(See front cover)
When William Shakespeare was ready to write the story of Cleopatra, he needed nothing more than pen, ink, paper and his own lively genius. Three centuries later George Bernard Shaw required no more equipment for the same task. But when Paramount put Cecil Blount DeMille to work on this well-worn old tale, that old-time director could not even get started without $750,000, a majority of the unemployed actors in Hollywood, ten crates of real grapes by airmail from South America, an $800 history book and a month of conferences aboard his yacht. Last week, after four more months spent in actual production, the result of Director DeMille's elaborate functionings was placed before the public as Cleopatra.
Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) first arrives in the presence of Julius Caesar (Warren William) rolled up in a Persian rug. Later she puts on her familiar transparent skirt and brassiere, proceeds to seduce her conqueror in short order, accompanies him to Rome. When Caesar is assassinated, Cleopatra scuttles back to Egypt.
Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) is a dog fancier. He arrives in Egypt with two hungry Great Danes which sniff contemptuously around Director DeMille's lavish furnishings. With Antony, Cleopatra's technique is less subtle than with Caesar. She inveigles him aboard what the newspaper advertisements of this picture titillatingly refer to as her LOVE BARGE, gives him fancy hors d'oeuvres, wine in silver cups and clamshells full of pearls, served by classic chorus girls emerging from a fishing net as naked as Censor Joseph Breen will allow. During dinner, there is entertainment, with dancers dressed up like leopards and a premiere danseuse performing on the head and shoulders of a bull.
A DeMille picture without a battle scene would be as deficient as one without a bathtub. In Cleopatra, the bath in which Roman senators are shown scraping their elbows with strigils while plotting to kill Caesar is the biggest that has ever appeared in a DeMille picture, but the battle scene fails to set any record. This is because Antony's officers have deserted him and he has nothing left but a few re- painted chariots and a regiment or two of Egyptians. When these have been hacked, speared and ground to death under an enormous spiked wheel, Antony is left all alone. He stabs himself, lives long enough to quote to Cleopatra Shakespeare's "I am dying, Egypt, dying!" Cleopatra puts on her best clothes and calls for a basket, out of which she takes an asp.
The asp that bites Claudette Colbert in this DeMille production is a real one. Studio officials expressed surprise when the director deviated so far from realism as to permit the extraction of its poison sac before it struck.
When Cecil DeMille decided to address himself to Cleopatra, the first thing he ordered was a French military survey of Egypt in 16 volumes. That work set the style for the production. When he learned that Romans cooled their banquet wines in snow, he refused to have marble dust, the usual studio equivalent, called for frost scraped from the studio refrigerator pipes. For Cleopatra to nibble, Paramount ordered ten crates of real grapes. When they went bad, after the California grape season, ten more crates were shipped from Argentina.