Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Suspense: A Friend to Alexander

Alexander Hamilton watches George Washington give a speech

“Alexander Hamilton is so hot right now,” historians probably say at historian parties, holding their champagne glasses while a string quartet plays chamber music.

With Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop biography of the first secretary of the treasure cleaning up at the Tonys, A-Ham is the current historical celebrity craze. Soon, he’ll be fighting vampires. You haven’t really made it until everyone forgets why you’re important.

In 1942, James Thurber – who you might know best as the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” – wrote one of his darkest, weirdest short stories. In it, an unhappy man is plagued by dreams of Aaron Burr, and becomes gradually obsessed with the duel that killed Alexander Hamilton. Things only go downhill from there, getting all fantastical and grim.

Popular radio series Suspense adapted the story no less than three times. 

It's called “A Friend to Alexander” and the version below is from August of 1943. It stars Geraldine Fitzgerald and Robert Young, and was adapted very faithfully by Fria Howard. Her script would also be used for the 1944 broadcast of the story, which featured Geraldine Fitzgerald reprising her role, but saw Robert Young replaced with Richard Whorf.

Click the video to listen:

The third broadcast featured a new script by Fran Von Hardesfelt, with John Dehner and Paula Winslow as Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. Howard's adaptation is extremely faithful to the short story, while Von Hardesfelt's is a little more loosey goosey.

If you'd like to read the original short story, it's anthologized in My World, and Welcome to It alongside less gothic stuff. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Mermaid Movie Mayhem!

Shark Week 2016 begins today, and that means my whole life is the ocean now. It's tradition. But if you're not a documentary fan, or sharks are too hardcore for you, consider celebrating the start of the pool party season with a mermaid film festival.

Here are my top picks, just to get you started:

Miranda (1948)

Glynis Johns stars as the delightfully naughty mermaid at the heart of this British film based on a play by Peter Blackmore. Bored with life in her pearl-filled grotto, Miranda strikes up an affair with a London doctor and follows him home. He disguises her as a patient in need of a wheelchair, and she soon sets about enchanting just about every man she meets, including a chauffeur played by David Tomlison – who would later team up with Johns again in Disney’s Mary Poppins.

Though Johns is pitch-perfect, the real delight comes from Margaret Rutherford as the nurse hired on to care for her. It’s frothy, fun, and a little dated in places, but for easy swimming, it’s tough to top.

The Mermaid (1965)

Despite the title, this one has the least conventional mermaid on the list. A Hong Kong Huangmei opera film directed by Kao Li, the more literal translation of its title is Fish Beauty.

When a carp spirit notices the loneliness of a jilted scholar, she takes on the form of his ex-lover and meets him in the garden one night. The scholar quickly falls in love with her, but believes the carp to be his beloved. The mix-up leads him to his former flame's house and a humiliating encounter with her. Things get pretty intense soon after, with talk of executions and forsaking immortality.

The same story was adapted as a television series in 2013 called The Legend of Chasing Fish.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)

A popular year for mermaids, 1948 also saw William Powell and Ann Byth dip into the legend. Based on a 1945 novel called Peabody’s Mermaid, Powell plays Arthur Peabody, a man whose midlife crisis gets a little more complicated when he reels in Lenore, a mute mermaid with a knack for making trouble.

The last of the great fantasy screwball comedies, poor Mr. Peabody seems to have the stars lined against him, and things don’t get any easier when his wife starts thinking he’s keeping giant fish in the hotel bathtub and having an affair. Things get worse when the police decide he’s a murderer. None of it's true of course, it's just fishtail mischief in a Caribbean setting.

Local Hero (1983)

The mermaid in this movie is actually part of a subplot, but with the whole thing being an underrated gem, I figured I’d include it and get more people talking about it. Burt Lancaster plays the eccentric owner of Knox Oil and Gas Company, a man in tune with the heavens.

Knox sends an American executive named MacIntyre to a small town in Scotland called Furness. Mac has instructions to buy the town to make way for a refinery, but soon comes up against an old man named Ben, who refuses to sell.

The Scottish Knox rep is played by a young Peter Capaldi, and this is where the mermaid angle comes in. The whole story has a gentle, fantastical tilt to it that pairs well with the flinty 80’s executive ethos. Well worth hunting down.

