an adult appeal to the actress who was most comfortable in silly comedies, DeMille continues to use her as a very sexually appealing woman who here brought great ruin to great men. Always trying to outdo himself the director brings even more lavish quality to the screen with some magnificent art direction and choreographed dances that would be somewhat new to him. The film would go on to be a classic picture, a large success, and would be remade three decades later in attempt to rekindle similar triumph.
Cleopatra is a historical drama based on the story of the legendary Cleopatra VII of Egypt as she uses her seduction to keep rule over her home country, bringing demise to the men that would help her. Claudette Colbert stars as Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. In a time where the Roman Empire creeps over the Mediterranean Sea and seeks to add Egypt to its ever expanding domain, the one person to stand in the way is Cleopatra. With her power of seduction she convinces Julius Caesar (Warren William) to allow her to remain in rule over her country. In the vote of no confidence towards seeing how Caesar is being manipulated, Roman senators famously murder the ruler in order to continue the greater good of the empire. Mark Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) takes over the supervision of Roman conquest of Egypt, but Cleopatra has him set for a grand seduction as well, by use of lavish, revealing clothing, her great wealth and power, and many haram girls to sway him into her doing. After passionate love, Antony fights along for Egypt against the new Roman Emperor, Octavian (Ian Keith). Mark Antony would die when he thinks Cleopatra has betrayed him, when she was in fact trying to save her new love from the sword, eventually she would committing suicide in light of the enviable conquest of her kingdom, concluding the tragic story of Egypt’s once great queen.
A film built with the instinct of being a large success, Cleopatra was produced with extravagance in mind. DeMille was the director of such lavishness in this period of Hollywood. Colbert was an actress in her prime years, becoming the dark haired sex symbol with American qualities (despite being born in France, she was raised in America), unlike Garbo or Dietrich. The set decoration was grade as oozed the art deco stylings that were popular of early twentieth century. Beside that were the sets of gander with many extras, which is even stated in the opening credits, and awe inspiring visuals meant to transport 1934 audiences to an exotic time and place. Here DeMille would continue to romanticize Roman culture, bringing a perception of elegance to an ancient culture that helped shape the western civilized world.
A story is told that DeMille was inspired to produce Cleopatra based off the 1917 silent version starring the exotic sex symbol of that time, Theda Bara. DeMille would screen a version for his staff in pre-production, using the original copy from the Fox archives due to a lack of existing copies. A fire would destroy this only existing copy in Fox’s archives in 1937, perhaps making DeMille’s screening the last showing of the 1917 picture; a sad story to going along with this version’s legend.
Besides DeMille’s name being the largest attracted to the production was Claudette Colbert, a sweetheart in American cinema. Usual seen in witty, romantic comedies such as The Smiling Lieutenant, Three-Cornered Moon, or It Happened One Night, Colbert was not seen as a sexually charged actor, that is until DeMille got his hands on her. She would be seen bathing in milk in DeMille’s 1932 biblical epic The Sign of the Cross, obviously meant to tempt any males in the audience. Here in Cleopatra Colbert was put in some of the most form-fitting and revealing costumes helping to portray the exoticness of Egypt and the seductive qualities that the queen possessed. She was being changed from just a star into a superstar, transcending her time in Hollywood with this role, becoming a symbol for the ages.
When talking about Colbert being so very important to the film, she would bring much trouble to the production of the picture. Aside from being ill for a period, setting back shooting dates for a time, Colbert had issues with her wardrobe that caused many headaches for production. Many times she would have her costumes adjusted complaining they did not fit correctly, causing countless delays in shooting. That would not be the only costume issue on set, as there were many worn by countless extras, a task that seemed to bear down on the costume department causing one costume designer to quit the production.
Colbert dominates the screen whenever she is on it, a powerful performance that went along with the art and costume decoration. Her performance was highly thought of, playing the role of a very powerful and independent woman. She would be remembered for her time as Cleopatra, but she would be nominated and win best actress of the year for her role in It Happened One Night with Clark Gable, a smaller picture she thought was nothing than as just as a cheap romantic comedy that happened, but to be the best picture of the year and considered one of the best of all time.
Continuing in this picture, like DeMille’s earlier film Sign of the Cross, Roman culture is romanticized, portraying higher Romans usually with British accents, a trend that would continue for many years in American film history. This would seem true in Cleopatra with the casting of Henry Wilcoxon as Mark Antony. Matured on the British stage, Wilcoxon was discovered in screening room by DeMille who happened to hear a screen test of Wilcoxon while waiting for use of the room. His British tone and good looks would win him the role after DeMille was helplessly mulling over the role, after considering other actors, such as Richard Dix and William Gargan. This marked Wilcoxon’s big break into Hollywood.
Rounding out the cast were other Hollywood veterans Warren William and Ian Keith. William played his usual sophisticated style while portraying Julius Caesar, proud but swayable, leading to his eventual murder. He would be paired once again with Colbert later in the year in Imitation of Life as her love interest. Keith was a legitimate character actor that DeMille must have liked from his role in Sign of the Cross, once again casting him as a Roman; this time is Octavian, successor to Julius Caesar.
The picture was produced coming into that interesting time just when the production code had taken effect, DeMille got away with more than he would be able to in the years to come. The female form many times is on display, including the movie title over a naked woman holding incense among other lightly clothed women throughout the credits. Colbert clothes left little to imagine of her form, literally hugging her as a second skin. These types of visuals would be hard to get on screen in the coming years with film censorship looming over Hollywood studios.
Cleopatra would go on to be one of the biggest successes of the year. Though there was no such thing as a “blockbuster” at that time, this film was close to it, bringing in large box office numbers and critical praise. Praise, however, would not come from Italy ironically, as it is said that Italian audiences and critics jeered at the film for its portrayal of its historical culture. Aside from Colbert’s nomination, the picture gained four more Academy nods for the year, in the categories of best picture, editing, sound recording, as well as winning for best cinematography. (No doubt something that was aided with the great visuals that were provided by art department.) The success of the picture would inspire 20th Century Fox in 1963 to remake the picture as a vehicle to make a large sum at the box office, casting the hugely popular Elizabeth Taylor in the title role. Despite many remembering that version the most, many may consider this version the finer production of the story.
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