Caesar and Cleopatra
Sunday January, 14 2018 at 11:45 AM
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The film legacy of the Hungarian producer-director Gabriel Pascal (1894-1954) is chiefly remembered for his career mission to bring the works of George Bernard Shaw to the masses. The sincerity of his intent to do the source material justice was enough to sway the famously skeptical playwright to offer up both the rights and his blessing, commencing with the Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller Pygmalion (1938). The reviews and receipts that followed that film, as well as Major Barbara (1941), emboldened the filmmaker to take on a more lavish period tale from Shaw's portfolio, as well as its attendant costs. Undertaken during the height of WWII, the result was the most extravagant effort mounted by the British film industry to date. While the critical reception that greeted Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) upon its release was largely positive, the cost overruns encountered in a notoriously troubled production history combined with sufficient public indifference at the box-office to effectively scuttle Pascal's career.
The film's literal rendition of Shaw's prose finds Caesar (Claude Rains) on a sojourn to Alexandria in order to stave off growing civil unrest, and to take the measure of Egypt's beautiful young queen (Vivien Leigh). While undeniably charmed by her, he notes her manipulation at the hands of her personal attendant Ftatateeta (Flora Robson) and prime minister Pothinus (Francis L. Sullivan). While patiently schooling Cleopatra in power and responsibility, Caesar also places himself in position to take the Lighthouse of Alexandria with his cohorts, including the aide de camp Rufio (Basil Sydney) and the handsome Sicilian adventurer Apollodorus (Stewart Granger). Cleopatra, in the meantime, has quickly hewn to Caesar's advice, manipulating the Roman into helping her wrest full power from her half-brother Ptolemy (Anthony Harvey).
Pascal's pact with Shaw gave the playwright casting approval for the filmmaker's projects, and Leigh, who badly coveted the role of Cleopatra, began a campaign for G.B.S.' approval, starting by mounting a London stage production of The Doctor's Dilemma in 1942. The successful run lead to an invitation to Shaw's London flat, and as recounted in Anne Edwards' bio Vivien Leigh, "from the moment she stepped through Shaw's sitting-room door she acted the Persian kitten. Just before the interview came to a close Shaw mischievously 'suggested' she should play Cleopatra, and waited for her reaction with a bemused expression. She lowered her head demurely and then looked up at him with a humble expression to ask him if he really thought she was ready for such a great role. Shaw pulled back and stroked his beard, finally declaring that it hardly mattered because Cleopatra was a role that played itself."
Filming commenced at Denham Studios in June 1944, and various factors wound up stretching the anticipated four-month shooting schedule over a year with the production costs rising to a then-staggering $5.2 million. The unseasonable cold took its toll on the beautiful if fragile leading lady, who became pregnant in the weeks before cameras started to roll. In his memoir Sparks Fly Upward, Granger asserted that Pascal "insisted that Vivien play a difficult and strenuous scene that could have easily been shot with a double. It entailed rushing over a slippery marble floor and flogging a slave. She slipped and fell heavily. Two days later she miscarried. She never forgave Pascal for this and from then on was constantly trying to have him replaced by another director, but without success."
Granger's memories of the very real hazards of having the cameras roll during wartime were chillingly driven home as he spoke of the sequence where Apollodorus delivers the rug-swathed Cleopatra to Caesar. "This entailed using a huge crane and lifting me and a dummy Vivien from the boat onto the Pharos which towered about a hundred feet above. I had to place one foot on a gigantic hook and, clutching the chain with my hands, be swept about 150 feet into the air before being lowered on to the set above. As an acute sufferer from vertigo I was absolutely terrified. I asked that they shoot it without rehearsal as I wanted to get it over with."
As the winch brought Granger to the apex, the familiar and terrible sound of a German V1 unmanned bomber split the sky. "Everyone rushed to take cover. I was left dangling in the air, knowing that if I fell I wouldn't land in the water, but on to the spiky scaffolding directly beneath me...The bomb went off about 200 yards away and the whole construction started to sway. I yelled out in terror and suddenly some of the men realized what happened. 'Christ, it's old Jim, we've forgotten the poor bugger.'" (Granger, for obvious reasons, couldn't use his given name of James Stewart professionally.) Though the crewmen lowered the actor safely down, his fingers had to be pried off the chain one by one.
While a strong marketing effort was made in the States to capitalize on the popularity enjoyed there by Rains and Leigh, the initial audience rush swiftly died off, as crowds weaned on De Mille-style spectacles found it too high-toned for their tastes. John Bryan's art direction was the only nomination the project received at Oscar® time, and Caesar and Cleopatra wound up with only $2.2 million in total receipts. Pascal's grand scheme of filming the Shavian oeuvre was effectively ended; his next screen credit, the Hollywood-mounted adaptation of Androcles and the Lion (1952), would prove to be his last.
Producer and Director: Gabriel Pascal
Screenplay: George Bernard Shaw (also the play)
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff, Jack Hildyard, Robert Krasker and Freddie Young
Art Direction: John Bryan and Oliver Messel
Music: Georges Auric
Film Editing: Frederick Wilson and Joan Warwick (uncredited)
Cast: Julius Caesar (Claude Rains), Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh), Apollodorus (Stewart Granger), Ftatateeta (Flora Robson), Pothinus (Francis L. Sullivan), Rufio (Basil Sydney), Britannus (Cecil Parker).
by Jay S. Steinberg