Earlier this month I enjoyed a great night at one of my favorite theaters, Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood which is one of two theaters run by the American Cinematheque. I adore it for programming classics, contemporary, foreign, blockbusters and indie films alike. Almost as it was when Mr. Grauman built it in 1922, the Egyptian Theater it is a treasure. The Cinematheque celebrated the 85th Anniversary of the film to the day of the premier of Cecile B. DeMille’s Cleopatra! It was a blast! Original playbills from the opening were on display care of the Heritage Museum, a mummy wrap, Cleopatra Eye Makeup Station, Beer and Wine Bar, and the Best Selfie Station EVER! My favorite events there are always anniversary celebrations and retro events, but this combined all that I love!
DeMille’s Cleopatra holds a place in my heart. If you are looking for historical accuracy on the life of Cleopatra, or serious plot for that matter, move on! If you are looking for one of the lushest most outrageously fantastical produced films ever made, stay right where you are. Cleopatra is pure Excess and I love every second of it.
Claudette Colbert is Cleopatra, the Last Pharaoh of Egypt. She endeavors and succeeds at seducing Cesar (Warren William) to avoid being enslaved on his arrival to Egypt. Her success at doing so leads to her journeying with him to Rome. As the Romans fear she has converted their fearless leader and fellow statesmen to a self proclaimed Emperor, he is assassinated. Upon his death, Cleopatra returns to Egypt and Marc Antony, Cesar’s successor, follows to finish what Cesar began the conquering of Egypt. But he too falls under Cleopatra’s spell. He is abandoned by his troops who denounce his treason and for a short time takes solace in his new love with Cleopatra. Doomed, they lay in wait for the Romans that follow. The seduction of Antony scene alone is worth watching the film for!The look of Cleopatra is in the hands of Art Director Hans Drier and Costume Designer Travis Banton. Edith Head was one of his many assistants but it was Banton (his career at Paramount Studios began with the invention of Hollywood in 1894), who created the fabulous image of Cleopatra. First we have to talk about the headpieces! Being a Milliner its a must! He is the only costume designer I have yet found to do a Helmet and it drives me MAD! I have Nothing but love for this man’s vision. I see not one, but three variations of a Pheonix rising from the ashes surrounding the asp. Perhaps Cleopatra is the foxy Phoenix. It is said that Cecil B. DeMilles compared Cleopatra to the everyman/woman rising above their circumstances during the depression. Like every period we masses are sedated in the hardest of times with useless entertainment and fads, but golly gee this one is FAB! GUSH! Otherwise the headpieces are simple and beautiful and are in homage to the period.
The gowns, are simply wild. There are so many layers of fabulous in the costuming for this film! First of all with dozens of costume changes there simply aren’t enough words for the gowns Colbert rocked in the film. My favorite without a doubt is the gold lame number pictured below in the sketch by Banton. The original gown was sold at auction when Debbie Reynolds parted with her Hollywood Costume collection, in June 2011. In my mind this gown is perfection. So Contemporary to the 30’s but so timeless and regal.
As much as I adore the Gold Lame and so many others like the crystal embellished nude striped number… I will always love Banton’s “minimal” looks in the film. Cleopatra rides into Rome Topless with a harness of pearls and just her headdress to cover her breasts. The Purely deco skirt with simply Phoenix shaped pasties. Divine. Giving me LIFE Travis! Claudette I do love you so.
The Art Deco Influence makes this my all time favorite Cleopatra film. BELIEVE, I love them all in the capacity I have been able to see Theda Bara, Liz Taylor, Sofia Loren and Valerie Leon’s renditions, but as far as production, I could love nothing more than this highly stylized celebration of the imaginary life of one of the most mysterious women of all time. This year will be the year of Cleopatra for me. I endeavor to find out more about the actual woman while celebrating all of the lovely interpretations that are out there. In the meantime check out more on Travis Banton’s costume design for the film here and enjoy Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra!