Cleopatra

1934, Movie, NR, 102 mins

Review

CLEOPATRA
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Opulent, totally satisfying DeMille, due in no small part to the vocal command and trickery brought to Cleopatra by Colbert, a surprisingly good choice despite her leanness and kittenish reputation. CLEOPATRA sails down the Nile with authority and majesty; it may well be DeMille's best film. William and Wilcoxon almost match Colbert; indeed, there's not a lemon in the entire cast. CLEOPATRA exemplifies DeMille's obsession with historical accuracy in setting and props. In one giant set crammed with hundreds of extras, as shooting was about to begin, he stopped everything when he spotted a small flagon 20 feet away. He walked over and picked it up, holding it aloft with disgust. It was silver-plated and represented an era much later than the setting of the film. But his commercial genius demanded liberal doses of sexual fantasy mixed with the historically faithful set designs.

Nowhere in CLEOPATRA is this so obvious as in the infamous barge scene, where DeMille's rendition makes Shakespeare's description look like TUGBOAT ANNIE. While Wilcoxon and Colbert recline aboard the queen's bordello on the sea, a huge net is drawn up from the sea, holding dozens of squirming almost-naked girls--DeMille's catch of the day--who offer Wilcoxon giant sea shells which spill out priceless gems. Then a veil slowly descends around Colbert and the bedazzled Wilcoxon, and DeMille cuts to a shot of the enormous pleasure barge being rowed by hundreds of slaves into the darkened sea, a drummer beating out the cadence of the oarsmen and suggesting the additional rhythm of the unseen seduction. It is DeMille's carnal poetry in action.

CLEOPATRA was a box-office smash, but the critics tore at DeMille for representing the historical characters as satyrs and nymphomaniacs. Some of his severest critics complained about the abundance of British actors dominating the CLEOPATRA cast, speaking with English accents. Some carped about the slangy dialogue. But DeMille knew his public. To the writers of CLEOPATRA, DeMille specified contemporary, vernacular speech. They gave him just what he wanted, and DeMille kept the film sizzling. That's no history lesson, that's entertainment! leave a comment

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