Cleopatra (1963): Taking a Bad Rap for the Wrong Reasons

The original “Vamp” Theda Bara played the title role in the silent and now lost 1917 version.  Claudette Colbert starred as the Egyptian queen in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra.   (“There’s no room in Rome for both Octavian and me!” cried Henry Wilcoxon’s Marc Antony, hardly distinguishing it from a western.)  In the literate but cleopatra.jpgsomewhat set-bound and slightly dull 1945 version of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh played the seductress.  Rhonda Fleming was the low-budget Serpent of the Nile (1953), which might be worthwhile just to see Raymond Burr as Marc Antony!  The scale of the 1963 version of Cleopatra put these predecessors in the shade.  It was also notable for other reasons:  the adulterous romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the time and money spent (Taylor got a million dollars for her participation), the somewhat risqué (for the time) bath scene, the changing of directors, the start-over with a new cast in Italy after the film had begun shooting in the totally inappropriate English climate, the movie’s architect and producer Walter Wanger forbidden by 20th Century-Fox to attend the premiere.

The movie was castigated by many critics, which should raise eyebrows because the director of record, respected multi-Academy Award winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives, 1949; All About Eve, 1950) was at the helm.  Could it be that all the off-set shenanigans colored critics’ opinions?  In any event, those negative reviews didn’t matter to the public, which turned out en masse to see the final product.  So, if it didn’t upon first release make a huge profit (having cost upwards of an astronomical $40,000,000), it was not a flop, and 20th Century survived thanks to the success of the previous year’s roadshow The Longest Day, the selling of Cleopatra to broadcast TV, and in 1965 the gigantic success that was The Sound of Music.

In addition to Cleopatra’s stunning sets, Alex North’s score was truly magnificent, as had been his music for another recent Roman epic whose protagonists were almost contemporary with Caesar’s Rome:  Spartacus (1960).  North demonstrated with these epics that he was on a par with Miklos Rozsa (Quo Vadis, 1951; Ben-Hur, 1959; King of Kings, 1961; El Cid, 1961.)  North was nominated for Cleopatra, but the Academy Award winner in that category was John Addison for Tom Jones.  Long-time master cinematographer Leon Shamroy did win for Best Cinematography as did John DeCuir battleand others for Art Direction, and Irene Sharaff and her team for Costume Design.

However, there is one element that no one has latched onto that does justify disappointment with Cleopatra:  only two action sequences adorn this four-hour-plus production:  the siege of Caesar’s quarters in Alexandria that is broken by formation of the legionnaires into a “turtle” to destroy the Egyptian catapults, and the sea battle of Actium.  Marc Antony (Richard Burton) attempting to commit suicide by attacking Octavian’s forces solo hardly counts.  What should have been added is not the aftermath of the Battle of Pharsalus at the beginning of the movie, but the battle itself.  This lack of action also compromised Spartacus (1960).  As with Cleopatra, only the consequence, not the slave army’s first defeat of a Roman army is shown.  Although the final, futile battle begins promisingly, with disciplined legions forming up against massed slaves and their hodge-podge weapons, the battle soon degenerates into a melee, with man against man rather than a launch of legionnaires’ pila (javelins) followed by a locking of shields and the wielding of the gladius, or short sword, to hobble Spartacus’s host.

In Cleopatra, Rex Harrison played Caesar, received an Academy Award nomination caesar(Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field) but would not win until the ensuing year’s My Fair Lady.  It was rumored that he contributed some of his salary to perk up the action.  Not so, said his son Carey:

“Incidentally, I never heard that my father offered to contribute money to Fox for more action in Cleopatra.  It’s improbable on so many grounds that I hardly know where to begin.  My Dad would never have done such a thing because the idea of his contributing cash to Fox of all hated companies, no matter what he wanted to achieve, is absurd beyond belief (except as a joke over dinner?), and he didn’t have any money, not the kind of money (this was 1961) that would have paid for more than thirty seconds of ‘action.'”

