The Man Ray Movie Challenge: Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)

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To view Caesar and Cleopatra click here.

In 1951, surrealist artist Man Ray, who was a fan of the cinema, quipped, “The worst films I have ever seen, the ones that put me to sleep, contain ten or fifteen marvelous minutes. The best films I have ever seen only contain ten or fifteen worthwhile ones.” Man Ray made this provocative statement because he liked to gripe that popular movies were too long. I don’t necessarily agree with the reason for his comment, but I like the idea behind it in general, especially the first half of the statement. I often find a scene, sequence, performance, shot or ten marvelous minutes in movies I don’t like. In the spirit of Man Ray, and with the entire FilmStruck catalogue at my disposal, I decided to challenge myself by occasionally watching and writing about a film that I detested. The challenge is to find something about the film that I did like, or to offer a suggestion on why it should be viewed.

This is not to suggest that any of the films available on FilmStruck are “bad,” which is vague criteria to begin with, but to recognize that viewers don’t all have the same tastes, and to acknowledge that some films don’t age well.

I like to think that I love movies so much I will watch anything, but the truth is that there are entire genres I avoid. Tops on that list are historical and biblical epics, which in general I find talky, tedious and turgid. So, for my first Man Ray movie challenge, I opted to watch Caesar and Cleopatra, a 1945 historical epic by Gabriel Pascal based on the play by George Bernard Shaw.

CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA

The historical epic, especially from the classic era, is identified by its scale and spectacle. Enormous interior sets and exterior locations made up the visual design, which were populated by the obligatory “cast of thousands.” In the post-WWII era, historical and biblical epics experienced a resurgence because color and widescreen added to the spectacle. But, a style of formal dialogue that was heavy and often ponderous also typified the films. The films tended to look static, because camera movement and editing were kept to a minimum in order to showcase the sets, costumes and actors with long passages of dialogue.

It was conventional to cast British actors in primary roles no matter the film’s historical epoch or geographical locations. This week, social media was abuzz with controversy over the casting of Disney’s live-action version of Aladdin; rumors are afloat that the studio can’t find a Middle Eastern actor to play the title role, though I suspect those rumors are inaccurate or incomplete. Given this debate, I couldn’t help but think about the historical/biblical genre in which British and articulate American actors were often cast as Romans, Israelites, Egyptians, Persians, even Frenchmen. There was never any attempt to capture the accents of the characters’ ethnic backgrounds; indeed, the point was for formally trained actors to speak in that theatrical, artificial style we have all heard in The Robe (1953), multiple versions of Cleopatra, Quo Vadis (1951), Julius Caesar (1953), The Egyptian (1954), The Sign of the Pagan (1954), etc. (British and American stars are still cast in biblical/historical epics, which critics condemn as the “white-washing” of ethnic roles, though performances tend to be more modern and natural.)

I found Caesar and Cleopatra followed the conventions of the genre, making the film static, talky and packed full of Brits masquerading as Romans, Egyptians and Persians.  In other words, it features everything I dislike about the genre. Vivien Leigh starred as Cleopatra, while Claude Rains played Caesar. Stewart Granger costarred as a Sicilian named Apollodorus, and Flora Robson costarred as Cleo’s Egyptian nurse, Ftatateeta. In an early speaking role, Michael Rennie appeared as the 1st Centurion. The exception to the all-white cast were the black actors who played the Nubians, though their subservient positions made their scenes uncomfortable to watch, especially a scene in which Cleopatra chases a frightened Nubian slave with a stick just because, “I must beat someone.” In the context of the play, the scene was supposed to be comic, and show Cleo’s lack of suitability as a ruler, but the slave character is too stereotyped for the scene to be effective.

George Bernard Shaw’s fictionalized version of Caesar and Cleopatra was written as a play in 1898, published in 1901 in a volume titled Three Plays for Puritans, and produced in New York City in 1906. Given the time frame, the dialogue is literary and theatrical; in other words, highly artificial. The narrative revolves around middle-aged Caesar mentoring the immature, 16-year-old Cleopatra. From Caesar, she learns to be a mature ruler who is respected and revered. Even accounting for the age of the material and the relationship of the two main characters, I still cringed at some of the dialogue. Captivated by Cleo’s vivaciousness, Caesar chuckles, “You impossible little dream witch.” Good grief.

Though the film was the most expensive British production up to that time, and director Pascal imported Egyptian sand for the exterior sets, the look of the film is not spectacular or impressive. The sets are large but generic, the costumes mediocre and the wigs downright hideous. If I were going to find something I liked, or something to recommend in Caesar and Cleopatra, then I had my work cut out for me.