Splash (1984)

Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah star in this beloved classic, with Hanks playing a man who writes off his childhood mermaid encounter as a near-death hallucination. Madison, the mermaid who saved his life when they were kids, decides it’s time to hunt down her first love and get a good look at New York City while she’s at it.

Full of memorable moments like learning English from a wall of department store televisions, and with a supporting character played by John Candy, this is the jewel in the summery rom-com crown... or the highest prong on its trident, maybe? 

Honorary Mentions: 

Peter Pan (1953) Used for the image at the top, it contains the best mermaids-will-be-mermaids legal defense of all time: "But we were only trying to drown her!"

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) Or anything else with Esther Williams in it.

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) That's the one where Bonehead falls in love with a mermaid named Lorelei while everyone else tries to stop South Dakota Slim from killing Linda Evans with a buzz saw. I'd like to say that some of that was over-simplified for comedic effect, but nope! It's insane!

Friday, 24 June 2016

Silly Symphony: The Skeleton Dance, Flowers and Tress, The Old Mill

The Silly Symphony banner was used by Walt Disney between 1929 and 1939. The first was The Skelton Dance, notable for its particular blending of movement with sound.

Then, in 1932, Disney harnessed the promise of Technicolor with Flowers and Trees.

Finally, in 1937, Disney was experimenting with the techniques that would make Snow White feel more convincing. In Academy Award winner The Old Mill, we see the first use of the multiplane camera.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

‘Way Out 01x06: The Croaker

Nowadays, Roald Dahl is best remembered for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and his other novels for children, but there was a time when he was known exclusively for his creepy little fables. Stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man From the South” and “Dip in the Pool” were all highly regarded for their bitingly ironic endings.

In 1961, this reputation made Dahl an interesting fit for a horror anthology show called ‘Way Out (with the apostrophe, not sure why). The show was a quick-fix replacement for a Jackie Gleason gameshow, You’re in the Picture, which was such a disaster that Gleason apologized to the American public and it was cancelled after a single episode. Anthology shows were relatively easy to put together – you didn’t need to negotiate with a recurring star, you could change gears on a weekly basis, and you could crib sets on the backlots. Plus, people really liked The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so it was a good solution for that unsightly gap on Friday nights.

Dahl would host in the hands-off manner of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as contribute some of his stories for adaptation, most notably “William and Mary” for the premiere.

The series ran for sixteen episodes, but it wasn’t a hit with audiences. It’s not hard to see why, it’s a really weird show. It’s not bad, but it’s weird. In the late ‘70s, Dahl would work on a more successful television vehicle for his stories, ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. (Not to be confused with the American Quinn Martin Production of the same name.) Meanwhile, ‘Way Out would become an oddity, and a bit of a holy grail for a certain kind of television fan.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Bonanza 01x07: The Saga of Annie O’Toole

Ugh. Enough with the tragic ladies, am I right? Between Julia Bulette and Emily Pennington, it seems like the only women the Cartwrights associate with are fading blooms destined to tragically cough and then die. Time for something different in the female character department.

The episode begins with Annie O’Toole talking to her father in their San Francisco kitchen. Annie is played by Ida Lupino, who was one of the most awesome women in the history of television and a trailblazing director. If you don’t know a lot about her, you should change that.

Annie’s father is trying to tell her that she could do a lot worse than marrying a fellow called the Swede. Annie is half-listening while she makes a pot of stew. Apparently, the Swede has been out in Nevada for some time, trying to strike it rich. And, wouldn’t you know it? Just when they’re talking about him, he turns up at the door.

And guess what, guess what? He’s the Skipper! The Skipper from Gilligan’s Island!

The Skipper has a bouquet of flowers for Annie and some great news: he’s had luck out by Virginia City. (He’s doing a Hollywood Swedish accent, but it’s actually not too painful.) He steals some of her stew and shows her and her father the two claims he made. Annie’s happy because now all three of them can go and live in Nevada and breathe in the scent of pine for the rest of their lives. Old Man O’Toole thinks that San Francisco air is just fine, with its constant clouds of tobacco smoke and its stink of dead fish.

