Sunday, October 05, 2014

'Cleopatra' Was a Defining Role for Colbert

"Women should be but toys for the great. It becomes them both."

Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert)

For all intents and purposes, Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. She was survived by her teenage son for about a week and a half. That made him the last pharaoh — technically — but his rule was spent in captivity and ended with his apparent execution.

More than 2,000 years after her death, Cleopatra is still a fascinating figure in the West. She has been portrayed countless times on the stage in Shakespeare's play "Antony and Cleopatra" and Jules Massenet's opera "Cléopâtre," and she has been portrayed in numerous films, TV productions and video games. She is regarded as one of history's great beauties; she was seen that way by her contemporaries, too.

Thus, it wasn't surprising when one of the big screen's great beauties, Elizabeth Taylor, was cast as Cleopatra in 20th Century Fox's lavish 1963 production.

But I felt that Claudette Colbert's version of "Cleopatra," which was released 80 years ago today, was as good as — if not better than — Taylor's. Just, well, different.

I know I will get arguments about that, but hear me out. As nearly as I could tell, both movies told the same story and emphasized mostly the same events; the '63 version took a lot longer to do it and, when adjusted for current dollars, may have been the most expensive movie ever made.

The role of Cleopatra may well have defined Colbert more than her role in any other movie.

The '34 version may have been guilty of focusing strictly on Cleopatra and not paying as much attention to the men around her — or some of the facts — as the '63 version did. It was Colbert's movie — whereas Taylor, who had already won an Oscar, shared the screen and the credits with two other well–known actors, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison.

I don't know if Colbert is considered one of the screen's great beauties (or even if she was seen as such in her own time), but I do know some of her roles made her something of an early sex symbol.

(That includes her performance in "Cleopatra," although, personally, I have always thought she resembled Lilith Sternin from Cheers! and Frasier in that one.)

Although I have never seen it, I have heard that Colbert's bare breasts could be seen briefly in 1932's "The Sign of the Cross" in a scene that I have heard was a primary catalyst for the strict enforcement of the Hays Code.

When it asserted itself as the authority over movies in the United States, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) prohibited, among several other things, "licentious or suggestive nudity — in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters."

Colbert's "Cleopatra" was made when the Hays Code was just beginning to flex its muscles — and producer/director Cecil B. DeMille pushed some boundaries.

Colbert was dressed in skimpy costumes that might not have been permitted if the movie had been made only a few months later.

Was that historically accurate? I don't know. I doubt it, just as I doubt that the decor of ancient Rome was as art deco as it was in DeMille's "Cleopatra."

Certain concessions do seem to have been made to the moviegoers of 1934.

In another instance of pushing the envelope, a seemingly naked slave girl holding two incense burners could be seen in the opening credits. The indistinct lighting left much to the imagination.

Nudity was not the focus of "Cleopatra." Sex, however, was.

The emphasis really was on Colbert. The men were mostly props; none would be recognizable to modern movie watchers. Some were regarded as being among the best actors of their time, but they were really only there because Cleopatra needed a Marc Antony and a Julius Caesar — and she couldn't play all the roles.

As I say, I don't know if Colbert had a reputation as a sex symbol in 1934, but she was quite popular. She won an Oscar for her performance in "It Happened One Night," and that movie certainly featured the kinds of things that would seldom, if ever, be permitted on the big screen for another 35 years.

Colbert had quite a range as an actress, and playing Cleopatra was only one style of which she was capable — if the role can be confined to a single style. In one scene, Colbert's Cleopatra could be playful and flirtatious; in the next, she might well be cold and calculating.

If Colbert is remembered for anything, I suppose it is her flair for screwball comedy, and there were elements of that to be seen in her portrayal of Cleopatra.

If nothing else, I thought Colbert was having a lot of fun. Perhaps I was mistaken.

"Cleopatra" definitely was not a screwball comedy. But, when it was done, Colbert resolved never to be typecast in overtly sexual roles again.

That might have been the wisest career move for her. Colbert was nominated for two other Oscars but lost both (the first time to Bette Davis, the second time to Ingrid Bergman). She might not have been nominated at all if she had felt demeaned by her roles.

Did her role in "Cleopatra" demean her? Judge for yourself.