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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Monday, April 17, 2017

    Cleopatra (1934) and What it Says about DeMille

    Whilst Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra (1934) may not quite be a biblical film it's worth of a few words of consideration here not only because it features at least one biblical character (Herod the Great), but also because it's one DeMille's string of ancient world films with at least connotations of the biblical epic and it's really rather revealing.

    The biblical links, such as they are pretty much come down to a brief cameo by Herod the Great in the second half of the film. The first half looks at Cleopatra's relationship with Julius Caesar and is brought to a halt by his murder at the senate. There are a couple of shots here that look like they may have influenced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), miost notably the ones where Brando's Mark Antony address the crowd. (Though it's possible they both depend on an independent source such as a painting).

    Antony (long-time DeMille collaborator Henry Wilcoxon) arrives in Egypt and is quickly met by Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) who pulls out all the stops to try and impress him. It's not quite an orgy scene as per Sign of the Cross (1932), but it fulfils more or less the same function. More of that later. Whatever her methods Cleopatra manages to ensnare Mark Antony which begins to become a problem in Rome as Octavian accrues more power and then Herod arrives. It's perhaps hardly surprising. This was a rare romantic leading role for Wilcoxon whereas Colbert was, by then a big star.
    After The Sign of the Cross and her Oscar-winning performance in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (Columbia, 1934), Claudette Colbert was considered ideal for the role of CLeopatra, and no-one else was seriously considered. But the glorified ingenue of two years before was now a bona fide superstar, and Colbert's new status would create problems on the set during production. (Birchard 2004: 277)
    We know from Josephus that Herod's not only knew Antony, but also had to utilise his political manoeuvring skills to the best of his ability during his benefactor's demise. DeMille condenses this into just a few short scenes. Herod arrives as the guest of Cleopatra (with whom he shared the rights to extracting asphalt from the Dead Sea) and immediately passes on a message from Rome that she ought to consider poisoning her lover. Cleopatra is appalled. It's a surprise, then, when Herod appears in the next scene with Mark Antony and tells him the whole thing. On the surface he is offering reassurance that Cleopatra would never dream of such a thing, but of course he's attempting to sow seeds of doubt in their relationship. It's notable that Cleopatra is marginally less horrified when one of her courtiers suggests shortly afterwards that it would probably be best for the nation if she did as Octavian asked.

    Of course none of this is in the Bible - happening thirty years before Jesus' death, but it's not inconsistent of the man who seems so desperate to cling onto power that Matthew portrays him as murdering the infants of an entire village in order to eliminate threats to his throne. Interestingly Herod does not feature in either the Theda Bara/William Fox's silent Cleopatra (1917) which was difficult to come by even in DeMille's day (Birchard 2004: 277) or the 1963 Liz Taylor and Richard Burton version (which proved to be one of the death knells of the epic genre in general. DeMille's film was a big success).

    For DeMille fans however there's a great deal of interest here, particularly in that not-quite-an-orgy scene. As Lindsay says, "no-one did an orgy like DeMille" (2015: 75). When Mark Antony arrives Cleopatra welcomes him aboard her boat. There then begins a series of seductions, starting with a half-hearted solo effort. When this fails to improve his mood she coyly confesses that she is dressed "to lure you in" and resorts to a more ego stroking "of course you're too clever to fall for all this routine".

    To show her supposed naivety she outlines her "plan" and shows him all that she had lined up including half naked women writhing around on top of an ox. Then a giant net is hauled upon her ship supposedly containing clams, but actually including more semi-clad women bearing clams full of jewels and when Cleopatra, and then Antony, start flinging the jewels around scantily clad servants of both sexes roll around on the floor to get hold of them. Shortly afterwards women dressed as leopards from the waist up appear, roll around on top of one another and start to cartwheel thorough flaming hoops.

    All of this is done in a knowing 'this wouldn't possibly work on a soldier such as you' type of way, perhaps best summed up by the conversation between the two of them:
    Mark Antony: I hope that you know that I know you want me to do this.
    Cleoptra: Dear Antony, I hope you think I know that you know I know
    (they giggle together)
    What's interesting about this knowing scene is that what Cleopatra is seeking to do to Mark Antony mirror what DeMille is trying to do to his audience, namely titillate them whilst giving lip service to their supposed immovability to such tacky, seductive fare.

    The key difference between this film and others that are usually bracketed alongside of it is the moral message that DeMille usually tacks on. In his biblical films the orgy scenes are usually used as to contrast with the behaviour of the godly. It's a fairly transparent device which has been much commented on - use sex to sell the movie and then tag on a moral message to deflect the criticism. But "if one is paying attention, the sex and sadism in The Ten Commandments is almost unbelievable for a film with such strong Sunday school credentials" (Lindsay 2015: 75)

    What I can't quite decide is if DeMille's work here is less acceptable, because without that redemptive message then really various scenes here are just mild porn; or more acceptable, because at least they're not fundamentally hypocritical.

