Historical Dramas

The Lion in Winter (1968)

The Lion in Winter 1968

Just before Christmas in the year 1183, King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) knows the time has come for him to choose an heir to his throne. He has three surviving sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), John (Nigel Terry), and Geoffrey (John Castle), with his wife Eleanor of Aquatine (Katharine Hepburn). Henry ordered Eleanor imprisoned for organizing several civil wars against him, but he allows her to be released for holiday courts and other special events. Henry would prefer for John to inherit the throne, but Eleanor wants the crown to go to Richard, and Geoffrey isn’t happy about being overlooked by both parents.

When Eleanor arrives to join Henry, their sons, Henry’s mistress Princess Alais (Jane Merrow), and Alais’s brother Phillip II (Timothy Dalton), the King of France, for Christmas court at the family’s primary residence at Chinon, choosing an heir to the throne is the primary subject for discussion. Henry and Eleanor are both very conniving and do everything they can to get the son they want next in line for the throne, while Geoffrey is busy making plans of his own to be the next king. All of their schemes and plots unfold over the holiday, culminating with Henry deciding that none of his sons will do and he’d rather have his marriage to Eleanor annulled so he can marry Alais and have new sons. Henry throws all of his sons down in the wine cellar and plans to kill them, for the sake of protecting his future heirs with Alais, but Eleanor refuses to let that happen.

I’m not generally the biggest fan of these types of historical dramas, but The Lion in Winter is most definitely an exception to the rule. For all of the incredible roles Katharine Hepburn had the chance to play over the course of her career, trying to pick the absolute best of all of them isn’t an easy task, but it’s safe to put Eleanor of Aquatine pretty high on that list. It’s truly a role she was born to play; she’s an absolute tour de force. Not only is Katharine Hepburn absolutely phenomenal in it, she’s got an incredible supporting cast with Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry, and John Castle. Everybody involved in the film brought their “A” game. The script is full of razor-sharp dialogue and much more humor than you might expect. I keep trying to think of something I didn’t like about The Lion in Winter, but I just can’t think of anything. A truly magnificent film.

In Old Chicago 1937

In Old Chicago (1937)

While the O’Leary family is traveling to Chicago to find a new life, the family patriarch is killed in an accident, leaving his wife Molly (Alice Brady) to make the trip alone with her two young sons Jack (Don Ameche as an adult, Billy Watson as a child) and Dion (Tyrone Power as an adult, Gene Reynolds as a child). When the family finally arrives in Chicago, Molly starts building a reputation for being an excellent laundress right away. Her laundry business helps her provide a good life for her sons. Jack got a good education and becomes a lawyer. Dion, on the other hand, takes the less respectable route in life and becomes a gambler who falls in love with saloon singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye), who his mother does not approve of.

Eventually, Jack sets his sights on having a career in politics and Dion has gotten involved with the unscrupulous politician Gil Warren (Brian Donlevy). Naturally, their different paths in lives cause a great deal of tension between the two brothers. All of their animosity comes to a head the night of the big Chicago fire of 1871. Jack, who has just been elected mayor of Chicago, is blamed by some of Dion’s cohorts who think Jack is trying to run them out of town and go after him. Meanwhile, Jack is trying to control the fire, only to have his efforts interrupted by Dion’s colleagues. But when Dion finds out what’s going on, can he save his brother?

I really wanted to like In Old Chicagmore than I did. Since I liked Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which also starred Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, and Don Ameche, I had high hopes In Old Chicago, but I much preferred Alexander’s Ragtime Band. The cast wasn’t bad and its production values are very high, but the basic plot is nothing new and framing it around the great Chicago fire didn’t make it any more interesting for me. But the fire scenes were, indeed spectacular. Even with stars like Power, Faye, and Ameche, the real stars of In Old Chicago are the effects specialists who planned the fire scenes. On the whole, it’s not a terrible movie,  just one I was indifferent about except for the fire scenes.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Claudette Colbert Sign of the Cross 1932

Plot

When Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) blames Christians for burning down Rome, the lives of all Christians in Rome are put in great jeopardy. Anyone who openly admits to being a Christian can be arrested and when Marcus (Fredric March) sees Mercia (Elissa Landi) defending a couple of fellow Christians, he instantly falls in love with her and tries everything he can think of to seduce her, but her devotion to her faith doesn’t waver.

