When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.
While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankeiwicz version, I’d have to give the edge to Claudette; Liz may be more voluptuous, but Claudette’s definitely a more playful, tantalizing Cleo. And as for that famous milk bath scene, well…
Cleo’s two lovers are both well cast, with smooth Warren William making a sturdy Julius Caesar. When her hopes to rule Rome alongside Caesar are dashed on the Ides of March, Cleo sets her sights on warrior Marc Antony, played with boyish enthusiasm by Henry Wilcoxon. She seduces him with wine, food, and her undeniable charms, gifting Antony with “clams from the sea” (in which a net is hauled up filled with writhing mermaids bearing shells filled with jewels), then celebrating with the bizarre tableau of dancing cat-women being whipped by a burly soldier! Who can resist a pitch like that!
There are tons of Familiar Faces in this one, including Irving Pichel as Cleo’s confidant Apollodorus, Gertrude Michael as Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, C. Aubrey Smith as Enobarbus, Ian Keith as Octavian, Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, and Richard Alexander, Lionel Belmore, Edgar Dearing, Claudia Dell, William Farnum, Edwin Maxwell, and Leonard Mudie in various roles. Look fast for a young John Carradine among the cast of thousands.
Cecil B. DeMille certainly knew how to hold an audience’s interest. Whether it’s in the battle scenes containing much carnage (and, truth be told, much stock footage), or in all the half-naked women, the film is a visual delight, even when Claudette’s not on the screen. Nobody captured the decadence of ancient times quite like DeMille, and CLEOPATRA’s got decadence to spare, coming right before Will Hayes began his puritanical reign of terror with the Production Code. It was nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Assistant Director, Sound Recording, Editing), winning for Milner’s cinematography. Conspicuous by it’s absence on that list is Claudette Colbert’s performance, but I don’t think she minded; she won that same year for the screwball classic IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.
The 1934 CLEOPATRA is half the length of the ’63 Liz & Dick opus, and is a whole lot more fun. Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t get much attention these days, but he was unquestionably one of Hollywood’s most important figures, and this film is a great example of Pre-Code excess. I was as mesmerized by Claudette Colbert’s star turn as I was by DeMille’s epically delicious debauchery. I think you will be, too.