Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Cleopatra (1934)

It's been a little over a year since I mentioned the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton version of Cleopatra. The Egyptian queen's story has been told on screen multiple times, with another very famous version of Cleopatra having been made in 1934. That version will be on overnight tonight, or very early tomorrow morning depending on your point of view, at 3:45 AM.

A fair amount of the two stories are the same, since the movie is after all purporting to be a biopic. Cleopatra (played here by Claudette Colbert) is the co-ruler of Egypt, along with her brother, the latest in a long line of Ptolemys. But the two are fighting for control, and the movie opens up with Cleopatra and her advisor being banished to the desert, with the expection, Goldfinger-style, that she die.

Meanwhile, back in Alexandria, Julius Caesar (Warren William) shows up. Rome is the big cheese in the Mediterranean world, with Egypt being more or less a vassal. Caesar is told that Cleopatra has headed off to Syria, although we know that this is nonsense, and that she's going to show up. Sure enough, she does -- hidden in a carpet. Caesar sees Cleopatra, and is immediately taken with her beauty.

But, of course, there are a coupld of problems. One is that Rome isn't going to like the idea of having a nominally Egyptian (the Ptolemy line was of course from Greece) queen as Caesar's wife, since they're still technically a republic, although that's going to change in the near future. The other problem is that Caesar's wife Calpurnia isn't going to like the idea of Julius taking on Cleopatra as a wife. Beware the Ides of March, she tells him.

She is right, as we all know, since Julius got himself nice and stabbed to death by a conspiracy of senators. But what's a republic without a leader to do? Well, there was a triumvirate, although only two of the men really count. One was Octavian (Ian Keith), whom we know from history would go on to become an emperor, taking on the name Augustus. The other is Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon), who heads off to Greece since he drew the short straw of having to deal with that problem.

Antony, like Caesar before him, finds himself falling in love with Cleopatra, which is just as much of a problem for him as it was for Julius. It's going to end up disastrously for him at the Battle of Actium and, well, you probably know how the rest of the story goes.

Despite this being an "epic" directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it has a fairly short running time even for one of DeMille's standards of about 100 minutes. That's well under half the length of the Elizabeth Taylor version, but even a good deal shorter than DeMille's other movies. But what he gives up in the ability to draw out a story, he more than makes up in the visuals. The movie is stunning from the point of view of the sets and cinematography, even if the battles Antony wages at the end are footage reused from older movies. Right at the start we get a woman who sure looks naked with the credits over her, but that's just the way she's lit. And there's even some bombast in the storytelling, such as the scene where Cleopatra takes Antony on her barge and tries to woo him.

It also helps that Colbert gives a fine performance, as does Wilcoxon. Warren William is unsurprisingly miscast, but of course he drops out halfway through the proceedings. All in all, this version of Cleopatra more than holds its own, and is mercifully shorter than the later epic.

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