But there’s no need to argue. The Skipper is planning to sell his claims and stay in town. The food in Nevada sucks so hard, he refuses to go back. Annie thinks that’s the stupidest reason to give up a silver mine she’s ever heard. And, since she helped fund the Skipper’s trip out there, one of the two claims is rightfully hers. She grabs one of the tickets off the table and stuffs it in her bra because your bra is like a portable safe. It really is the best place to keep valuables and vital documents.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975)

I couldn’t be more excited with the recent announcement that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Shane Black are teaming up to bring Doc Savage back to the big screen. Doc is one of my all-time favourite characters, and it’s delightful to hear that these two are going to highlight the humour of the stories.

The only bad news is that we’ll have to wait patiently for the movie to be made, marketed, and released.

Don’t despair, though! Apart from being able to read all one hundred and eighty one issues of the original Doc Savage Magazine, you can check out Doc’s short-lived radio adaptation, his comics, and the 1975 film Doc Savage: Man of Bronze starring Ron Ely.

The movie is a compromise in a lot of ways.

In the 1960’s, gameshow moguls Mark Goodson and Bill Todman announced that they were making a film version of “The Thousand-Headed Man” with Chuck Connors as Doc. I’m confident in saying that this would’ve been the best movie ever, but it was sadly not to be. Legal issues regarding the estate of Lester Dent – the writer most responsible for Doc Savage – held up production, so everybody involved made a Western called Ride Beyond Vengeance instead. (And I do mean everybody. If you watch Ride Beyond Vengeance, you can amuse yourself by connecting all the cast members to their Doc Savage counterparts.)

By the time the 1975 film rolled around, adventure films were a completely different ballgame. Adam West’s Batman had been unexpectedly popular, and spy spoofs were more successful than straight spy films. This reality was even affecting the James Bond franchise, hence the Roger Moore period of weirdness mingled with flashes of brilliance.

Producer George Pal, known for his sci-fi hits When Worlds Collide and The Time Machine, secured the rights to Doc Savage from Lester Dent’s widow, but he also had some pretty significant story problems on his hands.

Before Tarzan’s Ron Ely was attached to the project, Pal was in talks with Hercules star Steve Reeves. In an interview with George Helmer, Reeves explained:

“George Pal wasn’t really a writer, he was a producer and he had good ideas. At that time all the Hollywood writers were on strike. George Pal put this together the best he could with his ability, but he was not a top professional writer. So the director and I looked at the script and thought we needed to make some changes; a lot of things weren’t sounding very realistic on paper.”

Despite their efforts to smooth out the script, Reeves and the director he mentioned ran into a scheduling conflict and both of them dropped out of the picture.

So, okay. Lots of times we’ve seen films with troubled productions turn out just fine, sometimes even great!

This is not one of those times.

The absolute best thing about it is Pamela Hensley. Hensley would later play Princess Ardala in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and C.J. Parsons on Matt Houston, and she’s always a delightful mix of earthiness and glam. (Plus, totally superficially, she routinely sports some of the best eye makeup I’ve ever seen. Her shadow/liner/mascara game is on point.) In Doc Savage, she plays the mandatory exotic love interest who falls in love with Doc, but his heart and body belong only to Lady Justice.

Helping Doc avoid sincere human interaction are his team of experts and friends, The Fabulous Five. Paul Gleason is Long Tom, an electrical genius named after a canon; William Luckman is Renny, an engineer with a vendetta against doors; Michael Miller is Monk, an industrial chemist with a pet pig and a general dislike of lawyers; Darrell Zwerling is Ham, legal expert, snazzy dresser, bane of Monk’s existence; and Eldon Quick is Johnny, an sesquipedalian archaeologist with the worst catchphrase of all time, “I’ll be superamalgamated!” He tends to gasp it in surprise, too, so it’s a crazy mouthful and an exercise for the lungs.

They all have nicknames instead of regular names because they come from 1930’s adventure stories.

Doc Savage was raised by his father, Clark Savage Sr., to be the perfect specimen. He grew up in a highly controlled environment, not unlike Errol Flynn’s character in the 1937 comedy The Perfect Specimen, which is a vastly superior movie if you’re in the mood to watch a gorgeous dude raised by science cut loose. Man of Bronze is based off of the story of the same name, and features that old chestnut of the Mayan death cult and the secret rivers of gold.

Mesoamerican death cults were pretty standard fare for adventure fiction of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and it’s strange to have to report that the Mayan gods were more accurately represented in the radio serial “The Temple of Vampires” than they are here. Also, rivers of gold were the original crystal skulls. By the ‘70s, the Mayan cliché had given way to the Voodoo cliché, and Man of Bronze mixes tropes from both.

