[Above: How do you like this movie still? Strangely, the two principals are not even looking at each other. Claudette is spying something fascinating off in the ceiling, and Mr. Wilcoxen is vaguely concentrating on some detail in Colbert's Cleopatra headgear. ]
Although DeMille spent a great deal of pre-production time conducting research on Cleopatra and having life-size Roman and Egyptian artifacts built, the story itself seems to be borrowed heavily from Shakespeare or perhaps other stage plays, with a dose of Depression-era attitude evident specifically in Colbert, who plays a gal who can take anything life throws at her, and whose own suicide is played as a clever triumph over one more foolish Roman, out of a whole cast of Roman men who don't measure up. Claudette Colbert also made Imitation of Life and Frank Capra's It Happened One Night the same year as Cleopatra, and of the three, she is certainly playing her strongest character here. She has more spine than all the males leads put together, and more brains, too. More nimble as an actress, Colbert seems quite fluid compared to a certain amount of woodenness that keeps both Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon (who scowls through much footage, but with a lot more humor than the 1963 Richard Burton Cleopatra) from competing evenly in the spectacle sweepstakes.
There is something about the historical figure of Cleopatra which brings out the opulent and over-done in Hollywood. It was likely inherited from Victorian-era historical painting, where the adventures of Cleopatra and her (imagined) skimpy costuming (or no costuming whatsoever - - apparently there wasn't any sunburning in ancient Egypt) was featured in a number of famous paintings of the late 1800s. Below is a relatively tame one by Arthur Bridgeman.
[above] Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928)
Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae
Oil on canvas, 1896
The overstuffed decorations of academic painting and theatrical set design influenced the early Hollywood set designers, but no one really knew how to make it all work along with the (then) modern technology of motion picture photography like Cecil B. DeMille. The gloss on the pictorial quality of the Claudette Colbert in CLEOPATRA of 1934 is unique and stunning. I have heard of how the cinematographers who made movies like those early 30's films died knowing how to do things that have not been duplicated since by modern cameraman. Not that those secrets were so closely guarded, but that they seemed so unneeded when Hollywood turned to color so completely in the 50s-60s. Too bad! DeMille's Cleopatra is so perfectly realized in scene after scene for sheer image quality that it easily outdoes the multi-hour color version made 30 years later with Elizabeth Taylor. (And that's saying a lot, because the later film has the record as being the most expensive film ever made, adjusted for inflation.)
The film is essentially about Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra struggling to find love and time for dozens of costume-changes while simultaneously earning the ire of Rome's citizens because she seduces Julius Caesar (Warren William), and then after his death, Mark Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) and hopes to partner with either one (or maybe anyone) to conquer the world.
She's smart, amiable, a little power-mad, and a woman from Egypt - - all of which is enough to make Rome madder and madder, and it all comes to ruin when Mark Antony uses Egypt's armed forces to attack the Roman fleet at Antium and loses.
Cleopatra then rushes off to Octavian, who is now running Rome, and cooks up a deal to save Antony's life (well, he did commit treason). When Antony finds out Cleopatra has been to see Octavian, he assumes the obvious thing and kills himself, but does not expire until Cleopatra makes it back in time to set him straight about her true love for him.
Forthwith, troops from Rome show up and attack, and Cleopatra commits suicide using an Asp snake before she can be captured.
C. Aubrey Smith is on hand as the Roman general Enobarbus. Smith is a character actor with a physical architecture that allows him to easily keep pace with Warren William and the beautifully young Colbert, all three reminders that film acting is half just how you look (maybe it's not half, but if it is, these three are certainly geniuses of drama.)
There's simply not enough story in DeMille's Cleopatra to fill out the visuals, and on those merits the movie could easily be panned by anyone who takes only the strength of story, dialogue and acting into consideration when rating a film. But that would be to ignore what a Demille film is all about! (They certainly seemed to concentrate hard on DeMille's movie when the Elizabeth Taylor version was made, co-opting quite a lot visually and in story.)
The film was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, but only cameraman Victor Milner won (for cinematography). Though a big money-maker for 1934, the film is now not particularly well-known, and is completely overshadowed by any number of other films from that year (like the afore-mentioned It Happened One Night). It is peculiarly of it's era, and very definitely a product of Cecil B. DeMille. It's visuals have been influential, though, as both any number of big spectacle costume-dramas that followed can attest, along with other unusual items (see, for example, artist Frank Frazetta's "Egyptian Queen" painting.)
The Oscar nominations in other departments were: Best Picture; Sound Recording by the Paramount Studio Sound Department directed by Franklin Hansen; Film Editing by Anne Bauchens and Assistant Director Cullen Tate.
Though not nominated for an award, a standout for the film is the art deco design influences on the sets by Art Director Hans Dreier.
Be sure to take a look at the David Claubon web site for an analysis of Colbert's costuming for this film here.
A page which compares the various presentations of Cleopatra from various films is at makeupgallery.info
Original Page November 2006