Cleopatra (1934) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon (100 min).

A shimmering Art Deco spectacle made for the big screen, DeMille’s canvas dazzles with everything from a series of erotic revels on a barge to a clashing Roman battle.  Colbert slinks in her barely there lame, beads and satin, delirious Egyptomania courtesy of Travis Banton, “he produced one of the most extravagant wardrobes in the history of the movies” (Dressed by Deborah Landis). Print from the UCLA Film Archive.

DeMile’s success in the silent era was based on racy dramas with titles like Male and Female, The Affairs of Anatole and Why Change Your Wife?, as well as with Biblical epics like King of Kings and The Ten Commandments.  Many of his films in the early talkie era were modern dress, like Madam Satan and Dynamite, and his last two prior to Cleopatra, This Day and Age and Four Frightened People had not done well.  The head of Paramount, Adolph Zukor, “issued an ultimatum to do a historical picture with plenty of sex” (Edwards 132). Freed from any worry of offending Judeo Christian clergy, Cleopatra would be spectacular, sensual, and campy, rather than the carefully researched historical document he solemnly promised, as he indulged all his Orientalist fantasies.

You may be rather surprised to discover, I certainly was, that the DeMille version of the story of Cleopatra is more or less historically correct.  Cleopatra was in her early 20s when, scheming to gain the Egyptian throne, she enlisted the help of Julius Caesar.  According to historical sources, the Greek (not Egyptian) queen was “intelligent, witty, ambitious and of magnetic charm, she was also murderous, even with her own family, but possibly not as depraved, cruel and unscrupulous as historians such as Josephus suggest” (Fraser 30). She had one child with Caesar, and three with Marc Antony, she was with him for 12 years.  Fraser particularly likes (from a historical standpoint) her entrance into Rome, with the teeming narrow streets and the gaping crowds. Still, his fidelity to history “was liberal” as one co-worker remarked.  “Dates, sequences, geography, character and names were bent to his needs.  Yet, at the same time he was an undeviating realist about details.  Harnesses had to be exact, wagon wheels, pots, weapons and costumes of museum accuracy” about which claim, more later (Essoe and Lee 147).

DeMille and his airplane?? (From Essoe and Lee).

He wrote to his niece, Agnes, “The treatment may be a little startling to you at first, because it is neither the Shavian (George Bernard Shaw) or the Shakespearian treatment.  It is an endeavor to humanize characters, and…I am confident that I am giving the characters their first really human chance.  They have always been ponderous and pompous, villains and heroes” (Birchard 276).  He screened the 1917 Cleopatra starring Theda Bara for inspiration.  One author speculates he may have been the last person to see it, as all prints were destroyed by a fire in a Fox warehouse in 1937.

The film was made for under $1 million, which accounts for the rapid cutting of the battle scenes, which were mostly assembled in the special effects department.  He shot the film in a quick 8 weeks, between March and May 1934, just beating the enforcement of the Production Code on July 1. Claudette Colbert was his first and only choice for Cleopatra.  She had campaigned forcefully to play “the wickedest woman in the world” for DeMille in the The Sign of the Cross, (1932) in which she took a bath in asses milk, establishing herself as a sex symbol.  Frederic March, one of her co-stars, said of her, “She had a wonderful gaiety, a peerless sense of fun, and her chemistry was a marvel.  There was a tremendous smoldering sensuality to her…but Claudette Colbert had a lot more to offer than mere sex appeal and romantic allure, she was a wonderfully intelligent conversationalist, a really brainy woman, and she had humor and vitality” (Tapert 170).  Later in 1934, she starred in the prototypical screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, for which she would win an Oscar, changing her career trajectory permanently.

