Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Cleopatra (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre

We drove up to Hollywood tonight for a wonderful evening at the Egyptian Theatre celebrating Cecil B. DeMille and CLEOPATRA (1934).

Traffic was light so we arrived with time to spare. We first stopped a few blocks away from the Egyptian so my 12-year-old could check out the Walk of Fame stars of two of his cinematic heroes (click to enlarge the photos):

Then it was on to the Egyptian Theatre. The perfect spot to see CLEOPATRA! Parking at the Hollywood & Highland Center a couple blocks away is just $2.

When we arrived a VIP reception with Leonard Maltin and DeMille family members was taking place in the courtyard. The first bit of good news we received is that sometime after we bought our tickets, CLEOPATRA became a free screening, so we were given passes to see a future film at no charge. (Hmmmm...DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS with Charlton Heston is playing in October...)

When we went inside Scott Eyman was signing his new biography of Cecil B. DeMille in the lobby. I had my copy signed and had the opportunity to tell him how much our family has admired his books on John Ford and Louis B. Mayer. (I should have mentioned Ernst Lubitsch too!) He is a very congenial gentleman, and it was a pleasure to meet him.

The program began with a greeting from DeMille's granddaughter, Cecilia DeMille Presley, who pointedly said that Eyman's biography was the only one that told the truth about Cecil B. DeMille. She introduced a six-minute short on DeMille which chiefly featured DeMille's son-in-law, Anthony Quinn.

The short was followed by remarks by Leonard Maltin and Scott Eyman. Eyman described CLEOPATRA as "one part Shakespeare, one part Shaw, and two parts DeMille." It was wonderful listening to two of our leading film historians, who are both knowledgeable and articulate.

After the film Maltin and Eyman returned to the front of the theater to discuss DeMille at greater length, and the evening concluded with Eyman answering questions from the audience:

As for CLEOPATRA itself...I'm not a particular DeMille fan, but I'm a Claudette Colbert enthusiast, and the movie blew me away. It's completely crazy and over the top, including some moments that were unintentionally funny (Henry Wilcoxon's Marc Anthony is a bit of a dolt at times)...but then on the other!!

This was a Claudette Colbert I hadn't seen before...she completely inhabited the bold, haughty, seductive -- and funny -- character of the Egyptian queen. And her gowns by Travis Banton...absolutely eye-popping.

Anyone who loves cinema has to see the exotic sequence where Cleopatra lures Marc Antony to her barge when he plans to imprison her following Caesar's death. She overwhelms his senses with music, dancing, feasting, and jewels, not to mention her own unique charms...he doesn't stand a chance. Again, it's completely over the top and a couple moments made us chuckle, but it also completely transported us to another world. The music was extremely effective, and the sets and the cast of thousands (well, hundreds)

There's a pullback shot at the end of this barge sequence that's a stunner; it's seen at the start of this YouTube clip. (There's tons of symbolism going on in that shot, but fortunately it sails over the heads of 12-year-olds!) It was so well done that it didn't even occur to me till after the movie ended that the long shots of the barge were a miniature.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a Depression-era filmgoer -- such as perhaps my grandmother in rural Oklahoma -- and what it would have been like to watch that sequence unfold. It was unreal. I'm very glad I had the chance to see it on the big screen with an appreciative audience.

Warren William plays Julius Caesar, who dies at the hands of Brutus (Arthur Hohl) surprisingly early in the film. I enjoyed the intersection of the plot of CLEOPATRA with Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR, including a character making a joke about Marc Antony's "Friends, Romans..." speech. Gertrude Michael plays Calpurnia, the noble wife who tries to save Caesar's life even after he's dumped her for the Queen of Egypt.

The section I enjoyed least was the fairly lengthy montage of the climactic battle between Marc Antony and the Romans. Not my cup of tea moviewise.

Things don't end well for any of the three lead characters, but that's known going in by pretty much any viewer with some knowledge of history. The staging of Colbert's last scene is another grand set piece; the final shot is haunting. As the doors closed and "The End" came on the screen, I once again said "Wow," which seemed to be my adjective of the evening. I suspect DeMille would have liked that reaction!

This movie was filmed in the spring of 1934; although it was released after the enforcement of the Production Code began in July 1934 and it bears a Production Code approval notice at the opening, it's very much a pre-Code film.

The supporting cast included Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, Ian Keith as Octavian, actor-director Irving Pichel as Apollodorus, and Sir C. Aubrey Smith as Enobarbus.

The huge cast also included Ian MacLaren, Claudia Dell, Grace Durkin, Eleanor Phelps, and Harry Beresford. John Carradine is credited as being a Roman soldier, and if IMDb is accurate, David Niven's in there somewhere as a slave!

One of Colbert's costumes was recently on display at a museum in Oklahoma; great photos are here.

CLEOPATRA runs 100 minutes. It was filmed by Victor Milner.

A 75th Anniversary edition of CLEOPATRA was released on DVD last year. (Update: CLEOPATRA is now also available in the five-DVD Cecil B. DeMille Collection.)

It's also had a VHS release.

October 10th Update: Leonard Maltin has now posted a review of Eyman's book as well as a brief account of the CLEOPATRA screening.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Oh wow! That sounds like a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing all of those photographs. Very nice! I love all the classic film screenings here in Boston, but you are very lucky to be near Hollywood where the events are even better.

Thanks for sharing this!

12:58 PM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Sounds like a great evening. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in October? I've seen it so many times but that would be a nice one to finally see on the big screen!

8:03 PM  
Blogger Matthew Coniam said...

Wow! I am SO jealous!
And now I have to get that biography...
Have you seen Sign of the Cross? From what you said about never having seen 'that' Claudette before; she's equally minxish in that!

12:16 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I can imagine how much fun that was. Thanks for taking us along.

4:48 AM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Thanks so much for posting this detailed report, Laura. It was almost like being there.

11:25 AM  

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