Cleopatra (1934)

Cleopatra (1934), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

We know the story from history and two Shakespeare plays: Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra the VIIth in their struggle for love and power. None will survive their own stories.

Lavish production by the arch-showman DeMille, one of the original founders of Hollywood. He is not much appreciated as a subtle filmmaker, but he knew how to put on a show and entertain the audiences.

At the time critics blasted it for clumsy dialogue, but the director was using American idiom to make the production less traditionally stuffy.

Of the leads only Claudette Colbert gives what seems like a natural performance, the others having the stagey stiffness usual in costume pictures of that era. Her young queen is selfish and ruthless, loving Caesar for the sake of an alliance but finally realizing that he was too canny to love in return. She used Antony first for survival, then for power and finally really did fall for him.

As in Shakespeare's play she is a sexual dynamo: "she makes hungry where most she satisfies". Reflecting on her youth before Antony when she was more calculating: "My salad days, when I was green in judgment, cold in blood".

Colbert was in three films nominated for Academy Award Best Picture that year: this, Imitation of Life (1934) and It Happened One Night (1934), which won, and for which she won Best Actress.

We have the unexpected appearance of King Herod, the same who later received the wise men and killed the innocents in the Christian gospel. It is historically accurate: he was intimately involved with wars of Roman succession during that period and was installed in power by Antony. He stayed at Cleopatra's court and advised Antony to have her killed.

This is the last major film to slip in before the production code took effect. Some moments of battle violence and implied sex would not be allowed afterwards, but the main excess is the costuming. The women have bikini tops that show a lot of side- and under-boob, and the fabrics are sheer and skin-colored, giving an impression of nakedness with plausible deniability.

Available on Blu-ray with an appreciative and insightful commentary track.