Classic Musings: DeMille's Cleopatra ('34)

Though we've seen several strong on-screen projections of many dynamic historical figures, Cleopatra's story is one that's evaded an ideal translation. Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra, a grand and flashy exercise in production brilliance with Claudette Colbert in a non-stereotypical role, comes the closest.

When Elizabeth Taylor captured attention with her lavish projection as the Queen of the Nile in the '63 rehash of the story, she projected the character with leftover spunk carried over from her Cat on a Hot Tin Roof performance -- but didn't quite sell getting the viewer's attention in the way all the stunning cinematography and production design would've hoped. Even with a massive runtime, an infinitely escalating budget, and the essence of C.B. DeMille as a blueprint, it still couldn't step above being merely a spectacle of production design. Whether it was the emergence of firm concentration on women's right around the time or the director's sheer prowess as both a director and a circus ring leader of sorts, DeMille's Cleopatra still remains the best telling of the Egyptian queen's sultry chess game with Roman figures.

Taking place around 30 BC, a significant date in history, we follow Cleopatra's maneuverings as she worms into the heart of Julius Caesar by stroking his ego and indulging in his temptations -- all in a ruse to keep her installed as the ruler of Egypt in the midst of Roman civil war. Though she seems to be acting solely in Egypt's interest, there's no doubt that she's drawn to these powerful figures and, in most cases, allows emotional investment to also come into the picture. The successes of her power play for Egypt's longevity, however, begin to fritter away once Caesar falls in the Senate. She then must gather her composure and perform some on-the-spot thinking to keep herself poised in the center of boisterous, war-fueled Romans, those eager to purge their beloved network of feminine wiles and any other outside forces desiring to mingle within their infrastructure. Instead, she kills them with kindness, luring the likes of iconic lover Marc Antony under her whims as she struggles for the endurance of the Egyptian people amid political transition.

Likely, it's the substance of Cleopatra's nature that has withered some of the character's intrigue in cinema over the years. Though she's an empowered soul, she grabs a hold of feminine lures in order to get what she wants. Certainly, that has all but disappeared from modern culture, right? Wink, wink. Drink, dance, and riches are the tools of her manipulation, along with well-placed seductive glances from the corners of her deeply-shadowed eyes -- something directors like DeMille take artistic license with, but likely wasn't far off in the actual figure's repertoire of tactics. Her simple manipulators, however, also illustrate a paradigm difference between male-driven society and Egyptian culture during the time period, as well as showcase Cleopatra's intelligence through seemingly simple-minded, sex-fueled whims. It's an odd balancing act, as it communicates a skewed message: she's playing a smart game, yet also playing it with carnal motivators.

DeMille, completely in his element, knows exactly where to focus attention regarding this power structure, and does so magnificently with Claudette Colbert. Occurring the same year as her unexpected Best Actress win for It Happened One Night, she adds a slightly quirky allure to the character that makes it nearly impossible for the audience to resist her charm. She makes her wooing advances an entertaining, pleasant thing to watch, never dipping too far into vaudeville-inspired cheekiness to detract from the scene but never taking it too seriously to make it feel stiff. There's a certain "eat, drink, and be merry" demeanor about her whims that could get lost in trying to give the film a dramatic poise, but not in DeMille's hands. Colbert's stunning to watch as Cleopatra, both in her dramatic scenes and in her lighthearted moments.

She's almost the most stunning thing about the whole shebang, coming in right behind DeMille's signature lavish production concepts. Victor Milner won an Oscar for his cinematography in '34 for Cleopatra, and rightfully so; a big part of soaking in the film is rooted in bouncing the audience's attention from one stunning element to the next. The art deco set design in particular is enough to make modern designers quake in their boots, showcasing both lavishness and attention to detail in a way that bombards the viewer with intricate Egyptian and Roman design elements without feeling too overdone.

Intricate costume designs etch out its signature personality even further, especially Travis Banton's work draped over Cleopatra herself. Though her gold-encrusted gowns and headdresses are awe-inspiring, it's the incorporation of jet black into the grayscale image that really trumpets visual allure. But, more than that, her costumes are also surprisingly risqué for the time period, projecting designs that accentuate her form in ways that stay truthful to the open-airiness about Egyptian attire and remaining, just a pinch, on the provocative side. Claudette wears these garments with so much authenticity and gravitas that it really makes us grasp how she'd be able to swoon her way into grasping victory in testosterone-powered political endeavors.

As to be expected, Colbert's initial scene as Cleopatra wooing Marc Antony is a stunner. It's in this that DeMille almost works as the ring leader in a circus instead of as a legendary director. Before the eyes of two alcohol-infused and starkly different historical figures in the midst of a power play, he parades a pack of women mimicking the movements of cats and a stalwart pair of chiseled assistants supporting their dining table on their shoulders. It's a lengthy scene, one that aims to put both the audience in Marc Antony's seat as his metaphorical armor comes crashing down via an onslaught of jewels, maidens, and ego-stroking from one of the world's most powerful women. And it works.

Herein lays the challenge. Cleopatra has three focal points: the character herself, the lavishness revolving around her presence, and the men in her life swooned by her magnetism. It seems like each director that tries to tackle the story doesn't really know what to do with all-powerful yet easily-swooned men, and DeMille's Cleopatra is no exception -- though they're handled well enough to hold concentration. Essentially, they're lowered to the levels of pawns underneath Cleopatra's fingertips, which make it difficult to really buy into them being strong individuals since the entire story swings on their manipulation. Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon both present Caesar and Marc Antony with the right sort of gusto while upstaging other men, yet they both skew towards awkwardness once their temptress enters the room. As with most things revolving around DeMille's cinematic eye, both are visual spitting images to historical depictions (especially Warren William, who appears to be a near spitting image of Caesar) even if their projections aren't quite there.

Be that as it may, Cleopatra embodies the director's spectacular screen presence -- something that escalates further as treachery, war, and spurned love seep into the picture -- in a way that greatly overshadows its stumbles to become an enduring portrait of an oft-misrepresented historical figure. In the tradition of some of his more prolific works such as Ten Commandments or The King of Kings, firmly rooted in excellence with historical epics, it becomes an event picture that truly understands the mentality revolving around ancient extravagance. Cleopatra, more than anything, knew how to push buttons to get what she needed for herself and the country of Egypt, whether it be through matters of wealth or matters of the heart -- or both. DeMille's brassy style fits this attitude like a glove, which builds into a stunning film experience that hugely entertaining to behold. Is it a step-for-step mirror of Cleopatra's history? Nah, not really, but in DeMille's hands ... who cares?


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