De Mille toyed with idea of Adolphe Menjou for Caesar, although, with his rather seedy on-screen image as a lounge lizard, he was quickly nixed.  Then, he considered Richard Dix and Charles Bickford (with whom he had just worked in Dynamite) for Antony and was disappointed at not getting Frederic March.  Instead, he has Warren William, an expert in the Pre-Code era for his suave seducers and unscrupulous con men, as Caesar, and the stolid but hunky newcomer Henry Wilcoxen as Marc Antony. To DeMille’s great satisfaction, two hairdressers and a script girl fainted the first time Antony kissed Cleopatra (Bailey 281).

Warren William as Caesar

Wilcoxen was taken aback at the realism he demanded in the battle scenes.  “Get in there and fight like you mean it!  You’re not supposed to be playing!  You’re trying to kill each other.”  Picking up spear and shield, he charged into demonstrate.  The weapons on his sets, including the swords, were real, and really dangerous.  During filming, Wilcoxen was cut to the bone on one of his legs, and the end of a little finger chopped off (Essoe and Lee 139).

The magnificent scene on Cleopatra’s barge, as she beguiles Antony and a gigantic crane shot pulls back to show her mastery of sexual statecraft, still brings chills after 80 years.  De Mille had hired his niece, Agnes, to choreograph the dance that would distract and conquer the conqueror.  Agnes DeMille, of course, would revolutionize American dance with her ground breaking choreography for Oklahoma.  But, in 1934, she was just Uncle Ce’s niece, subject to his authority. “Cleopatra is here putting on a show deliberately, with the intention of so astonishing the tough, hard soldier Antony that he will have to remain long enough for her to get in her deadly work.  This entire barge sequence should be the most seductive, erotic, beautiful rhythmic, sensuous series of scenes ever shown” (Birchard 279).  He asked her to come up with a concept, but he already had his mind made up about what he wanted, which included having her ride naked on the back of a live bull.  She declined to “dance dirty.” She wanted to create “something mysterious, beautiful, new.” If she was going to get her chance, she had to do the dance on the back of the bull.  Sponged brown, her hair greased back, her eyebrows plucked out, wearing a brief costume that included a tiny gauze skirt, and for the top a jeweled collar held on by surgical tape she began her dance under the eye of the on-set censor.  Halfway through De Mille stopped her, “Oh, no! Oh, no!…I am so disappointed!…it has no excitement, no thrill, no suspense, no sex…What I would like is something like the Lesbian dance in The Sign of the Cross.  Having disparaged her ideas in front of the entire company, he fired her, a humiliation for which she never forgave him (Edwards 136).

DeMille saved Cleopatra’s death scene for last because Colbert was terrified of snakes.  She refused to do the scene with a live snake, and DeMille said that if she didn’t she couldn’t play the part, so they put off the confrontation until the end.  On the day of filming, he arrived on the set with a gigantic boa constrictor on his shoulders.  He approached Colbert as she shrieked in protest, and when he got near her he revealed a tiny garden snake behind his back.  “How about this one”” he asked, and relieved, she accepted the smaller reptile for the scene (Essoe and Lee 147).

Travis Banton, who designed her dazzling wardrobe, first arrived at Paramount in 1924 from the Madame Frances salon in New York City. He had studied at the Art Students League, and also worked for the prominent couturier, Lucile, At Madame Frances; one of his bridal designs was chosen by Mary Pickford for her secret wedding to Douglas Fairbanks.  He was born in Waco, TX, but when hired by Paramount to design, “The Dressmaker From Paris” he was promoted as a famous French designer, and paid $150 a week, the usual salary at the time was $20.  He worked with the studio’s lead designer, Howard Greer, who not renew his contract so as to open his own couture house, Banton became the studio’s lead designer and fashion dictator.  “He was a god there” said his assistant, Edith Head, “nobody dared oppose him about anything, including the budgets” (Chierichetti 50). He had an instinct about what would make the Paramount leading ladies look their best. The sexy bias cut gowns he made for Colbert’s Cleopatra fit like a second skin, their Art Deco Egyptomania the most striking design aspect of an epic film.

