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Cleopatra is fairly faithful to history. But it has one appalling drawback. It lacks the emotion of a religious theme. Most DeMille pictures have to do with such pious subjects as The Ten Commandments (1923), The King of Kings (1927), The Sign of the Cross (1932). "A religious picture never failed," says the man who was decorated with the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1928. With the Bible to inspire him, he is able to conjure up breath-taking scenes of sadism, warfare and mass debauchery on the part of ancients who did not believe in God. Since Cleopatra has nothing to do with Christianity, it lacks most of the emotional impact DeMille usually gets into his pictures. The best substitute for emotion is spectacle but even here De Mille is not up to scratch. Audiences that expect nothing less than a World War from him are likely to be disappointed that the most spectacular shot in Cleopatra is one of the inside of her barge with 500 oar handles moving slowly to the thumping rhythm of a large firegong. Eight thousand extras were supposed to have been hired for the picture, but the biggest crowd scene is a rabble of only a few hundred in the Forum.
A handsome, well-written but misguided expedition into a realm which properly belongs to Shakespeare, Shaw and history, Cleopatra is important for two reasons. One of the most expensive pictures of the year, it will probably clear all expenses. It is the 60th work of the only director in Hollywood who managed to walk the tight rope from silent to sound films without losing his megaphone or his mannerisms.
Cecil Blount DeMille was born in Ashfield, Mass, in 1881. His father was Henry-Churchill DeMille, who collaborated on plays with the late David Belasco. When Henry DeMille died, his widow first turned her home into a girls' school, sent young Cecil to Pennsylvania Military College. his older brother William to Columbia. Later she founded the DeMille Play Com pany, originally formed to supply the in creasing demand for DeMille-Belasco plays, which did a flourishing agent's business for 20 years. Young Cecil studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, set out to be an actor. After a few seasons on the stage, he became manager of his mother's business, met Producer Jesse L. Lasky, collaborated with him on an oper etta called California. Lunching together one day in the summer of 1913, Lasky asked DeMille, "Why don't you go into motion pictures?" Replied DeMille: "I will if you will." A friend named Sam Goldfish joined them. The three pooled about $5,000 each.
For a studio they rented a Hollywood stable. Their first picture was The Squaw Man, which DeMille has since made twice. Two years later Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. was a rival to Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Co. at the top of the industry and Cecil DeMille was about to make his first expensive spectacle, Carmen, with Geraldine Farrar. His most expensive was The King of Kings which cost about $2,000,000. The Ten Commandments made most money ($2,500,000).
His important pictures have contained bathing facilities ranging from a bathtub with gold faucets in Why Change Your Wife to the pool in Cleopatra which covers an acre and is used for background in one short shot. In The Sign of the Cross, Claudette Colbert went swimming in milk. The fabulous DeMille bathtub is a symbol not of cleanliness but of luxury.