by Allan Fish
(USA 1934 101m) DVD1/2 (France only)
I am dressed to lure you
p Cecil B.de Mille, Adolph Zukor d Cecil B.de Mille w Waldemar Young, Vincent Lawrence ph Victor Milner ed Anne Bauchens m Rudolph Kopp art Hans Dreier cos Travis Banton
Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Warren William (Caesar), Henry Wilcoxon (Antony), Ian Keith (Octavian), C.Aubrey Smith (Enobarbus), Joseph Schildkraut (Herod), Gertrude Michael (Calpurnia), Leonard Mudie (Pothinos), Irving Pichel (Apollodorus), Arthur Hohl (Brutus), Ian McLaren (Cassius), Edwin Maxwell (Casca), Eleanor Phelps (Charmion), Claudia Dell (Octavia), Robert Warwick (Achillas), Harry Beresford,
Here, quite literally, is the queen of guilty pleasures. After years of ridicule, de Mille’s films can be retrieved from the Room 101 they were unfairly sent to and emerge as among the most entertaining of their day. He was a master of artifice, though unlike say Von Sternberg, who revelled in artifice for its own sake, de Mille allied this to spectacle for its own sake. Cleopatra isn’t his best film – that’s The Sign of the Cross – but it was perhaps the last of real interest because it was the last made before the Hays Code enforcement of the summer of 1934. His later spectaculars, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments, since reclaimed by numerous filmmakers and critics, lack the opulent extravagance of his earlier films, perhaps because his favourite subject – sex – was forbidden after the Code crackdown. Those later films, for all their camp value, are rather stolid affairs, and lack the moments of genius that punctuate the earlier work.
The story of Cleopatra is well known from dozens of stories, histories, plays and films, from G.B.Shaw to Shakespeare, a character for the ages, the ultimate prototype femme fatale. There had been earlier versions, with Helen Gardner in 1912, and the much mourned Theda Bara epic from 1917 (lost in a fire in the late thirties), in which Bara’s costumes left even less to the imagination than Colbert’s. De Mille’s film was, in actual fact, no epic, weighing in well under the two hour running time and treated not like a big budget spectacular but like a contemporary historical drama, with Roman parties not dissimilar to twenties high society soirees, costumes which, in their often blatant décolletage and flimsiness, might be worn at the self-same modern gatherings. De Mille wasn’t unaware of irony either (as Sunset Boulevard confirmed), and there’s a wonderful opening scene where Colbert’s Cleo is tied up and told to reign over the asps and scorpions, as if predicting her own demise, while he has Caesar slain under the pedestal of Pompey’s statue, his old rival come back to tower over him in death. No opportunity to bring in the clichés of drama past is missed either; ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’, ‘Beware the Ides of March’, ‘Et tu Brute’ (or “you too, Brutus”) they’re all here.
The performances are variable, with Wilcoxon and William all wrong historically and Keith and Schildkraut deliciously villainous, but this is no mere history and they know they’re supports to Colbert, who looks good enough to eat, in her delicious, next-to-nothing costumes, while the sexual suggestion is a delight to behold. One thinks especially of one scene where Colbert is reclining on a couch with Antony on his knees beside her, and the camera tracks back behind a musician, who in strumming his instrument moves his hands over the strings directly in front of Colbert’s breasts, as if he is stroking her body in the style of a lover. And talking of lovers, there’s what Tom Milne called the “masterpiece of bordello art”, the barge seduction, with scantily clad nymphets emerging from clam nets, in leopard suits, from the top of pagan bulls and in orgiastic dances, while the curtains are drawn so Cleo and Antony can consummate their passion and the great barge goes on its rhythmic way along the Nile into legend. It’s the most sublime and o.t.t. piece of sexual bravado in Hollywood film, and brings the story back to the credit sequence where a topless attendant holds up incense trays to the audience as if in offering. A camp classic for all-time from a master storyteller; not for anyone’s ten best list, but for that island…hell, yes. It’s a film buff’s wet dream.