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Cleopatra Movie Review

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1934 – Cecil B. De Mille –

Charlton Heston tells a great story in his autobiography about working with Cecil B. De Mille on The Greatest Show on Earth. One day De Mille was instructing the assembled cast when he noticed one of the extras in the back whispering to her friend. De Mille imperiously called her down, wondered what she could possibly have to say that was more important than his comments, and made her come before the entire company to repeat her words. The woman silently walked to the front and said clearly, “I was just wondering when that bald sonofabitch was going to call lunch.” To his credit, De Mille knew he had been had, suppressed a smile, and let everybody eat.

If only De Mille's epics had more touches of this same self-deprecation and less of the urge to make a Great Movie. The wit in this film, for example, often seems unintentional. Warren William plays Julius Caesar with a barking officiousness reminiscent of De Mille himself. When he comes striding into a gathering of Roman officials, you expect a chair boy with a megaphone to follow. (It may be the most revealing thing about this production that when De Mille visualizes the ruler of the ancient world he depicts him with the demeanor of an old-school movie director.)

But the film has genuine wit as well. When Cleopatra meets Caesar, she comes unfurling out of a Persian rug offered to Caesar as a present. (The writers misfired badly, however, by not making this great touch Colbert's entrance in the film; her few earlier scenes are disappointing.) Cleopatra's seduction of Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) is another highlight. She offers him “clams from the sea—they're catching them now; come and see.” Antony looks to see Egyptian slaves working a pulley attached to an enormous net. They swing the net over to Antony, and it opens to reveal five or six maidens clad only in clinging seaweed who squirm decadently at his feet and open clams filled with jewels. De Mille's sly gift for creating scenes of prurience and slipping them past the censor by putting them in biblical or historical contexts was never better displayed than here with its gaping cleavage and near nudity—quite surprising for 1934. Audiences who thronged to De Mille movies could tell themselves it was the respectable subject matter that drew them and then sit back and enjoy the contortions of the handmaidens.

The plot is structured around Cleopatra's two love affairs. The first with Caesar ends with his assassination, after which she learns that he had a greater interest in Egypt's wealth than in its queen. The second with Marc Antony is genuine, but the pressures of world politics eventually make them suspicious of each other. In one scene, a worried Antony sees Egyptian guards carrying away a dead man with the simple explanation, “The Queen is testing poisons.” The wooden performances of William and Wilcoxon hurt the film, and Wilcoxon's suicide-death scene is especially bad, with a lot of B-movie ranting. Even worse, he doesn't wound himself deep enough.

Cast: Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Warren William (Julius Caesar), Henry Wilcoxon (Marc Antony), Joseph Schildkraut (King Herod), Ian Keith (Octavian), Gertrude Michael (Calpurnia), C. Aubrey Smith (Enobarbus), Irving Pichel (Apollodorus), Arthur Hohl (Brutus), Edwin Maxwell (Casca), Ian MacLaren (Cassius), Eleanor Phelps (Charmion), Leonard Mudie (Pothinos), Grace Durkin (Iras), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Glabrio) Screenwriter: Bartlett Cormack, Vincent Lawrence , Waldemar Young Cinematographer: Victor Milner Composer: Rudolph G. Kopp Producer: Cecil B. De Mille for Paramount Running Time: 102 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1934: Cinematography; Nominations: Editing, Picture, Sound.

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