An Epic Opening Night: Cleopatra on the Ides of March by matthew c. hoffman
March 15 was our biggest premiere ever for the Park Ridge Public Library’s Classic Film Series. Cleopatra (1934) deserved nothing less than long lines and standing room only. We brought in crowds that DeMille himself would’ve been proud of. It’s a testament to the film that some in the audience even stood during the entire presentation. The following is a transcript of my talk on Cleopatra…
Before I begin, I would like to mention someone who is not with us here tonight. Last week I mailed a film brochure to one of my regulars who attends these programs, and he also supported me when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house in Chicago. The envelope was returned in the mail… I discovered that last summer he had passed away at the age of 80. His name was Bob Rosterman. Bob didn’t have a computer, so he used to send me various news items in the mail on actors like Fredric March and Ronald Colman. Bob was a classic movie historian and knew the film business. However, he did not like movie serials, so I’m sure he would’ve given me a hard time for playing an episode of Flash Gordon in this series. One of his favorite films was Gone With the Wind, and the last time I spoke to him he was telling me about a special screening of that film he would be attending in Atlanta. Bob will be missed…
Art Deco, which is what this entire series is about, was not confined to the contemporary settings of the 1920s and ‘30s. It manifested itself in the ancient world as well. Egypt had influenced the emergence of Art Deco, and now Deco has influenced Egypt. Tonight’s film is perhaps the finest example of Modern decor in a film rooted in the distant past. The streamlined throne of Cleopatra– designed by art director Hans Dreier– and the sleek costumes– designed by Travis Banton– reflect a Modern style. Art Deco radiates off the screen in this film. It’s not surprising given the background of director Cecil B. DeMille, who had made several Art Deco-styled social dramas in the 1920s.
DeMille is primarily known today for the Biblical epics he made. He once famously said, “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” But his career was much more diverse than that. His first film, The Squaw Man, in 1914, was actually a western– and the first film shot in Hollywood. He was a director of society dramas, Jazz Age comedies—even bedroom farce, and you’ll see that later in the series when we play Madam Satan, which is also a musical. But DeMille was clearly in his own element making epics because the genre was suited to his over-the-top style. Cleopatra is considered one of his best films. There is no sermonizing, no sentiment. Its romantic qualities are what make it endearing to modern audiences.
Cleopatra benefits greatly from Victor Milner’s cinematography, and he did win an Oscar for it. Milner’s camera captures the timeless quality of the Queen of the Nile—a historical figure who has for generations inspired painters, writers, and filmmakers. One of the most striking shots in the film comes at the end of the seduction scene aboard a barge. A curtain closes on the lovers Antony and Cleopatra, and then the camera gradually pulls back to reveal the oarsmen and the beat of a drum. It’s the quality of the image that makes this film so cinematic. Throughout Cleopatra there is a visual sophistication at work as to how shots are framed. Note the visual metaphor of harp strings being caressed while Antony and Cleopatra relax in the background.
Hand in hand with the cinematography is the art direction by Hans Dreier. Born in Germany and influenced by the Bauhaus school of design, Dreier started in the famed UFA studio before emigrating to the United States in the late 1920s. He would go on to work on many of Ernst Lubitsch’s most famous films in the early 1930s. The continental elegance of Paramount was largely the work of Dreier. He gave the films a distinctive glow. Dreier designed eleven films for Cecil B. DeMille, and he would win three Academy Awards for Art Direction throughout his career. Some of his best work in Art Deco can be found in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, which I had played in my pre-Code film series exactly two years ago.
But greater than the sets are the stunning images of Cleopatra herself. She is played by the French-born, New York-raised Claudette Colbert. She was a former Broadway actress who became a major star at Paramount where she excelled in dramas and screwball comedies. She would in time become the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Colbert had a very good year in 1934, having appeared in three films that were nominated for Best Picture: Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and It Happened One Night, which did win the Oscar. Colbert was at her best when she won for Best Actress in the Frank Capra film. In tonight’s film, she plays Cleopatra as a woman both alluring and cunning, whose political power comes from her ability to seduce. Colbert exuded an authority on-screen which separated her from many of her acting peers.
During the making of Cleopatra, Colbert was still recovering from the effects of appendicitis suffered during her previous film, Four Frightened People, which was shot in Hawaii and directed by DeMille. For Cleopatra, she had to find the strength to overcome her fear of snakes. In Empire of Dreams, author Scott Eyman writes that DeMille “knew that she didn’t like the idea of handling snakes, even so small a snake as the creature that was playing the part of the asp with which Cleopatra commits suicide. DeMille solved the problem by walking onto the set holding a five-foot-long California king snake, ominous-looking but harmless. Colbert was appalled. “Oh, Mr. DeMille, I couldn’t touch that snake! I couldn’t possibly. Please don’t ask me to.” At that point, DeMille handed off the king snake and brought out the small snake, “Oh, that one?” exclaimed Colbert. “Why, that’s just a baby!”
