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Better known for playing screwball comedy heroines, Claudette Colbert impersonated two notable biblical beauties early in her career in the Cecil B. DeMille films The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra(1934). The latter film is notable not only for the sophisticated flavor Colbert brings to the role of the doomed monarch, but also for its lavish sets and art direction.
The fabulous costumes that adorned Colbert won raves for designer Travis Banton, although he was not the original costume designer for the film. The scoop is that Banton was called in at the last minute to redesign the entire wardrobe - in one day - because Colbert threatened to walk off the set due to the "unacceptable" gowns made for her by DeMille's staff at Paramount. According to publicity released by the studio, Banton produced "one of the most extravagant wardrobes seen on the screen on a day-to-day basis."
Although Colbert made a stunning Queen of Egypt in her new attire, problems plagued the shoot. Colbert contracted health problems stemming from an attack of appendicitis from the jungle shoot for her previous film, Four Frightened People (1934), and her illness forced her stand-in to rehearse her scenes, as Colbert could only stand for minutes at a time, often collapsing from pain. The elaborate clothing just exacerbated the problems; temperatures were kept low for scenes that included a costume with feathers, so as to prevent molting. Another outfit featured a veil that weighed seventy-three pounds.
After overcoming her illness, Colbert faced another threat - her fear of snakes. DeMille, knowing of his leading lady's phobia, put off filming the death of the Queen of the Nile until the last possible moment. He entered the set with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck - and then handed Colbert a tiny garden snake. The small reptile produced more pity than fear from his amused star.
Cleopatra was a box office success and garnered five Academy Award nominations, including one in a brand-new category: film editing. The film won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Producer/Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Bartlett Cormack, Vincent Lawrence, Waldemar Young
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Film Editing: Anne Bauchens
Original Music: Rudolph G. Kopp
Principal Cast: Claudette Colbert (Cleopatra), Warren William (Julius Caesar), Henry Wilcoxon (Marc Antony), Gertrude Michael (Calpurnia), Joseph Schildkraut (King Herod), Ian Keith (Octavian), C. Aubrey Smith (Enobarbus), Irving Pichel (Apollodorus).
BW-101m. Closed Captioning.
by Genevieve McGillicuddy