The story is basically a quest to discover who murdered Doc’s father. At the heart of the mystery is why a man who decided to turn his only son into a freakish social experiment wasn’t murdered sooner. It soon becomes apparent that the senior Savage wasn’t the only one on the hit list – soon Doc himself is in the crosshairs of a truly bizarre assassin with red-stained fingertips, a tattoo of Kukulkan the feathered serpent of war, a liberal coating of bronzer, and bright blue eyes. He’s supposed to be a member of the “lost Mayan tribe” of the Quetzamel.

Doc’s father stumbled across this tribe, as well as their exploitation by an evil sea captain who likes to wear velvet dinner jackets with bejewelled lapels. Doc thinks that this information might be a clue as to why his old man was killed, and he follows the lead to Hidalgo, where things just keep getting more awkward and more bizarre.

There’s a villain who spends all his time having temper tantrums in a giant crib, cartoon snakes (called in the original press “the green wigglies”) killing a man through supernatural means, the aforementioned rivers of molten gold, and the worst break up line in the history of film:

“You’re a brick, Mona.”

The reason why Doc Savage: Man of Bronze doesn’t make the usual rounds of cult favourites and campy classics is because it wants to have its cake and eat it. It’s always got one foot in being a serious adaptation, while trying to pull off some wink-and-nudge humour at the wrong times. Everything about it is a slight misstep, and it makes for a weirdly respectful irreverence that’s hard to enjoy one way or another.

And then there’s the score. It’s all rousing John Philip Sousa pieces, some with new Doc Savage themed lyrics. The filmmakers were trying to capture the feeling of The Sting, which had used ragtime hits to evoke a back-dated 1930’s. Big surprise: the Sousa thing doesn’t work. It mostly serves to remind the audience how blusteringly out of place a hero of pure goodness is in ‘70s cinema. Or it makes you want to go to a parade and maybe get a twist cone. Either way, it’s a sudden and compelling urge to abandon the film.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that every now and then, it’s good to watch things that are honestly just bad. It helps us know what makes good things good, great things great, and mediocre things mediocre. Man of Bronze is one of those movies that goes so wrong in so many ways, it has to be seen to be believed.


It’s terrible.

You have to watch it.

I didn’t even tell you about the lobotomies or the arctic fortress or all the bronze-painted vehicles.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Lux Radio Theater: Mayerling

With all of last week's talk of royalty and Cecil B. DeMille, I thought it was fitting to try to track down the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of Mayerling. It features William Powell as Prince Rudolf of Austria, a role originated by Charles Boyer in a 1936 French film of the same name. Though the original Mayerling had been an international success, it wasn't until 1938's Algiers that Boyer became well-known to American audiences.

Full disclosure: I haven't seen the film, so I don't know how faithfully this adapts it. What I do know is that though an American remake was in the works for many years, it didn't actually happen until 1968, when MGM decided it was a good fit for the tragically romantic Omar Sharif. In between, there was a French remake called Le Secret de Mayerling and a 1957 episode of Producer's Showcase featuring Mel Ferrer as Prince Rudolf and Audrey Hepburn as Mary Vetsera. The episode was later distributed in Europe as a feature film.

As C.B. tells us in the introduction to the play, all versions of Mayerling are based on a real event, the murder-suicide committed by Rudolf at his hunting lodge, taking the life of his young mistress. It was Rudolf's death that set in motion the events leading to the first World War. And, as you might suspect listening to the program, the true story is much more sordid than its romanticized counterpart.


Upcoming Events:

I'll be participating in In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood's Joan Crawford Blogathon. It looks like it's going to be one a terrific opportunity to learn about a complicated woman and honour her contributions as an actress, so if you're at all interested in Joan Crawford, mark it on your calendar. And if you have a blog, sign up!

I've also been invited to join the Darlin' Dallasers Blogathon, which aims to highlight the work of Dallas favourites and guest stars in non-Dallas productions. There are already some great topics on the roster (including Son of the Blob directed by Larry Hagman), and I'll be highlighting Patrick Duffy's performance in a made-for-television movie about psychic ghosts. I'm so excited!

Monday, 6 June 2016

Mrs. Columbo 01x05: Caviar with Everything

It’s more than fair to say that Kate Mulgrew is best known for appearing as Captain Katherine Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. But, well before that, in 1979, she got the lead in a very strange spin-off series called Mrs. Columbo.

There’s a lot to explain about all of this, which is amusing because the series only ran for thirteen episodes. It was an eventful misfire.

It started with the end of the first run of the regular Columbo series. NBC decided that they wanted to do a weekly hour long spin-off revolving around Lt. Columbo’s previously unseen wife being an amateur sleuth. (Why she would try to solve a murder on her own when she was married to the greatest homicide detective in history is the real mystery.) The creators of Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link, said that it was a horrible idea for a show and they didn’t want to do it.

So, NBC did it without them.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Cleopatra (1963)

This is my second of two entries for The Royalty on Film Blogathon. Check out the first entry here and learn more about the blogathon here.

If you’re a woman who’s had one lover too many, history isn’t very kind to you.

The number isn’t fixed. Cleopatra had, it’s generally agreed, two lovers total; hooking up with Caesar when she was eighteen, and then Marc Antony about six years later. That was it. Stories of her lavishness and seductive charms were written a century after her death; while contemporary accounts like to mention the fact that she spoke nine languages, and wasn’t particularly beautiful but was such a stellar conversationalist it made her seem beautiful.

For two millennia, the retellings of her reign (outside of her native Egypt) focused on making the story as vivid and sensational as possible. Cleopatra poisoned by a mixture of herbs? No. She was bitten by an asp on her arm. No, wait! On her breast!

And so it went, until there was very little left of the actual woman except gossip and Roman propaganda.

In 1963, it was probably a fate that seemed daunting and inevitable to Elizabeth Taylor.

During the early ‘50s, she had successfully transitioned from a child star to a critical darling with several major hits at MGM. In 1958, while working on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she’d been dealt a terrible blow when her husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash. The media quickly painted her as a tragic figure, until she began an affair with one of Mike Todd’s best friends, Eddie Fisher. Then she was painted as a homewrecker, with little regard for whether or not it was cool of Eddie Fisher to put moves on his dead friend’s vulnerable widow.

By the time Cat was released in theaters, the scandal had broken and MGM decided to use it in their favour, printing posters that featured a painting of Taylor posed seductively in her now-famous white slip. Things only snowballed from there. Suddenly, Last Summer – a grim fable about the ethics of lobotomies – was promoted with images of her in a white bathing suit. (Especially ironic if you know how the white bathing suit fits into the plot of the film.)

The worst blow was dealt with BUtterfield 8, the final project she completed for MGM, and the one that closed out her contract. In it, she plays a high price call girl, derided as a “slut” throughout the film. On MGM’s part, it was a cold and calculating manipulation of public opinion. In the life of Elizabeth Taylor, it was a charming moment where she got called a slut in the press, by the public, and also in the script at work.

She left MGM with a bad taste in her mouth, and an Oscar win for BUtterfield 8.

When 20th Century Fox called her in 1959 to offer her the role of Cleopatra, she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of playing history’s most notorious homewrecker. She was also looking forward to some time away from acting, presumably to process the sharp turns her life had taken in the previous year. Fox asked her what they’d have to pay her to get her to do the part. She sarcastically told them one million dollars.

They said yes.

She then asked for ten percent of the film’s profits, and told Fox to shoot the film in Todd-AO, a format she’d inherited the rights to from Mike Todd. She also wanted an additional salary of $50,000 a week for every week the film went over schedule, and a few key script changes to make Cleopatra into an actual woman with motivations and opinions. It was a very shrewd piece of negotiating.

Fox agreed to all of this. Regardless of the outcome, or people’s perceptions of her, Elizabeth Taylor was making bank on this thing. When all was said and done, she earned a cool seven million smackaroos. (That comes out to around fifty million in modern cash.)

But, like Cleopatra, the closer Elizabeth Taylor seemed to be getting to her own goals and happiness, the more her own story slipped out of her grasp.