    You'll have noticed a couple of references above to Richard Lindsay's book "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day" which I have just finished reading and so naturally it informed some of my thoughts about DeMille, specifically this film.

    Lindsay argues that scenes such as these were "perhaps reflecting his own predilections" (Lindsay 2015: 38). To his mind both "DeMille and Gibson are 'queer' in the sense that their sexual desires, as revealed on screen, do not conform to traditional notions of sexuality as defined by traditional Christian communities." (2015: xxviii). Whereas most commentators tend to take a cynical view that DeMille was just trying to sell sex and dressing it up Lindsay is convinced "DeMille truly believed in the power of the Ten Commandments and the figure of Moses as a moral force for good..." (2015: 61), but that he was a truly conflicted individual.
    "The camp content of his films has often been interpreted as an expression of the conflict between his Victorian piety and his interest in BDSM...practised with a "harem" of women outside his marriage. The misogyny, sadism, and overwrought melodrama of his epics seems to follow naturally from his own passions...so blatant a part of every DeMille film." (Lindsay 2015: 38)
    For Lindsay, DeMille is perhaps best summed up in the sequence from towards the end of The Ten Commandments where "defining the conflicted impulses of his entire body of work, he cuts between Moses on the Mountain receiving the Law and the sexed-up orgy" (2015: 75)

    I think this film is the most blatant indication of DeMille's desires, not just because of this one scene, but in the way the male gaze is so overwhelming in every scene. As Cleopatra, DeMille has Claudette Colbert (who "was ill during most of the production") dressed in a series of ridiculously over-sexualised and revealing costumes. (Higham 1973: 176-77).The audience is repeatedly encouraged to gaze on Colbert as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony did.

    It's also interesting because, shorn of the biblical element a number of DeMille's auteurist touches become more apparent, the line from Logan's Magdalene, through Colbert's Poppea and Lamarr's Delilah to Baxter's Nefertiri is complete. Each of these glamorous women is frequently photographed in loose but scant flowing costumes, surrounded by supposedly men who lose their power in her presence. We get vast palaces. We get jewels. We get leopards as pets, or servants clad in leopard skin.

    And of course usually we get another "DeMille signature--scenes of naked women in bathtubs". (Lindsay 2015: 9) Yet strangely, despite the fact that sources as far back as Pliny and Cassius Dio have suggested that Cleopatra used to bathe in asses' milk, this is the one thing that DeMille doesn't show here, perhaps because showing Colbert in a milk bath had already got him into hot water.

    Having said all that, I want to end this piece with a nice take on this aspect of DeMille's work from a series of posts on Twitter by Fritzi Kramer (@MoviesSilently) which compares DeMille's supposed shortcomings with his predecessor D.W. Griffith.
    Most people assume that his mixture of faith & sleaze was entirely calculating. His background says otherwise. DeMille is an almost perfect split between his flamboyant actress/agent mother & his bookish lay minister father. He was immersed in theater. But his great treat was when his father (who died young) would read to him from the bible in evenings. DeMille's religious beliefs were not exactly in the mainstream but they were from the heart. The conflict between faith & trash was very real for him. He loved both.

    So when people like Lillian Gish & DW Griffith deliver these snotty little slams indicating that DeMille was a hypocrite, it's annoying. DeMille's faith was genuine but it was in conflict with his adoration of spectacle & frank love of trash. That's what makes him interesting. He approaches religious subjects from a place of knowledge, he just has an off-kilter take. And leopard skin. Oh did he love ladies in leopard. I relate to DeMille because I have similar internal conflicts & I find his way of dealing with his to be fascinating.

    Also, his healthy relationship with his mother is probably responsible for his very woman-centric creative team in the silent era. If you want to see what DeMille could do when he had a mask of anonymity, do check out Chicago. The film is snappy, saucy & spicy. DeMille knew his way around a fast-paced crowd-pleaser. I guess the point of all this is that I wish people would give DeMille the same benefit of the doubt they give other directors. DW Griffith makes rapey films glamorizing the KKK & he gets every excuse under the sun. DeMille likes sexy shoes & the bible. I can tell you which one I would be more comfortable taking an elevator ride with.

    Birchard, Robert S. "Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood". (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
    Higham, Charles "Cecil B. DeMille, an Uncensored Biography". (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973).
    Lindsay, Richard "Hollywood Biblical Epics: Camp Spectacle and Queer Style from the Silent Era to the Modern Day". (Denver, CO: Praeger, 2015).

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