All in all, Cleopatra does not deserve undue opprobrium.  It was unique, and Nathan Weiss, one of the film’s publicists, astutely observed in a July 28, 1962 missive from Rome how Cleopatra would:

“…mark the end of a Hollywood era—Hollywood as we knew it as kids, as the world has come to have an image of it.  I think with this film it can be seen that the whole system finally breaks down under its own weight.  That genius has salvaged greatness out of bigness is an accident not likely to be repeated, or too soon attempted…The [Spyros] Skouras era, almost the company as we know it, is over at 20th Century-Fox, and with it comes a glimpse of the final The End on the movies, as so many of us have lived them and dreamed them since childhood.”

elizabeth taylor

References

Brodsky, Jack, and Weiss, Nathan.  The Cleopatra Papers:  A Private Correspondence.  1963.

Harrison, Carey.  email to Kim Holston.  February 3, 2019.

Wanger, Walter, and Hyams, Joe.  My Life with Cleopatra.  1963.

 

By Kim

 

Staff Picks November 2019

STAFF Picks (1)

Emily’s Picks

DVD: Persuasion

An exceptionally warm and faithful adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of the same Persuasion1995name. The cast is wonderful and the romantic plot is exactly what you want from an Austen drama: sensitive, slow-burning, with a satisfying and deeply touching finish.

CD: Be the Cowboy by Mitski be the cowboy

Relative newcomer Mitski’s fourth and most popular album is quirky and strange in the best way. Her heartfelt, emotional lyrics and haunting voice compliment the buzzing, humming, and beating of her music. Standout tracks include: “Pink in the Night,” “Me and My Husband,” and the hit “Nobody.” Great for fans of indie rock!

Jessie’s Picks

DVD: Crazy Rich Asians

“A native New Yorker Rachel Chu accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young, to Crazy Rich Asianshis best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life. It turns out that he is not only the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families the beautiful mysterybut also one of its most sought-after bachelors.”

Audiobook: The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

“When the renowned choir director is murdered, the lock on the monastery’s massive wooden door is drawn back to admit Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Surete du Quebec. There they discover disquiet beneath the silence, discord in the apparent harmony.”

Kim’s Picks

DVD: The Wages of Fear

An acknowledged classic is this 1953 French-Italian adventure-thriller.  The story:  Four the wages of feardown and out Europeans stranded in a South American backwater are hired to transport nitroglycerine across rough country to the site of an oil well fire where it will be detonated to stop the conflagration.  Who will live, who will die?  This Criterion release includes many extras and a 24-page booklet.  English subtitles.

Audiobook: Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

The author of Guns, Germs and Steel applies his considerable upheavalinsight into the fate of nations currently or in the past facing existential threats that can and sometimes dramatically alter the course of their histories.  Diamond focuses on countries with which he is intimately familiar, i.e., where he has lived for extended periods of time.  These are Finland, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Chile, Germany and the United States.  In Finland’s case, the issue remains how to keep the Soviet Union at bay via diplomacy and and remaining neutral on the world stage.  Japan is an example of a country that in the mid-19th century decided that it must foreswear its isolation, learn from the West and become powerful enough to dissuade other nations from enforcing their wishes upon its civilization.  Australia presents a case for equally rapid change in the 21st century, as when virtually overnight the government under the pragmatic Prime Minister Bob Hawke changed its stance on immigration, business regulation, and health care.  As for the United States, a crisis looms and its outward manifestation is the decline in civility and unwillingness to compromise.

Mary’s Picks

DVD: Julie and Julia

“Julie Powell is a frustrated insurance worker who wants to be a writer. Trying to find a julie and julia.jpgchallenge in her life, she decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ in one year, and to blog about it. As Julie begins to find her groove as a cook, and her voice as a writer, the project takes on a life of its own. The project provides the struggling young woman with her life’s purpose, to her very pleasant surprise. Julia Child has an amazing love affair with her dashing husband, Paul, all while embracing life and French food. Julie lovingly celebrates the life on one of American food’s most influential and beloved figureheads.”