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Thank God for Stewart Granger. About a third of the way through the film, a boyish Granger bolts onto the screen as Apollodorus, a Sicilian from a patrician family who is a lover of the arts. Unlike Leigh, whose youthful demeanor reads as immaturity, Granger exhibits an exuberance that adds energy to his scenes. Even his costuming is different from the other Romans; his togas are far shorter and much skimpier. His youthful persona makes a nice counterpart to Claude Rains, who plays Caesar as a sagacious sage in a floor-length toga bemoaning his middle age. Granger and Rains are more interesting to watch as they play off each other than Rains and Vivien Leigh. I disliked Shaw’s interpretation of Cleo, who seems like an early version of Eliza Doolittle to Rains’s Henry Higgins-like Caesar. Poor Leigh is buried under unearthly pale makeup and a hideous wig, and her experiences on this production were tragic and horrible. She was sick and pregnant during shooting, and she miscarried after tripping and falling during the slave-flogging scene mentioned earlier. According to Granger in his memoirs, she attempted to have Pascal removed as director for the rest of the production.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) Directed by Gabriel Pascal Shown: Jean Simmons

Granger’s performance accounts for my “ten to fifteen marvelous minutes,” but for those viewers who are more ambitious, I recommend doing a little ground work before watching the film. Caesar and Cleopatra is a faithful production of Shaw’s play by director Pascal, who devoted the second half of his career to bringing the playwright’s work to the screen. A close, careful viewing reveals the subtleties of the characters’ motivations and maneuverings: Caesar teaches Cleopatra how to rule and how to act like royalty, but she learns so well that she begins to “maneuver” him. This is likely Shaw’s jab at Britain the Empire, which liked to think it could best tell its colonies how to govern their own people. Likewise, close attention to the dialogue rewards patient viewers with examples of Shaw’s wit, unlike the example given above. The impossibility of pronouncing Ftatateeta’s name becomes a running joke, which is amusing.

So, step up and take the Man Ray challenge. If you have seen Caesar and Cleopatra—and found it wanting—try to find something you did like. If you haven’t seen it, take a look: It may turn out to be a favorite.

Susan Doll

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16 Responses The Man Ray Movie Challenge: Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
Posted By Doug Miller : July 24, 2017 2:22 am

Very fun read and challenge! I would watch anything by Shaw, anywhere, any time, but I understand what you are saying about this film (and completely agree with part A of the Man Ray quip). I mostly know Granger from his later work, which I find tedious, but I will give him a chance. (Pondering, however, your reference to “sagacious sage.” Is this another way of saying that the film his trying too hard to establish Caesar’s — or Rains’ — sagacity?)

Posted By Susan Doll : July 24, 2017 2:43 am

Hi Doug:
Thanks for being my first reader and commenter!! By sagacious, I was referring to the way Caesar was all-knowing, with such a keen sense of judgment. He seemed to know how all of the Egyptians should behave as rulers, and he dispensed this wisdom like an elder statesman. Because he was older, he was sage-like.

Posted By Emgee : July 24, 2017 4:15 am

As a rule i avoid any movie that has the word “epic” as a tag line. It’s sure to be a snooze.

Posted By Mads Andersen : July 24, 2017 5:47 am

I have seen it before, at a point when I was on a serious
Vivien Leigh tear. I thought the movie was OK, nothing special, though not that bad, either. For one thing, I don’t get into the race thing when it comes to the casting in movies. It would be hard to enjoy a lot of old
Hollywood if I did.
Anyway, it’s not hard to find something about the movie to like, at least not for me – Vivien Leigh makes just about any movie worthwhile.

Posted By Kira : July 24, 2017 6:37 am

I’m so glad to know that there are other people who dislike epic films; great review, Susan!

Posted By D. Holland : July 24, 2017 11:09 am

I enjoyed reading your take on this film and giving it some attention. I didn’t find the movie tedious but it was rather silly. But as you so kindly pointed out, many of the details of the film were standard procedure for that time in film history. If you want to watch it with an open mind and can get past all of the inaccuracies of the time period represented and want to watch it as something of a mostly comedic attempt by Shaw to entertain the masses of people that love his plays and subsequent films, as I do, may enjoy it not for what it might have been for seriousness and accuracy but for a bit of a light-hearted, to a degree, of fiction then I would recommend it. BUT I have to confess… THE main reason I even gave it a chance many years ago was because I was and still am completely obsessed with the wonderfully consummate actor that was Claude Rains! So, there you have it, I’m admitting that I liked it because of his presence! lol So thank you for the post, I enjoyed it.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 24, 2017 12:29 pm

D. Holland: Hey, I am with you on Claude Rains. I would watch a film of him reading the phone book.

Posted By George : July 24, 2017 2:30 pm

With rare exceptions (like 2001), bloated and self-serious sci-fi movies bore me. I walked out of INTERSTELLAR because it was putting me to sleep. I somehow made it to the end of ARRIVAL even though I nodded off several times.