Having once considered a career in fashion design, Colbert was not at all happy with the costumes designed by DeMille’s staff. She insisted on Travis Banton being brought in. Banton was considered one of the finest fashion designers of the 1930s. He basically designed on the spot and turned out magnificent Egyptian headdresses and revealing costumes for Colbert. Her costume changes, like her grand entrances in this film, come quite often and are all memorable.
Warren William’s Caesar is warned of the ides of March…
Warren William portrays Julius Caesar. William came over from Warner Brothers where he often played amoral cads in various pre-Code films. One of which I had wanted to play in this series, Skyscraper Souls, but it’s unavailable on dvd. There’s a terrific book out on him called Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of the Pre-Code Hollywood. He really had an interesting life as an actor and also as an amateur inventor, having designed essentially a vacuum cleaner for leaves similar to what landscapers use today.
Henry Wilcoxon was an English actor who was discovered by DeMille quite by accident. One day while in the process of casting Cleopatra, DeMille was waiting to use the projection room at the Paramount studio when he recalled hearing a masculine voice from the test film being played. DeMille inquired as to whose voice that was. He was told it belonged to a stage actor from London by the name of Harry Wilcoxon. At that moment, as the story goes, DeMille knew he had found his Marc Antony. Wilcoxon would star in other DeMille films such as The Crusades and eventually became an associate producer for him.
Other notable performers in tonight’s film include character actors C. Aubrey Smith, who always had such commanding presence and who gives a poignant performance here as Antony’s top Roman general, Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, and Irving Pichel as Cleopatra’s advisor. Pichel also had a career as a director and he co-directed 1935’s She, which we will see later in this series.
It’s been said that Cleopatra is one part Shakespeare, one part Shaw, and two parts DeMille. It certainly has all the hallmarks of a DeMille production in terms of extravagance and spectacular set pieces like the royal barge. According to a film teacher who has written me recently, the barge sequence, which features such oddities as a fishing net full of half-naked girls, always gets the attention of younger film students when it’s shown in class as an example of the difference a director can make. Cleopatra doesn’t go as far as 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, which is a pre-Code classic, but it’s still suggestive in a toned-down way.
This was actually one of the last films made before the Production Code went into effect. It was shot in March and April of 1934 and released in August. The Production Code took effect on July 1st, 1934.
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Cleopatra: “Together we could conquer the world.”
Caesar: “Nice of you to include me.”
One of the criticisms of the film is that the dialogue has that ‘30s attitude. It’s not how characters would have talked at that time. But in a way, that approach makes it more immediate for contemporary viewers. To feel anything for characters so far removed from the present is a challenge, and perhaps if the dialogue had been more historically accurate it would also have been more emotionally distant to DeMille’s audience. This isn’t Shakespearian dialogue written for the stage. It’s movie dialogue for the screen, and it makes the characters more human. The same could be said of the acting itself. Colbert seems more a product of New York than the Nile. In the book Screen Deco, Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers write: “Regardless of the historical period in which a film is set, contemporary styles seep in, if only in the acting. Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra behaved like the clever mistress of an out-of-town tycoon, but a more regal interpretation might not have seemed effective to 1934 audiences.”
But you don’t watch DeMille’s films for their historical accuracy. His relevance as a filmmaker was not in creating realism; it was in how he represented a historical event the DeMille way. He was theatrical and direct as a storyteller. The film opens with all the energy of his silent film technique. No words are necessary. We are immediately involved, racing along with the speeding chariots.
Of technical interest, I’d like to note that there is a montage sequence in this film during the Battle of Actium which involves process shots and old footage from his silent version of The Ten Commandments. It’s interesting that the great production designer William Cameron Menzies worked on this sequence. It’s the only time he collaborated with DeMille. Whether this condensed battle is effective or just repetitive with little drama, you can decide for yourself. This pivotal confrontation certainly felt more epic– and even more intimate– in the generally inferior 1963 remake of Cleopatra with Richard Burton’s Antony charging out alone on his horse to meet the Roman army. By contrast, the confrontation and battle in DeMille’s film does not feel epic in scale. Only a few brief shots tell us it’s even a sea battle. I would assume that only budgetary constraints kept him from making the kind of sequence he was certainly capable of putting on the screen. Had DeMille lived long enough, I wonder if he would’ve considered remaking Cleopatra in color and CinemaScope.
There’s a reason DeMille’s films still hold up all these years later; they are monuments that will withstand the test of time. It’s a reflection of his skill as a director that this version of Cleopatra is the one most fondly remembered. And like Cleopatra putting on a show for Antony on her royal barge, DeMille always put on a show for his audience. He spoke in a language the public would understand. With the ultimate goal to entertain, he brought to life the myth and majesty of a distant, romantic past.