Marcus’ newfound love for Mercia puts him in a very precarious situation. Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) is madly in love with him and is incredibly jealous when she hears Marcus is in love with a Christian girl. Poppaea wants Mercia killed and Marcus has a rival who wants to use this information to push him out of favor with Nero. Since Mercia refuses to turn her back on her faith, she is ordered to be fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Marcus begs her to renounce her Christianity to save herself, but she would rather die and Marcus would rather die than live without Mercia.


My Thoughts

“My head is splitting! The wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!”  This is a line delivered by Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero, but the phrase “delicious debauchery” is a perfect summation of Sign of the Cross. This is a movie that stars Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, and Charles Laughton, but let’s be honest here — the real star is Cecil B. DeMille; his unmistakable style is all over this movie.

Sin and debauchery never looked better than when it was being directed by DeMille. He made it all look incredibly lavish and decadent. DeMille was responsible for some other rather notorious pre-codes (CleopatraMadam Satan), but Sign of the Cross is definitely the most sinful of them all. On the whole, I think Cleopatra is a better movie, but Sign of the Cross has it beat as far as pre-code content goes.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Claudette Colbert’s milk bath.

The lesbian dance scene.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Censors had a field day when Sign of the Cross was first released and many scenes had to be removed for post-1934 re-releases, which have since been restored. Many religious groups despised Sign of the Cross because not only was it full of violence, skimpy costumes, nudity, and one scene that is widely referred to as “the lesbian dance scene,” they loathed DeMille for taking a story they felt should be “theirs” and turning it into this movie that is jam-packed with depravity. Regardless of the fact that the movie condemns Christian persecution, Sign of the Cross still pretty much made censors’ heads explode.

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Sign of the CrossAs Nero (Charles Laughton) watches Rome burn, he blames Christians for starting the whole thing rather than admit he started it.  Nero’s accusation places all Christians in Rome in great danger.  When Titus (Arthur Hohl) and Flavius (Harry Beresford) publicly admit to being Christians, they are arrested.  But when fellow Christian Mercia (Elissa Landi) tries to defend them, Marcus (Fredric March) sees her, instantly falls in love, and helps save Titus and Flavius.

Marcus is being romantically pursued by the empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), and when she hears that Marcus has fallen in love with a Christian woman, she becomes extremely jealous.  This places Marcus in a precarious position because not only does Poppaea want Mercia dead, Marcus’ rival takes the opportunity to try to push him out of favor with Nero.  Marcus does everything in his power to seduce Mercia, but there is nothing that can take distract her from her faith.

When all the Christians in Rome, including Mercia, are gathered to be fed to lions for a large crowd’s entertainment, Marcus fights until the very end to save her.  Just before she is to go into the arena, he begs her to renounce her faith to save herself, but she refuses.  Finally, Marcus decides he would rather die in the arena with Mercia than live without her.

The Sign of the Cross is, without a doubt, one of the most completely depraved pre-codes you’ll ever come across.  With Claudette Colbert’s infamous milk bath scene, hedonistic party scenes, revealing costumes, and some rather gruesome moments all mixed together with a message about religious persecution, it’s easy to see why The Sign of the Cross caused quite a commotion.  It’s frequently cited as being one of the movies that drew such a strong reaction from religious groups, it helped usher in the strict enforcement of the production codes.  Even though the movie is actually sympathetic toward Christians, religious groups couldn’t stand Cecil B. De Mille taking stories with religious themes and filling them with so much depravity.

When Sign of the Cross was re-released after the production codes were being strongly enforced, it took quite a bit of work to make it follow the code.  Several scenes had to be cut and in 1944, De Mille filmed a modern-day epilogue and prologue to frame the original movie.  Fortunately, the cut scenes were not lost and have since been restored.

Sign of the Cross isn’t my favorite De Mille movie (that title would go to Cleopatra), but I can’t deny that this movie is completely and totally De Mille’s style.  It’s big, it’s lavish, it’s over the top, it’s everything you expect from a Cecil B. De Mille movie.

Cleopatra (1934)

After being kidnapped and forced out of Egypt, left to die in the desert, Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) turns to the only person she knows can help her — Julius Caesar (Warren William).  She makes her way to see Caesar and just as he is about to officially support her brother Ptolemy over Cleopatra, she makes her grand entrance, unfurled from a rug.  She knows how badly Caesar wants to conquer India, and to make it worth his while to help her, she promises him that he could use Egypt to make his way to India.  Caesar still doesn’t quite trust Cleopatra, but she manages to prove her loyalty to him and seduces him, starting a very passionate affair.  Caesar’s affair with Cleopatra becomes the talk of Rome and has some people very worried for what it could mean for Rome’s future.  When Caesar brings Cleopatra to Rome, those close to him beg him to end things with her, and he ignores them and carries on with his plans to address the senate.  But some people, desperate to save Rome from Caesar and Cleopatra, kill him before he can get to the senate.

