Cleopatra (Masters of Cinema) Review

Claudette Colbert is a rather suggestive Queen of Egypt, romancing Caesar and Antony, under Cecil B. DeMille’s direction

Innuendo-filled spectacle dripping with sex or jewel-encrusted camp that’s hard to take seriously? Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 version of Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert as the titular Queen of Egypt, might be considered (and forgiven) as both. Watching the film now, its eroticism still shocking yet never enough to fully offset how stiff of a history lesson it can sometimes feel like, there’s a tendency to be awed at least by DeMille’s audacity. He opens the film with a well-endowed female slave, chained and not clothed, holding a pair of incense burners as the title appears on the screen. Shadows and smoke are obscuring to an extent but the mood of film as fever dream is set immediately. DeMille shrewdly pairs history and sex in a manner so unmistakable that it would be impossible mere months after the film’s production, when the Production Code would finally be given some teeth by censor Joseph Breen.

Cleopatra was a last gasp of sorts at the naughtiness commonplace during the pre-Code era in Hollywood. The movie opened in October of 1934, after enforcement of the Code had taken effect, but was made prior to the July 1st adherence to it. This undoubtedly allowed DeMille and Paramount to package their film prominently with the lurid perversions available to the sort of powerful historic figures that are seen in the film. The character of Cleopatra is portrayed as a very knowing manipulator of men. She recognizes her sexual power and doesn’t hesitate to use it when necessary. Still, the picture does well in creating some ambiguity about Cleopatra and giving us the sense that she really does come to care about both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. There’s little doubt that she uses these powerful men of Rome as needed and for her benefit, but, as embodied by Claudette Colbert, Cleopatra comes across as reasonably sympathetic. She develops attachments which are genuine, even if her intentions aren’t always quite so sincere.

It’s through these bouts of terrible love afflictions where Colbert flexes most of her power. The amount of influence the actress has over the picture might sneak up on the viewer. In a way, she often seems to be a supporting player in her own movie, yet her presence eventually becomes the dominant one. First she’s overshadowed by Warren William’s powerful Caesar, but his death (spoiler alert?) midway through the film quickly lets Cleopatra reshape both her plan and her destiny. As his successor Marc Antony (ably played by Henry Wilcoxon) treads deeper down a similar path, the Egyptian queen sees a possible exit. The ambiguity over her ambitions for Egypt and herself becomes one of the film’s stronger points. You can point to different indicators for more than one intention but nothing ever seems settled.

Adding to the prevailing sense of uncertainty in the picture is a visual style which could be described as lavishly obscuring. It strongly makes the point of wealth and decadence in the art direction but then opts to work prominently with shadows, dark spaces and costumes which strategically conceal just enough to get by without further incident. Cleopatra is a giant tease, one might conclude, but what a glorious tease it can be. A particular favorite occurs when DeMille places a harpist in the foreground of a shot while Colbert lounges seductively further back. As we see fingers stroking the harp, the visual effect is of Colbert, particularly her bosom, being caressed by the harpist’s hand. It still feels daring. The heavy theme of eroticism could scarcely be more clear. DeMille is making history sexy, and he’s doing it less for the sake of art than box office.

Cleopatra, in its heart of hearts, is a devious corker unconcerned with much other than corralling the masses. Perhaps for that reason, it actually holds up admirably enough as an extravagant curiosity. Plagued by a facade of teaching as much as entertaining, the picture enlightens us to DeMille’s perversions while also providing a continually enjoyable experience. It’s, in a word, fun. We see menacing and maneuvering and power plays and the like, all in the comfort of our homes and 78 years after the fact and some 2000+ years after it actually (sort of) occurred. It might just be a miracle of progress, allowing for  the utmost appreciation and ogling this side of 1934. Had Cleopatra merely remained hard and fast to Egypt during her rule and never involved herself with Caesar and Antony then perhaps we’d have been deprived of the writhing and cooing inherent to DeMille’s version and reproduced so ably by the Masters of Cinema Series.

The Disc(s)

There are no less than three different iterations of this Region B MoC release of Cleopatra. One contains the film only on DVD while another is a Steelbook release with both Blu-ray and DVD editions inside the case. Presumable the most popular version will be the simple Dual Format one, which has both BD and DVD discs along with a lengthy booklet inside a standard, transparent case. Only the BD was sent along for review.

Image quality manages to impress, with just a couple of necessary admissions. The film is nearly eighty years old and, as such, exhibits a thicker level of grain than even a film ten or so years younger which we’d encounter on Blu-ray. The rendering here looks faithful and largely beyond reproach, yet it still feels obligatory to point out the graininess in comparison to many high definition offerings. As far as what could be done with such existing elements, I imagine that MoC played it as safe as possible and faithfully represented the materials they were given. On the whole, it’s a more than satisfactory example of bringing ’30s Hollywood cinema to high definition disc.

Audio, emitted via an English DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel mono track. is expectedly a bit tinny or unrefined. The methods of capturing sound were still in transition at this time so we must make do with what’s available. The good news here is that dialogue never proves to be a struggle to understand. And if there are any potential snags, English subtitles for the hearing impaired have been provided. They are white in color.

Extra features begin with a commentary by F.X. Feeney, who does a nice job balancing analysis and background of the film. This track, along with the trio of featurettes present on the disc, are ported over from the R1 75th Anniversary DVD Edition of the film released by Universal in 2009. (This was a separate, later release than the Cecil B. DeMille Collection, a five-film set which included Cleopatra.) The first of the featurettes, each of which runs about ten minutes, is “Cecil B. DeMille: Hollywood’s Epic Director” (10:02), featuring interviews with DeMille’s granddaughter, his biographer and other film historians. The “Claudette Colbert: Queen of the Silver Screen” (9:16) piece explores a little of the star’s life and career, including her ascent to stardom as a result of DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross and their later pairing on Cleopatra. “Forbidden Film: The Production Code Era” (9:46) is an informative, if brief, overview of the circumstances surrounding Hollywood’s self-enforced code. The film’s lengthy original theatrical trailer (4:15), featuring DeMille speaking directly to the audience, is included here as well.

A neat booklet containing words from DeMille’s own memoir and some writing by MoC principle Craig Keller on the film serves as a substantial supplement in its own right. It runs forty pages, with stills and credits for both the film and disc augmenting the writing. The excerpt from DeMille’s autobiography is kind of anecdotal and not what would be considered scholarly but interesting nonetheless. Keller’s riffing is less crystalline. He uses frames from the movie as illustration before invoking Shakespeare, Crowley, Anger and the Little Golden Book. Something for everyone.

clydefro jones

Updated: Sep 26, 2012

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