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DVD: Cleopatra (1934) | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Cleopatra (1934)

DVD: Cleopatra (1934)

Cecil B DeMille's vibrant, sexy Thirties epic looks as good as ever

Henry Wilcoxon's Antony falls for Claudette Colbert's flirty Cleo

Cleopatra didn’t hold a beast to her ass but in this lavish 1934 production, she could have. Cecil B DeMille amped up his two favourite topics - sex and sin - to create the world's second most opulent celluloid Cleopatra.

Cleopatra didn’t hold a beast to her ass but in this lavish 1934 production, she could have. Cecil B DeMille amped up his two favourite topics - sex and sin - to create the world's second most opulent celluloid Cleopatra. Scripted by Waldemar Young (grandson of Brigham Young) and Vincent Lawrence (who seems to have kept working after his death), this hysterically fancy film was "based" on an "adaptation" of historical elements by Barlett Cormack - this is shorthand for “we only used the shiniest parts of the true story”. 

Despite phenomenal art direction by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier, it is eclipsed by the 1963 version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - a film famous for extravagance and for almost killing the studio that gave birth to it. In sharpest black and white, this Cleopatra is a treat for the eyes as well as the imagination with some racy, suggestive scenes that wouldn’t go amiss in modern films like Alexander or Gladiator; although Cleopatra was released after the Hollywood’s Hayes Code was enacted, it was made before restrictions became law, so it is, in effect, a swig of fine champagne in the time of prohibition.  

Its star, Claudette Colbert, is mostly bare as the Egyptian queen who speaks with a 1930s clip and drawl - “What do you know. I had show after show with which to dazzle you.” This is grating not only to modern ears; the New York Times’ original review states that at times it seemed Caesar had a typewriter at his elbow. Cleo flirts with the magnificent ease of a woman who can conjure wet slavegirls from the sea (as she does) but also, pointedly, for love. Her victims are first Caesar (a hermetically sealed Warren William) then Antony, played by dishy British actor Henry Wilcoxon. The story is tragic but its end perfectly magnificent. (Over-relaxed American commentator F X Feeney says Colbert balked at a large snake offered by DeMille and accepted the smaller snake - the one the director had intended all along.)

With its a clever use of foreshadowing, startling set pieces, and a vibrant, sexy leading lady, DeMille’s Cleopatra is as good today - perhaps better - than first released. The Masters of Cinema version contains a few extras about the director and Colbert. The commentary is lax, with some snippets of information but sloppily delivered. Here, the extras are the only disappointment.

Watch the trailer for Cleopatra

It is, in effect, a swig of fine champagne in the time of prohibition

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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