A lot has been written about the bloated budget and messy years devoted to the production of Cleopatra. It remains the most expensive film ever made, and nearly bankrupted Fox when all was said and done (Taylor’s earnings a surprisingly small percentage of overall costs). And it took around three years to film, with numerous script changes – the first director, Rouben Mamoulian, had a very thin story with an allegedly inconsistent Cleopatra, mixing Taylor’s desire to play a strong world leader with the more torrid romanticized seductress of old. Mamoulian either quit or was fired, depending on who you ask, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz was suggested by Taylor as a replacement. Mankiewicz managed to smooth things out, but ended up getting his feet tangled in the life of Caesar.

Then, too, there was the infamous affair between Elizabeth Taylor and her co-star Richard Burton. Burton plays Antony in the film, and like Antony he was very much married when he took up with our Egyptian queen. She was still married to Eddie Fisher. People didn’t like seeing them cavorting on yachts, but they also couldn’t look away. And it all fit so nicely into the familiar Shakespearean scene of Cleopatra and Antony cruising the Nile on a pleasure barge.

More trouble was to come, though.

In the spring of 1961, Elizabeth Taylor nearly died of pneumonia. She survived because of an emergency tracheotomy, and public opinion was briefly on her side. It seems trite to say, but the ordeal stalled production further on a schedule that was already well beyond projections.

Eventually, the movie was completed, released, and a box office hit. But recovering those costs was a daunting prospect, and people still consider it a flop because of the cost-to-returns ratio.

So, what does this version of Cleopatra have that the 1934 version doesn’t?

It’s long. The finished product is four hours long, trimmed down from an original six hour cut. And the length is exhausting to watch. I seriously recommend taking two days, watching the Caesar portion on day one, then watching the Antony portion on day two. It makes it more like a mini-series, and it helps. But somehow, the elaborate set after elaborate set becomes less dazzling and more dull the longer you stay. You become numb to the glamour.

Cleopatra’s intellect is mentioned a few times, even the tidbit about the languages (though they cut the number down to seven for some reason, and it’s during a speech where her sexual prowess is the main focus of discussion). The scene where the Romans burn the Library of Alexandria and she has a meltdown about it is one of the best in the first half of the film.

Egypt’s political usefulness is more explained than in most versions, though erroneously and including reference to Egypt’s wealth of corn (?!), and Cleopatra’s plan to prevent her empire from becoming a province of Rome is more sound than it normally is. (Because normally it’s: “sleep with some dudes and see what happens.”)

There’s also some focus on Cleopatra as a mother, which had previously been avoided, and it’s handled well. Motherhood is a political strategy for the pharaoh, but also something that anchors her motivations. Her son and her country pull her in the same direction, because her son will one day inherit Egypt, and the fate of both is tied.

The most interesting addition is the emphasis on Cleopatra’s religion, and the scenes about godhood and the deification of leaders. In a couple of places, it’s way too mystical, particularly during the assassination of Caesar, but it’s a unique twist on the telling.

Ultimately, like Claudette Colbert before her, Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t happy with how the whole thing shook out.

“I was finally forced to see it in London,” she told interviewers Jerry Vermilye and Mark Ricci for their book The Films of Elizabeth Taylor, “knowing full well, after what I’d heard, that I’d be sick to my stomach. They had cut out the heart, the essence, the motivations, the very core, and tacked on all those battle scenes. It should have been about three large people, but it lacked reality and passion. I found it vulgar.”

She wasn’t being totally unfair. There’s a disconnect between the pillars of power, and the human element is noticeably absent in some key moments. But, it’s not really that bad.

And two overlooked supporting players deserve some recognition that they don’t always get, just because the scandals and the drama of the production tend to outshine the narrative of the film itself. Martin Landau as the ever-present Rufio, he who must explain all the politics to us without it feeling like a big old wad of exposition. Can he pull off the Roman helmets? No. Does it matter? Not when he gets the best line in the movie.

When the Roman armies are suffering from a desertion issue because of lack of supplies, Rufio tries to convince Antony to ask Cleopatra for aid, and that he has to be respectful and polite to her because she’s Queen of Egypt.

ANTONY: Queens! Strip them as naked as any other woman, they’re no longer queens.
RUFIO: It is also difficult to tell the rank of a naked general. And generals without armies are naked indeed.

Also bringing it home is Roddy McDowall as Octavian. It’s a performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination, though he lost to John Huston in The Cardinal because the people who vote for Golden Globe recipients aren’t good at it. No matter how you slice it, in the story of Cleopatra, Octavian is the villain. McDowall, with a head of golden curls, sells the original emperor as a goldbricking, covetous, insecure mastermind. It’s well done.