Henry Wilcoxen and Claudette Colbert

Her gold lamé dress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There were so many costumes that it took a whole staff to design them, including Ralph Jester, Shannon Rogers, Vicki and Natalie Visart.  Thousands of costumes were needed on the cheap. “We made sleazy little bras and skirts on elastics so they could fit anybody” said Rogers (Chierichetti 64). His cutter and fitter, Ilse Meadows, was responsible for making his sketches come to life.   She said, “Mr. Banton was a popular man to work for, honest and fair” (Chierichetti, Head 34).

Colbert’s mother was a dressmaker, and she thought her career path might be that way until she discovered acting.  She was particular about the designs she wore on screen, but had always appreciated Banton’s designs, she wore them in real life, as well as on the screen.  But, she was infuriated by the first sketches he sent her, she considered them “unflattering and vulgar” (Sutton 13) and defaced them with insulting remarks.  When a second set of gowns also met with her angry disapproval, he went to the star’s dressing room and the entire Paramount lot heard their screaming disagreement.  Finally, he said that if she did not like his third set of sketches, she may as well slit her wrists, because there would be no more forthcoming.  He had his assistant deliver them, and when the messenger returned the next morning, the sketches were smeared with blood.  Colbert intentionally cut her finger and defaced the drawings, to demonstrate who, exactly was in charge.  (La Vine 38).

This gown was shown at the American Textile History Museum Hollywood Costume exhibit.

“Both Colbert and Taylor (in the 1963 Cleopatra) wore smooth, black pageboy wigs with straight bangs.  Each ignored the historical fact that her wig would have been curled tightly; that beneath the wig her head would have been shaved; and that she would have lathered her scalp with luxurious, perfumed oils to give it a sexy shine.  So much for history!” (Maeder 45).  Bangs were not fashionable in the 30s, but were an integral part of Colbert’s screen image.

Banton’s designs for stars like Colbert, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard did not follow the fashion, they made the fashions.  Fashion and fan magazines regarded his designs with respect, and Paramount publicity featured him and his designs, and had him give stylish tips to the fans who wished to dress liked the stars they adored.

This satin gown is part of the Deborah Nadoolman Landis curated exhibit that originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Paramount mounted a detailed marketing campaign through a number of retailers, including Macy’s, Woolworth’s, Lux Soap and many other companies to blanket the media with promotions that would not look unfamiliar today.  Her cosmetics, not historical but glamourous 1930s were promoted by Maybelline.  A magazine ad detailed “alluring eye make-up” with an historical portrait of Cleopatra as well as one of Colbert as the Queen of the Nile, representations which bore a close resemblance to each other (Maeder 48).

“When one watches Cleopatra seven decades later, with the ballyhoo long died down, the film endures, due in part to the blend of the personal and the spectacular achieved by DeMille, but also very much due to Colbert herself.  Against the odds, she succeeded in bringing the light touch of the comedienne to a role that could easily have been merely stylized but which instead resonates with grace and humanity.  Beneath the hokum and the schlock, she supplies the movie with a heart, an element sorely missing, despite the lashings of sentiment, in DeMIlle features to come” (Louvish 331).

The Hollywood History of the World by George MacDonald Fraser, Cecil B. De Mille and the Golden Calf by Simon Louvish, Cecil B. De Mille’s Hollywood by Robert S. Birchard, DeMille: The Man and his Pictures by Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee, The DeMilles: An American Family by Anne Edwards, In a Glamorous Fashion by W. Robert La Vine, Those Glorious Glamour Years by Margaret Bailey, Dressed for the Part: Hollywood Costumes from the Silver Screen by Tina Sutton. Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film by Edward Maeder, Hollywood Costume: Glamour! Glitter! Romance by Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti, The Power of Glamour by Annette Tapert, Hollywood Costume by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Edith Head by David Chierichetti, Hollywood Sketchbook by Deborah Nadoolman Landis.