With Caesar gone, Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) and Octavian (Ian Keith) are named Rome’s new rulers and it is Marc’s responsibility to avenge Caesar’s death by killing Cleopatra.  He arranges a meeting with Cleopatra in a public place so that his soldiers could ambush her, but she knows better.  Instead, she has Marc join her on her barge, where she plans to win him over with food, liquor, jewels, and dancing girls.  She seduces him and the two of them also begin a passionate love affair.  Meanwhile, back in Rome, Octavian has officially declared Marc a traitor and sends King Herod to Egypt to tell this to Cleopatra.  He also has Herod tell her that if she kills Marc herself, Rome will be friendlier to Egypt.

Cleopatra doesn’t want to kill Marc, but some of her advisors recommend that she do it for the good of Egypt.  King Herod also warns Marc of his traitor status and Marc naturally starts getting nervous when he hears that Cleopatra is testing out poisons on prisoners to be executed.  And although she does plan to poison his wine at a dinner she throws for him, they find out that Rome has declared war on Egypt before he has a chance to drink it.  He goes off to fight with the Egyptians and is defeated.  Cleopatra rushes off to offer Octavian all of Egypt in exchange for Marc’s life, but Marc assumes that she is turning her back on him and stabs himself.  Cleopatra returns in time to find him still alive and explains what she has done, but he soon dies in her arms.  With Marc gone and the Romans breaking down the gate to the palace, Cleopatra decides to end it all with a snake bite.

I believe it was Cecil B. DeMille who once said that if a movie set in a biblical or historical setting, you can get away with anything.  His rendition of Cleopatra is proof of that.  This would be an excellent movie to show to someone who thinks classic movies were all so innocent.  With all of Claudette Colbert’s skimpy costumes, her handmaidens in equally skimpy costumes, adultery, murder, and all sorts of other debauchery, their jaws would be hitting the floor so fast.  Cleopatra was released near the end of the pre-code era, and what a way to end an era!  I don’t even particularly like historical dramas, but I thought this version of Cleopatra was fantastic.  With all the crazy debauchery and the big battle scenes, Cecil B. DeMille was so completely in his element here.  This movie needs to be seen to be believed.

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)

When Julius Caesar (Claude Rains) comes to visit Alexandria, one of the first things he does is see the Sphinx.  While basking in the Sphinx’s glory, he meets a strange, silly young girl who urges him to hide before the Romans find and eat him.  After talking to this girl for a few minutes, he finds out that she is Princess Cleopatra (Vivien Leigh).  At first, she doesn’t realize who he is, or even that he’s Roman.  When she does, she’s initially afraid, but he quickly wins her over.  Caesar takes Cleopatra under his wing and the two of them develop a close friendship.  He helps her find her confidence, teaches her how to act like royalty, and helps her to get power away from her brother.

I was very pleasantly surprised by Caesar and Cleopatra.  Historical dramas, for the most part,  aren’t really my thing.  Generally, I think they’re stiff and humorless and usually go on for way too long.  So I was very pleased to find that Caesar and Cleopatra was actually pretty lighthearted.  I thought Netflix had made a mistake when they described it as “witty,” but there was no mistake.   Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra has a lot Scarlett O’Hara’s steely will and determination, but has a much more playful side.  I really wasn’t expecting to see Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains being so funny and playful.  But what a wonderful surprise it was because Vivien was an absolute delight to watch in her comical scenes.  Actually, I think I liked her better in her funny scenes than in her more Scarlett O’Hara-esque scenes.

Caesar and Cleopatra was a box office failure when it was first released, and it’s still a movie I don’t hear discussed very often.  Maybe it gets overshadowed by Elizabeth Taylor and Claudette Colbert’s turns as Cleopatra, but Caesar and Cleopatra deserves to be re-evaluated a little bit.  It’s not one of the all-time greats, but it’s still very enjoyable fun and not dragged out at all.  Totally unlike any other historical drama I’ve ever seen.  I’m really glad I decided to take a chance on this one.

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