Audiobook: The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch

“London, 1850: A young Charles Lenox struggles to make a name for himself as a the woman in the waterdetective–without a single case. Scotland Yard refuses to take him seriously and his friends deride him for attempting a profession at all. But when an anonymous writer sends a letter to the paper claiming to have committed the perfect crime–and promising to kill again–Lenox is convinced that this is his chance to prove himself. The writer’s first victim is a young woman whose body is found in a naval trunk, caught up in the rushes of a small islet in the middle of the Thames. With few clues to go on, Lenox endeavors to solve the crime before another innocent life is lost. When the killer’s sights are turned toward those whom Lenox holds most dear, the stakes are raised and Lenox is trapped in a desperate game of cat and mouse.”

Stephanie’s Picks

DVD: The Golden Girls

“Four not-so-old seniors have moved in together in a Florida home. They share the golden girls.jpghouse, their dreams, and a whole lot of cheesecake. Dorothy’s main goal is to find a companion she can relate to, while her mother, Sophia loves to tell “Picture this” type of stories. Rose is a little corny, but lovable never-the-less, and Blanche spends her time courting every man she can lay her hands on. All these i let you gofeisty seniors have either been divorced or widowed in the past and are having fun living life in the Sunshine State.”

Audiobook: I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

“On a rainy afternoon, a mother’s life is shattered as her son slips from her grip and runs into the street.”

 

All quoted summaries from catalog.ccls.org

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MoviesThe Art of Racing in the Rain
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TV Series
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Music I Shouldn't Be Telling You This
All Encores by Nils Frahm
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Chronology Of A Dream: Live At The Village Vanguard by Jon Batiste
Take The Stairs by Black Violin
Wildcard by Miranda Lambert
Kiwanuka by Michael Kiwanuka
Imperfect Circle by Hootie & The Blowfish
Voice Of Truth: The Ultimate Collection by Casting Crowns
Christmas by Phil Wickham
I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This by Jeff Goldblum & The Mildred Snitzer Orchestra
Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15, 1967-1969 by Bob DylanThe Starless Sea
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Audiobooks
Kiss The Girls And Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark
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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
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True Love: A Celebration Of Cole Porter by Harry Connick Jr.
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A Christmas Celebration by Jim Brickman
Now That’s What I Call Music 72 by various artists
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Joe Bonamassa Live At The Sydney Opera House by Joe Bonamassa
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The Night Fire by Michael Connelly
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MoviesThe Lion King
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Celestial by Rob Halford
Dionne Warwick & The Voices Of Christmas by Dionne Warwick
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The Deserter by Nelson Demille & Alex Demille
To The Land Of Long Lost Friends by Alexander McCall Smith

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Music
Metal Galaxy by Babymetal
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After The Fire by Cody Jinks
Out Of The Blue by Dan Luke & The Raid

Audiobooks
A Dog’s Promise by W. Bruce Cameron
The Guardians by John Grisham
Stealth by Stuart Woods
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
A Book Of Bones by John Connolly
The Body by Bill Bryson

Anne Helm, Not Forgotten

A great many people bought the weekly TV Guide in the 1960s.  It seems certain that a sizable portion perused the now iconic magazine to read the brief synopses and identify the coming week’s shows and casts.  The perspicacious reader as well as the fans of the anne helmseries’ stars and guest stars would have noticed how often the likes of Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig and Anne Helm appeared in the magazine.  In fact, Helm had prominent roles in over 80 series during that decade.

