Friday, October 17, 2014

Cecil B. DeMille | Cleopatra

forget about love!
by Douglas Messerli

Waldemar Young and Vincent Lawrence (writers, based on historical material adapted by Bartlett Cormack), Cecil B. DeMille (director) Cleopatra / 1934

Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 extravaganza, Cleopatra, rightfully should be laughed away (which, upon several occasions it almost was in the showing I recently saw at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), mocked, even booed as it is rumored Italian audiences greeted it upon its first showing in that country. Despite his legendary role in Hollywood filmmaking, DeMille might have been better off as a grand wedding planner, an organizer of public provincial festivals, or a circus impresario (the talent for which he memorably displayed in his The Greatest Show on Earth)—he might have succeeded at nearly any grand task other than climbing behind a motion picture lens. 

Whether it was biblical tales, historical romances, or just plain modern-day domestic dramas, DeMille knew how to boil their plots down to the most hackneyed of stews; and in Cleopatra he had the great advantage of being able to combine Shakespeare’s agèd chestnuts with a peppery suet of George Bernard Shaw and fruity chopped up historical stories in order to create a mince-meat pie that perfectly suited his old-fashioned tastes.

     Letting loose entire choruses of nubile maidens swathed in swatches of sinuous, often see-through, sequined fabric, the director gave a prurient wink to the maddest of Hollywood decorators and set-designers who quickly corrected Cleopatra’s illegible hieroglyphs into fashionable Art-Deco domes.

     In order to seduce the woman-hating Roman, DeMille, confusing his story with an old fashioned burlesque, brings in a pride of fur-covered chorus girls, crawling on all fours like large cats, followed by an S&M-like whip-master to tickle their behinds just after lifting from the surrounding waters a fishnet full of cowering clams, holding aloft shells of jewels to symbolize what, with just a little pinching and pulling, the girls would willing to offer up.

     As Anthony, the hunky Henry Wilcoxon, drops his mouth and widens his eyes, Claudette Colbert purrs, “I was going to try to seduce you. But I now know that all of that is impossible”—or something to that effect. And when, a few moments later, the Egyptian slave girls pull out a large satin curtain to hide the inevitable tête-à-tête between Cleopatra and her new “master,” we are hardly surprised when the camera slyly pans down in the direction of the audience to reveal Apollodorus (Irving Pichel) beating out the rhythm for his oarsman to steer the queen’s barge back to Alexandria with her “captor” captivated withal. It’s clear the Hays folk, just recently established, thank heaven, hadn’t yet gotten their act together.

      Despite the preposterous pomposity of this and previous scenes, we too have somehow been tamed—or at least entertained—enough to hold back our snickers. If nothing else, we have to admit, Colbert’s Cleopatra is one smart beauty queen, worthy of every dollar the producers paid to so scantily clad her bod. After all, anyone who can declaim the line, “I admire men who don’t love women,” without a blink of irony, freezes all those who might declare this quirky work to be merely a piece of camp—straight in their tracks.         

     Besides, by this time, DeMille, who had apparently seen a couple of foreign movies, probably Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, soon after he plays out the entire battle scenes between Anthony and Octavian heading their Egyptian and Roman armies in a mad frenzy of montage.  Who cares if we can’t tell the difference between one side or the other? It’s a wow! Like filming in the old New York Hippodrome! Pure spectacle! Yep, DeMille can always be relied upon to give you that.

      Forget about love! Besides if we can’t be convinced that Cleopatra truly loved Julius Caesar or his far more handsome successor, neither are the historians certain that the Egyptian queen was simply struggling for her personal and country’s survival, or whether she had really gone “over the top.” If Colbert doesn’t quite have Garbo’s allure and her ability to assure us that every man is the one for her, she’s great at pretense, even when her servants spill the beans to Anthony that she’s testing out new poisons. Wow, can that gal down the wine! Even a Mormon might take to drinking with her across the plate. How could the apparent alcoholic Anthony resist? (a condition taken up, I might add, years later by Richard Burton playing the same role). And can she die?

     Once again gold ole Cecil was able to convince…this time persuading the snake-phobic Colbert to take up the asp by presenting her with a large serpent he’d borrowed from the Los Angeles Zoo on the morning of the shoot. Horrified by the heaving heavyweight, Colbert gladly grabbed the smaller species (appearing as a rubber recreation to these old eyes) and plunged it to her breast. Once more, DeMille knows how render unto Ceasar’s what will seize her—dragging in the entire Roman legion to move the camera gradually closer and closer to the queen before revealing that the stunning beauty sitting upon the throne is nothing but a corpse.

Los Angeles, October 16, 2014

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