Cleopatra (1934): DeMille’s Version Starring Claudette Colbert

Cecil B. DeMille was known for possessing many qualities, but good taste, restraint, and discretion were not among them. In this screen version of Cleopatra, based on historical material gathered by Bartlett Cormack, Jeanie MacPherson, and Finely Peter Dunne, Jr., he treats the text as a soap opera, dominated by characters that are satyrns and nymphomaniacs, and the dialogue feels like gossip.

As kitschy as it is, “Cleopatra” movie is perfectly watchable, and in moments even enjoyable sort of a guilty pleasure. The mostly English cast, speaking in various accents, is an incongruous element, but the polished production values and the campy acting make it entertaining.

Among the big set-pieces is the famous sea sequence, with a huge net holding numerous half-naked girls, offering Marc Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon) giant sea shells out of priceless gems, before a veil begins to cover him and the kittenish Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert).

DeMille claims in his memoirs that in the gigantic lavish sets, numerous extras as slaves, and huge monuments, he was trying to be as historically accurate as possible. Rome, with its myths, mass orgies, religious pageantry and rituals must have excited the helmer more than Egypt as a disproportionate number of scenes takes place thereunlike later versions of the saga.

At the time, the film reviewers were merciless in dissecting the film, which was a smash hit with audiences. However, today, many critics prefer DeMille’s version to Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 rendition with Liz Taylor in the lead in an epic that almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.

Talk about versatility and use of talent. Claudette Colbert achieved some kind of a record in 1934, the best year of her relatively short screen career, in which she appeared in three of the Oscar-nominated features: “Cleopatra,” “It Happened One Night,” for which she won the Oscar, and “Imitation of Life.”


Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert)
Julius Caesar (Warren William)
Marc Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon)
Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael)
Herod (Joseph Schildkraut)
Octavian (Ian Keith)
Enobarbus (C. Aubrey Smith)
Cassius (Ian MacLaren)
Brutus (Arthur Hohl)
Pothinos (Leonard Mudie)

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Cecil B. DeMille
Assistant Director: Cullen Tate
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Film Editing: Anne Bauchens
Sound Recording: Franklin Hansen

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

In 1934, “Cleopatra” competed for the Best Picture with eleven other films: “The Barrets of Wimpole Street,” “Flirtation Walk,” “The Gay Divorcee,” “Here Comes the Navy,” “The House of Rothchild,” “Imitation of Life,” “It Happened One Nigh,” which won, “One Night of Love,” “The Thin Man,” “Viva Villa!” and “The White Parade.”

“It Happened One Night” swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Claudette Colbert. The sound award went to “One Night of Love,” and the editing to Conrad Nevig for “Eskimo.”