Ultimately, though, for a film about Cleopatra, the movie fails to make her as relevant as her male counterparts. And it failed to do anything to help Elizabeth Taylor get away from her image as a homewrecker. It actually made it way worse.

In 1934, Claudette Colbert seized victory from the role of Cleopatra and mimicked the pharaoh’s strength and tenacity when she broke away from her over-sexualized public image. In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor inherited Cleopatra’s curse, when the story of her life became the story of her romances.

Maybe both pharaoh and movie star do get the last laugh, though.

Cleopatra’s name is one of the best known of the ancient world, and her popularity and mystique have led to a fascination with Egypt that has allowed her beloved nation’s treasures to be preserved. Elizabeth Taylor is warmly regarded as not just a movie star, but a woman whose philanthropic efforts continue to reverberate, even after her death.

And people rarely have nice things to say about the Romans or the Hollywood press. 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Cleopatra (1934)

Claudette Colbert was tired of being a sex symbol.

It all started in 1932 with The Sign of the Cross, an elaborate spectacle that director Cecil B. DeMille had managed to put together on a shoestring budget. The film is almost comically lurid, and between the scantily clad women being fed to crocodiles and the “Dance of the Naked Moon” it’s not exactly the standard Christian Epic. It made money, though, and Colbert’s part had been pretty good.

She played Empress Poppea, the beautiful second wife of Nero. The best of her scenes take place in a milk bath – “real asses’ milk” according to DeMille at a press conference, but in actuality just regular old powdered cows’ milk. The lights kept heating it up, so it soured quickly and smelled terrible; nevertheless, Colbert powered through her discomfort and delivered a memorable and intriguing performance.

That didn’t matter at all, though, because everybody was talking about her boobs. You could see ‘em when she was in the tub!

Even the Catholic Church was talking about Claudette Colbert’s popcorn catchers, and cited them as a reason they were forming the Catholic Legion of Decency to combat objectionable media. True fact.

It was understandable, then, that when 1934 rolled around and she was asked by DeMille to play Cleopatra she was hesitant. For the most part, history had painted Cleopatra as a seductress who used her perfumed wiles to get powerful men into bed with her.

The Romans had won the war, with her rival Octavian left standing to be in charge of the telling of the tale, and it was his version that trickled down to Shakespeare – responsible, for the most part, for the inaccurate elements that have become best known – and through Shakespeare into lavish Victorian paintings. But the Egyptology craze that had begun in the 1920’s was changing what the average non-Egyptian knew about pharaohs, and it soon became apparent that there was more to Cleopatra than a pair of soft lips whispering into the ears of powerful men.

Despite having appendicitis, Claudette Colbert agreed to do the picture.

(Remember all of this when you hear old stories about her being a difficult actress. She showed up to work a twelve hour day in a stinking pool of milk, did her next film with an exploding organ in her body, and was literally always on time with her lines learned, starring in three of 1934’s biggest money makers and critical successes. Then she wanted to take a vacation and asked for a raise, and boom. Difficult.)

With Warren William and his Barrymore-reminiscent profile joining as Julius Caesar, and newcomer Henry Wilcoxon set to play Marc Antony, things work out pretty good on the casting front. William was the king of the Pre-Code era, and like Caesar he would find himself becoming controversial as a new empire rose from the stones he had helped set. In his case, it would be a Hollywood changed by censorship and uncertain how to handle the mix of heroism and ethical dubiousness of his usual characters. By his early death in 1948, he was already a faded star.

Wilcoxon, on the other hand, would continue a long and fruitful career with DeMille, eventually producing with him on The Greatest Show on Earth, The Buccaneer, and The Ten Commandments. Like Antony, the death of his lauded mentor meant hard times for him, and his career struggled after 1959.

Both male leads acquit themselves well in Cleopatra, with the more experienced William turning in some unexpectedly boyish humour and gliding over the clunky, unnatural dialogue with ease. Wilcoxon is a sturdy figure, rough and unpolished in looks and mannerisms, and it suits his character, even if he doesn’t give the most convincing speeches.

Early DeMille films all have terrible, terrible, terrible dialogue, btw. It’s just how it goes. (Right at the beginning, an Egyptian asks a pushy Roman soldier: “What do you think you own, the earth?” The Roman soldier replies: “Yes!” It’s supposed to be insight into Roman arrogance. It’s super subtle.)