As a teen in the late 50s, Anne left Toronto with her mother and brother and studied dance and modeled in New York City.  Before long she was in California making her movie debut in a hothouse potboiler, Desire in the Dust (1960).  Anne was “introduced” along with Jack Ging.  Raymond Burr was one of the main stars, and Anne would soon encounter him again on the Perry Mason TV series.  (Season 4, Episode 26, “The Case of the Duplicate Daughter,” 1961)

Anne appeared in such other hit series as The Untouchables, Gunsmoke, Run for Your Life (5 episodes as Molly Pierce), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Season 6, Episode 14, “The Changing Heart,” 1961), and The F.B.I.  Because she was genuinely cute and exceedingly pretty, Anne excelled as both bad and good girls.  In the original Hawaii 5-O she played a mobster’s gal in “By the Numbers” (Season 1, Episode 9, 1968), and a policewoman in “Just Lucky, I Guess” (Season 2, Episode 4, 1969).  On Route 66 she played Sweet Thing, callously tempting Jack Warden on his date farm where date “milk” shakes were available.  (One viewer wondered if she were to be addressed as “Miss Thing”?  Another pointed out that the cash stash in Warden’s rocker consisted entirely of one dollar bills!)

On the big screen Anne was Elvis’s leading lady in what is not his best musical film anne and elvis(although there were a couple instances of singing) but is certainly the cutest and most amusing, Follow That Dream (1962).  That year was a banner one for Helm as she also starred as Princess Helene in the fantasy film The Magic Sword, and was part of an ensemble cast of promising young performers in the very successful and for the time graphic doctor drama, The Interns.  Compared to today, The Couch was a somewhat mild thriller.  She played the sexy resident of the apartment building where resided the sociopathic Grant Williams.  Today her character would be collateral damage.  In ’62 she survived.

In 1964 Anne was cast in Strait-Jacket, one of those post-What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? thrillers that might today be termed psycho-dramas that gave a new lease on life to the likes of Hollywood veterans Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and even Olivia de Havilland.  Strait-Jacket ’s star was Crawford, miffed when Anne came to work sipping a Diet Coke.  Recall that Crawford had married Pepsi’s CEO and took his place on the board after his death in 1959.  For her faux pas with the Coke and other trumped up charges, Anne was fired and replaced by Diane Baker, one of Crawford’s co-stars in The Best of Everything (1959).  Years later, when Anne realized that her own mother was bipolar, she read Crawford’s daughter’s memoir Mommie Dearest and felt vindicated in her negative assessment of the star.

Thenceforth, with a few exceptions, Anne focused her energies on what would prove to be a fruitful TV career.  She loved the opportunity to play so many different characters.  Sweet Thing was obviously the most evocative character name, but she essayed many SONY DSCothers, including Abigail Pettigraw, Dulcie Morrow, Rita Vulner, Helena Dales, Lisa Klemm, Blanche Chante, and on Perry Mason, Glamis Barlow.

After retiring from the screen, Anne taught art to, as she put it, the elders near her home in California.  These days she spends most of her time taking care of her grandchildren.  Anne, who prefers to be called Annie, attended the 14th annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention (MANC) in Hunt Valley outside Baltimore from September 12 to 14, 2019.  She was very surprised that her attendance at MANC attracted so many fans.  Anne Helm, not forgotten.

By Kim

 

References

Helm, Anne.  Follow that Dream:  A Collection of Memories.   [unpublished mss.]

Holston, Kim.  Starlet:  54 Famous and Not-So-Famous Leading Ladies of the Sixties.  1988.

Staff Picks October 2019

STAFF Picks (1)

Dragana’s Picks

DVD: Parlez-Vous Francais?

Parlez-Vous Francais? Not Yet? Learn the basics of the French language Standard parlez vous francais.jpgDeviants’ interactive way with the touch of humor. Try also the #2 in the series, Beyond the Basics.

CD: Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito

Live recording from 1995 of the Boito’s only finished opera. Mefistofele has been known from extracts such as the prologuemefistofele set in heaven and the two tenor arias which Caruso chose for his very first recording. Only a few minutes listening to this splendid and dramatically engaging performance, though, are needed to convince the listener that it’s a work of substance, significance and beauty.

