Sunday, March 23, 2014

1934 - Cleopatra

It turns out that being up all night to look after a newborn baby creates the perfect opportunity for some movie-watching. I don't want to speak too soon, but there's a good chance I'll storm through the rest of this review year. Which is a good thing, considering I almost took a step backwards this past 12 months. Between last year's Oscars ceremony and the one just gone, I only reviewed a total of 11 films for this project, while the Academy added another 9 to my list. So, unless I plan on living another 150 years or so, I better get a wriggle on.

So, here's a look at another contender from the Best Picture race of 1934...


Cleopatra
Director:
Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay:
Waldemar Young and Vincent Lawrence
(based on an adaptation of historical material by Bartlett Cormack)
Starring:
Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Gertrude Michael, C. Aubrey Smith
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

As the title suggests, Cleopatra tells the story of the ancient Egyptian queen, played by Claudette Colbert, specifically covering the period of her two dalliances with Roman leaders. First, she seduces Julius Caesar (William), thereby ensuring she gets control of Egypt over her brother Ptolemy. But when Caesar's paranoid senators assassinate him, Cleopatra's broken heart is healed by meeting Marc Antony (Wilcoxon). Initially reluctant to her charms, Antony eventually falls for the queen despite the disdain of his countrymen.

With Cecil B. DeMille at the helm, you know it's going to be grand. And this picture epitomises 1930s Hollywood entertainment. There's a little bit of singing, a very impressive war montage - particularly the sea battle sequence using model ships - and they even manage to get in a circus act/dance number. The costumes are extravagant, some quite revealing, which is a little unexpected since the film begins with a title card confirming the production's adherence to the Hays Code. The code had only just taken effect, though, so I guess in the early days, studios got away with risqué clothing on their female stars.

The film does not include the most satisfying of endings. Instead, it is rather tragic and hopeless, but I suppose you can only fiddle so much with a historical story. And despite the fact that it was arguably eclipsed by the other epic adaptation in 1963 (which will also be covered by this blog at some point), this version's spectacle did indeed translate to box office success.

Also of its time is the acting style, seemingly out of place for a story set in ancient Egypt, particularly when the tone occasionally becomes reminiscent of screwball comedy. Then again, such was the standard in the 1930s, so what seems like screwball comedy to a modern movie-goer like myself was probably just par for the course to audiences of the time. Claudette Colbert is superb in the title role, oozing seductive charm while retaining a grounded power. Yet, despite the juicy Oscar-bait role, Colbert did not receive a Best Actress citation for this performance. Instead, she was nominated (and won) in the same year for a true screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (which will also be covered by this blog in the very near future). Joseph Schildkraut (pictured with Colbert) also delivers a brilliant, yet brief, turn as the devious Herod.

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