Kiss Asp: Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934) – Blu-ray review
A strutting peacock of a movie, sure… but no amount of bling can help a flaccid narrative to get it up.
(Cecil B. DeMille, 1934)
In Angela Carter’s last novel, Wise Children, two naughty sisters go to Hollywood to star in a film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The movie is terrible, of course, but they don’t care; they’re having an absolute blast amidst all of the saucy, sordid shenanigans going on when the camera stops rolling. I mention this because Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra is probably the closest Old Hollywood got to put sex on-screen… and it still looks like it was probably more fun to make than it is to watch.
Made just as the Production Code was beginning to bite,DeMille’s louche epic is one last hurrah for good old-fashioned erotica – like Cleopatra’s final fuck-you to Octavian, DeMille’s response to censorship is to kiss asp rather than kiss ass. Claudette Colbert wears tops whose décolletage is down to… well, her navel frankly, her breasts barely concealed by sequinned slips of fabric. The extras wear less.
How could it be otherwise? This is the tale, after all, of a backwater queen whose only weapon against the might of Rome is her sexuality. Caesar and Marc Anthony come at her with swords drawn; so her turns her country into a giant vagina, velvety and enticing. Trouble is, you need a decent writer to give this innuendo some depth, but this Cleopatra is a single entendre. She lies back and tires out potential enemies in the sack, but whither the poetry? DeMille has his actors declaim the blankest of verse as if they are speaking Shakespeare. They aren’t.
And DeMille is a deeply unsexy director. He can art-direct decadence to within an inch of its life – one set-piece featuring flaming hoops and slave girls dressed as leopards has to be seen to be believed – but the bling is all foreplay. When it comes to actual drama, the film can’t get it up. This being the early 1930s, the camera is locked into place to capture the dialogue. If we’re lucky, DeMille hops aboard a crane to offer a sense of scale – the best shot, drawing back to show slaves rowing a galley while Cleo’s latest pervy party is in full swing, is a rare moment of wit and insight. But in stylistic terms, it’s still very much the missionary position, in and out, in and out. This isn’t a film imaginative enough to try Camera Sutra.
So it’s a stolid, desultory affair, appallingly acted by the men (save C Aubrey Smith, that veteran scene-stealer of 1930s Hollywood, who puts the barbs in Enobarbus). Even Colbert looks bored. This was the same year she’d win her Oscar for It Happened One Night and, despite all the flesh on show, there’s nothing to match the moment where she teaches Clark Gable how to hitch a lift by hitching her skirt.