Emily’s Picks

DVD: Over the Garden Wall

This cartoon miniseries premiered on Cartoon Network in 2014, and has gained a steady otgwcult following ever since. Quirky, atmospheric, and beautifully animated, the series follows two brothers who find themselves lost in a strange land called the Unknown. To find their way home they must face mystery and danger– along with a Beast that lives deep in the wood. Great soundtrack and voice-acting. A treat for fans of animation– especially around Halloween!

CD: Dead Man’s Bones by Dead Man’s Bones

You would never guess that the lead singer of this retro-style dead mans bonesspooky rock band was actually Ryan Gosling of “The Notebook” fame– but it’s true! Gosling and co. (along with the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir) have created an album that is creepy, kooky, and really, really fun. A perfect addition to anyone’s Halloween party playlist (or you could do like me and listen all year!).

Jessie’s Picks

DVD: Stranger Things

“1983, Indiana. A young boy vanishes into thin air. As friends, family, and local police stranger things 1.jpgsearch for answers, they are drawn into an extraordinary mystery involving top-secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces, and one very strange little girl.”

Audiobook: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley frankenstein audiobook

“Ambitious young scientist Victor Frankenstein succeeds in creating a living being, then, horrified by his countenance, frightens him away. Wandering in search of companionship, the being is spurned by all and learns to hate and kill. In a confrontation with his maker, he threatens a rampage of destruction unless Frankenstein creates a mate for him.”

Kim’s Picks

DVD: Nighthawks

Curiously forgotten action film from 1981 that introduced Dutch actor Rutger Hauer to a nighthawksworldwide audience as “Wulfgar,” international rogue terrorist dueling with NYC police sergeants played by Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams.  Great chase scenes above and below ground and surprise ending.

CD: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock

Twenty-nine musical selections from the master of suspense’s films of hitch.jpgBlackmail (1929) to Psycho (1960).  Includes the iconic “Funeral March of a Marionette” that opened the long-running (1955-1965) TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents plus selections from such famous films as Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.

Mary’s Picks

DVD: Penny Dreadful

An elegant Victorian Gothic horror series with beautiful cinematography.  Eva Green is penny dreadful.jpgperfectly cast, incredibly intriguing.

CD: The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack fellowship soundtrack.jpg

The now-classic soundtrack from the first Lord of the Rings movie contains a sampling of the film’s most popular themes performed by the London Philharmonic and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras, and is edited to create a “concert-style” experience for the listener. While not a complete score of the film, it still carries its essence, and takes you right back to Middle Earth.

Stephanie’s Picks

DVD: Hocus Pocus

“When three outlandishly wild witches are accidentally conjured up by pranksters, they hocus pocus moviereturn from 17th century Salem and set out to cast a spell on the town, but first they must outwit three kids and a talking cat.”

CD: Stranger Things: Music from the Netflix Original Series stranger tunes

This soundtrack features songs from the hit Netflix series (a great mix of 80’s hits from artists like The Police, Duran Duran, and The Clash) as well as clips of dialogue from the first season. Fans of the series and of 80’s pop music will love it.

 

All quoted summaries from catalog.ccls.org.

New Releases

MoviesToy Story 4
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TV Series
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Music
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Ode To Joy by Wilco
All Mirrors by Angel OlsenTrilogy 2.png
Fire & Brimstone by Brantley Gilbert
Rescue Story by Zach Williams
Trilogy 2 by Chick Corea
Live At The Ryman by Old Crow Medicine Show
A Pill For Loneliness by City and Colour
Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers
So Removed by Wives

AudiobooksThe Giver of Stars
The 19th Christmas by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro
What Happens In Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand
The Giver Of Stars by Jojo Moyes
Child’s Play by Danielle Steel
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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TV Series
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MusicWar In My Mind Beth Hart
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In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights by The New Pornographers
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War In My Mind by Beth Hart
Hey, I’m Just Like You by Tegan & Sara

Audiobooks
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
A Mrs. Miracle Christmas by Debbie Macomber