Cleopatra (1934)

April 27, 2007

Before Joseph Mankiewicz directed his extravagant, expensive version of Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, Cecil B. DeMille directed his own extravagant, expensive (though definitely not so outrageously so) version of the film cleo2.jpgstarring Claudette Colbert in 1934. I’ve never been a huge DeMille fan. I can appreciate his historical epics for their innovation and influence in cinematic history, but frankly, I think they’re usually pretty boring. On the other hand, I am a fan of Colbert’s work, and figuring that a film like Cleopatra depends a lot on its female lead, I thought this film just might be worth checking out. My reaction was decidedly mixed.

IMDB’s trivia page for the film contains only one item, which describes how a group of Italian critics at the time were so unimpressed by the film that they actually catcalled and heckled it as they watched. This, of course, sounded very similar to the reaction French critics gave in 2006 to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. In this more recent case, I believe the French were mostly upset at the film’s sympathetic view of the controversial monarch and its watering down of the historic context in favor of a human-interest story. While I could understand such a viewpoint, I actually thought Coppola’s film was good and that it offered a compelling view of the woman behind the queen. Now as I was watching Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Cleopatra the other night, I initially found myself agreeing with the 30s-era Italian critics. It seemed like DeMille had directed a rich historical story that had been hollowed out and replaced with a ho-hum script that sounded less suited for a classical Roman setting than it did for a trendy, twentieth-century parlor filled with debutantes. As the film wore on, however, I started to realize that Demille had similar intents in his film to what Coppola had had in hers. The historical events and all their grandiose repercussions were not so important to the director; rather he was trying to look at Cleopatra as a person and how the events occurring around her affected her on a personal level. While I still wouldn’t say I loved this film, once I recognized this fact, I began to appreciate it a lot more.

Though historical dramas may not perhaps be the best genre for Colbert, she does a pretty good job with the role given her. In fact, towards the beginning of the film, it hardly seems like she’s in a historical picture at all, cleopatra.jpgand one listening to the trite dialogue might think they were actually watching one of Colbert’s screwballs – if it weren’t for all the togas. As the film wears on, however, the character of Cleopatra rounds out fairly nicely, and we begin to see a woman who has learned from her past mistakes and consequently developed both in her public and private life. This character development is the centerpiece of the film, and DeMille surrounds it nicely with some truly lavish sets and costumes. And though Liz Taylor may have played the role while she was still pretty and not yet freaky, Colbert certainly is more believable in the part of the irresistable queen of mythic beauty.

My problem with the film is that the elements just don’t seem to gel together. The story and script simply do not fit with the historical setting, and the disjunction serves as an annoying distraction. For all the flack the later version would take for its over-bloated budget and off-camera shenanigans, at least it seemed to be a more historically rich film (which somehow just seems necessary in a historical epic). While I do like DeMille’s version better than some of his other films, and the scenery and costumes of Colbert are impressive, I’d have to say that otherwise, this is, to my mind, a fairly standard film that really isn’t all that memorable.