Film historian William K. Everson once observed that the secret to the success of Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 Cleopatra is that DeMille subtly reshaped the known historical events into a contemporary "gold-digger makes good" scenario. Exhibiting the same determination with which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top in 1933's Baby Face, Queen Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) uses her feminine wiles to become sole ruler of Egypt. By turns kittenish and cold-blooded, Cleopatra wraps such otherwise responsible Roman worthies as Julius Caesar (Warren William, who wittily plays his role like one of his standard ruthless business executives) and Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) around her well-manicured little finger. To emphasize the "contemporary" nature of the film, DeMille adds little modernistic touches throughout: The architecture of Egypt and Rome has a distinctly art-deco look; a matron at a social gathering clucks "Poor Calpurnia...well, the wife is always the last to know"; and, after Caesar's funeral, Mark Anthony is chided by an associate for "all that 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' business!" Cleopatra's barge scene and her suicide from the bite of a snake marked two of the most memorable sequences in DeMille's career. Remarkably, for all the enormous sets and elaborate costumes, Cleopatra came in at a budget of $750,000 -- almost $40 million less than the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor remake.
by Hal Erickson synopsis