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A radiant Colbert and a model for Burton
on 19 February 2010
DeMille was persuaded to make 'Cleopatra' following the commercial and critical failure of his previous Colbert film ('Four Frightened People'); he was, it seems, advised to go make an historical epic, and make it sexy. This was at a time when the Hays Code was being introduced to cut out any morally questionable film making (no sex, no gory violence, nothing which undermined the virtues of marriage, etc.) The audience could still be titillated by historical epics, however - there was, after all, something uplifting about delivering classics.
'Cleopatra', here, is very much a vehicle for Colbert. She had had a rapid rise to stardom. A former Broadway actress, she benefited from the arrival of the 'talkies' - Hollywood scoured Broadway for stage actors who had commercial looks and voices, who could deliver a story on film. And Colbert made an immediate hit with her very sexy role in DeMille's 'Sign of the Cross'. By the time this film was released, she'd won an Oscar for 'It Happened One Night'. She was distinctly hot property, and she knew it.
Colbert is undoubtedly the star, but the film is sold as Cecil B. DeMille's 'Cleopatra'. DeMille, after all, was a superstar in his own right. This is not Shakespeare's 'Anthony and Cleopatra' or 'Julius Caesar', though it does owe much to these; it is not Shaw's 'Caesar and Cleopatra'. This is a film targeted at an American audience, delivered in American English, without any of the classical allusions or references of Shakespeare, and delivered in a language and style comprehensible to a mass audience.
Stylistically, it is pure 1930's. It may have Egyptian and Roman subjects, but the clothing and set designs, the hairstyles and images are all 1930's interpretations. The film roughly follows the historical story of Caesar, Cleopatra, Anthony, and Octavian, but without the baggage which might confuse the audience - Cleopatra does not have a child by Caesar, or children by Anthony, she is not portrayed as hated by the Roman people, there is no cultural struggle between Egypt and Rome, or between Egyptian gods and Roman ones, sophisticated political analysis of Roman and Egyptian kingship is absent. It's a love story, delivered in the exotic imagery and imagination of a DeMille movie. And, yes, it's dumbed down.
Caesar arrives to conquer Egypt. He will find himself seduced by Cleopatra. After his assassination, she will seduce Mark Anthony, the real love of her life. They are, however, doomed lovers. Fundamental plot, graphically delivered.
Colbert is radiant. Compared to the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor portrayal, Colbert is animated, energetic, dynamic, and deliciously sexy. She is far more convincing in the role than Taylor. Oh, DeMille clearly constructed the film as a vehicle for her - he gives her acting talent full rein ... she plays romantic comedy, she plays drama, she plays tragedy, she has her highs, she has her lows, beautifully pictured and framed throughout.
She enjoys an excellent supporting cast: Warren William as Caesar has real gravitas, and a chiseled granite face which looks like a sculpture; Henry Wilcoxon in turn cuts a ludicrous and a dominant Anthony - it's easy to believe that his image would act as a model for Burton, thirty years later; and there are beautifully judged performances by C.Aubrey Smith, Joseph Schildkraut, and Gertrude Michael. A strong cast allowed to play to their strengths.
We get lots of dancing girls, lots of spectacle. Well, what do you expect, it's DeMille. This is still early days - film making is still learning to adjust to the talkies and the use of sound: there are long periods of visual action without dialogue (on the assumption that audiences wanted to see a film rather than watch and listen to dialogue), there are some patches of heavily stylised and exaggerated acting reminiscent of stage or silent performances, and the pace of the film is relentlessly driven along by DeMille to ensure that the audience doesn't get bored.
DeMille frames his actors beautifully - the photography is no less exotic or colourful for being in black and white. The print quality is acceptable - it's a bit grainy at times, but contrast is excellent, and it is still a visual joy. Sound quality is fine - I didn't notice any crackling or distortion.
There are some extras offered up with this 75th Anniversary Edition - little 10 minute appreciations of Colbert, DeMille, and the Hays Code, plus the original trailer, and a commentary on the film by one F.X.Feeney. The commentary is interesting in places, but I was left feeling a more sophisticated appraisal might have served the production better.
All in all, a highly enjoyable and rewarding film to watch, the drawback for British audiences being that (at time of writing), it was only available as a Region 1 DVD, which might cause some potential viewers problems. Nevertheless, of the various cinematic explorations of Cleopatra, this is perhaps the most entertaining, even though it lacks sophistication in her characterisation, abandons historical accuracy, and simplifies the plot down to the lowest common denominator.