As a director, he was more concerned with what characters were doing rather than saying, and where they were doing things, what they were wearing while they did them, and how many extras could be in the shot watching. It was about spectacle. In the ‘30s – kind of like now – when people went to the trouble of paying for a movie ticket, they wanted to see something.

And, if nothing else, Cleopatra is certainly worth looking at.

The sets are dynamite. Art deco infused Ancient Egypt, gilded with gold and dwarfing the human figures with its grandeur. Highly stylized and completely historically inaccurate, the sets bring to life a concept missing in so many other films about pharaohs: that Egypt was bigger than those that ruled it. It was an ancient place even in the time of Cleopatra. She lived closer to man landing on the moon than she did to the year the pyramids were constructed, and she was doomed to be the last link in a chain that was being shattered by a Roman civil war. Early on, Cleopatra’s face is framed with an enormous sunken statue’s, the monument to the pharaoh of old slowly sinking into the sand as she begins, unknowingly, her quest to stop her empire’s demise.

Rome is full of airy gardens, and unexpected corridors. The sequence when Caesar parades through the streets is intriguingly claustrophobic, with its square buildings and narrow streets. As though Rome is an anthill, full of very dangerous ants.

Hans Dreier did the art direction. He’d later win an Academy Award for Sunset Boulevard.

The legendary Travis Banton did the costumes. The Romans are strutting peacocks, swathed in dramatic dark velvets, and shimmering silks. Octavian, especially, looks dandified and ornamental in his white enamel breastplate, and his first outfit that looks like something you’d be more likely to see on a Star Trek pleasure planet than in Egypt. Julius Caesar, as his position becomes more vulnerable unbeknownst to him, makes a shift from heavy fabrics and dark colours, to light white tunics.

It’s the women who stand out the most, though. Cleopatra herself is ornamented in winged crowns, golden cobras, scarab amulets, jeweled collars, strands of pearls, and very little fabric. The dresses for all the female characters are extremely low-cut, and none cut lower than those of the pharaoh.

Even though she looks gorgeous, the skimpiness was not what Claudette Colbert had been expecting. And it added fuel to the Poppea-boobgate fire, stoking her image as a sex-symbol and shifting the focus away from her performance. The costuming was exactly the kind of thing she’d been hoping to avoid.

But what about the role itself? Is Cleopatra different here than in all the male-driven stories before that ignore her role as politician in favour of amping up the girlfriend-of-famous-Romans angle?

Yes and no.

Ultimately, the story shifts gears from being a historical drama to being a tragic romance, which creates a sluggish third act and an indecisive Cleopatra. To the story – and Colbert’s – credit, we see her transform from a surly, 18 year-old princess caught up in world politics to a cool, even-headed manipulator. At the heart of her motivation is Egypt. A massive inheritance, mired in symbolism and tradition, that she loves above all other things.

Until Antony comes along, and reverses her seduction so successfully that she would hand Egypt over to its conquerors rather than risk his life.


Apart from having little bearing on what was actually going down during the Roman civil wars and the formation of the Roman Empire, it’s a blow to her characterization. Egypt is presented as the prize throughout, and when she tries to sign it away to Octavian, it’s an undignified and soppy moment for Cleopatra. (Albeit, it’s a sincere improvement over Theda Bera’s silent 1917 Cleopatra, who was a tyrannical sex-fiend with no sense of duty to her country.)

She becomes, unfortunately, defined by her romantic entanglements, rather than the nation she leads or the culture she’s desperately trying to preserve.

When all was said and done, Claudette Colbert managed to leverage the role into a new on-screen identity, though. It showed her what she didn’t want to be, and its box-office success and Oscar nominations, along with her other 1934 project, It Happened One Night, proved she was capable of carrying an impressive range of roles. She vowed that she would never, ever play the scantily clad seductress again, and she never did.

It was a big step forward in the story of Claudette Colbert, and a small step forward in how we tell the story of one of history’s most famous and misunderstood women.

But that’s not the last we’ll hear of Cleopatra this week! Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at the 1963 remake starring Elizabeth Taylor in some game-changing eyeliner.

And don’t forget to check out all the other fantastic entries in the Royalty on Film Blogathon!