I know some people regard those movies as brilliant masterpieces, but they did nothing for me.

The only genres s I entirely avoid are movies based on videogames (not a gamer), movies based on YA novels aimed at adolescent girls (definitely not my demographic!), and comedy versions of bad TV shows such as Baywatch, 21 Jump Street, CHIPs, etc.(I didn’t watch the shows when they were new, so why would I want to see a parody?)

Posted By George : July 24, 2017 2:41 pm

I’m also proud to say I’ve never sat through a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel (a genre unto itself). The trailers are grueling enough! And one movie based on a Dan Brown novel (The Da Vinci Code) was plenty for me.

Posted By Jenny G. : July 24, 2017 3:00 pm

I can usually sit through a bad movie if the sets and costumes are awesome. This doesn’t sound like one I could handle.

I’ve always liked Stewart Granger because of Shelley Winters book.

Posted By Doug Miller : July 24, 2017 3:31 pm

Just as a follow-up, I learned that sagacios and sage have different roots, and that sagacity is related to sagacious but not sage (I think). As for Claude Rains, yes, he’s wonderful, it’s been a real education getting to know his work (beyond Casablanca). I still think he might have been miscast in this. Interestingly, it was fun for me to see Rex Harrison in the later (1963?) Cleopatra: much more vigorous and fun to watch than Burton.

Posted By AL : July 24, 2017 7:23 pm

Claude Rains–an ActorsActor. He only failed once: THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL 1938–he was ludicrously miscast as a NYC police inspector; no matter–he is one of the Immortals…

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : July 24, 2017 8:53 pm

I thought the first ten minutes, during Caesar’s opening soliloquy — as delivered by Rains — was magical. Went swiftly downhill from there. Vivien Leigh — exquisite as always, but unbearably kittenish. (I saw a later televised version with Sir Alec Guiness and Genevieve Bujold that I liked more — there is something feral about Bujold that fit the role better.)

I too will forgive Claude Rains almost everything. (just don’t ask me to watch the “Daughters” pictures again.)

Posted By Rick Gould : July 24, 2017 10:27 pm

Great premise in which to view of a film or genre you don’t typically like, Susan.

I just wrote a blog essay on a movie I am appalled by, from one of my favorite directors: Billy Wilder’s ‘Kiss Me, Stupid.’

I actually watched it TWICE to try to see why current revisionists praise the ’64 sex comedy as a misunderstood masterpiece.

Well, I still find ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is misguided, crass, witless, miscast, and overlong.

But I unknowingly used Man Ray’s challenge so I wouldn’t write a total Debbie Downer review and have Wilder devotees coming after me with Internet torches lit!

Here is what I found that was excellent about ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’:

Felicia Farr is delightful as Orville Spooner’s wife, Zelda. Farr is lovely, with big sparkling eyes, and is smart, funny, sexy, and charismatic. She far outshines Novak’s amateurish comedic attempts.

Despite the one-note, plodding, endless farce in between, Billy Wilder sets up and concludes this convoluted sex comedy with typical skill and style. The movie opens on ‘Dino’ Martin’s closing night, with the Martin marquee being taken down. Which is funny, because Wilder proceeds to dismantle his image! The finale, wrapped up outside of an appliance store featuring a bank of TVs with Martin performing on them, all the characters’ follies are resolved, with Zelda proclaiming the film’s title. It’s like two tasty slices of bread, with nothing in between!

Finally, I give Wilder credit for not copping out on the risque premise, when so many sex comedies of the era compromised to satisfy censors.

So, that’s my Man Ray moment!

Rick

Posted By Susan Doll : July 24, 2017 10:36 pm

Rick: Excellent. I am glad the Man Ray Challenge is catching on.

Posted By kingrat : July 26, 2017 12:36 am

Love the Man Ray challenge idea. Of course Vivien Leigh is a very British Cleopatra, but it’s worthwhile to remember that Cleopatra was not Egyptian; she was a Macedonian Greek.

Shaw’s play has not held up as well as Claude Rains’ immense talent or the sex appeal of Vivien Leigh and Stewart Granger.

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