By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009 12:00 AM
Egyptian queens seducing married Roman rulers. Singers crooning tunes in praise of pot. Convicts publishing sleazy magazines.
These sorts of sinful characters played starring roles in Hollywood's pre-Code era, those years prior to 1934 when movie studios were not required to adhere to agreed-upon standards of decency. That colorful and -- let's be honest -- only semi-randy period is the focus of two releases arriving today, both from Universal Home Entertainment: "Cleopatra -- 75th Anniversary Edition" ($29.98) and "The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection" ($49.98), a set containing six films with oh-so-racy titles such as "Murder at the Vanities" and "Merrily We Go to Hell."
Let's start with "Cleopatra" since it contains more bonus material and, as a Cecile B. DeMille production, is among the more lavish, complex films in this mix. Made in the spring of 1934 and thereby squeaking in just under the pre-Code wire, this version of the young-rulers-in-love soap opera casts Claudette Colbert as the opulent queen of the Nile, a role she plays with her signature mix of intelligence, femininity and eagerness to put those striking cheekbones on display. But that's not all she puts on display.
Sporting some revealing, super-glam ensembles that could have been borrowed straight from "Sex and the City's" Samantha, Colbert stands out as the most modern spectacle in a movie that some contemporary-minded viewers may find a bit overwrought. (Also, it must be noted that Colbert technically seems about as Egyptian as Kim Cattrall.)
But of course, the point of putting a movie like "Cleopatra" on DVD isn't to please the "Fast & Furious" crowd. It's to preserve the film for students of cinema history. And despite a few scenes that still show their grainy age, Universal has done a decent job of that, delivering a mostly solid digital print of the motion picture, an intermittently engaging commentary track from writer and filmmaker F.X. Feeney and a trio of featurettes that help place "Cleopatra" in a larger cultural context.
Of those featurettes, "Forbidden Film: The Production Code Era" is the most useful, providing a Cliffs-Notes-style download on how the Hays Code evolved and which films broke the most shocking ground before the whip of cinematic propriety came down in '34. That same featurette also appears on the "Pre-Code" collection and is the only bonus feature in the set, aside from a cleverly printed reproduction of the code that comes tucked inside the case. That lack of extras is a disappointment, but one that may be overlooked by DVD archivists who treasure any opportunity to seize rare copies of films from the early '30s. The "Pre-Code Hollywood Collection" provides such an opportunity, giving us the DVD debuts of "The Cheat," "Merrily We Go to Hell," "Hot Saturday," "Torch Singer," "Murder at the Vanities" and "Search for Beauty."
Most of these movies boast performances from some major stars, including Colbert (again), Tallulah Bankhead and a young Cary Grant, who shows his handsome face in both "Hell" and "Hot Saturday." And a few demonstrate a degree of frankness that, in keeping with the pre-Code theme, truly is surprising given how long ago they were made.
In "Hot Saturday," young adults booze it up at Cary Grant's lake house. In "Search for Beauty," the camera lingers on more than a few backsides during a male locker room scene. And in the most satisfyingly bizarre moment of the collection, in 1934's "Murder at the Vanities," Gertrude Michael sings the notorious "Marahuana," a serenade to a drug that was legal at the time.
Decked out in a flashy, mermaid-shaped evening gown, Michael earnestly croons, "Help me in my distress, sweet marahuana, please do." It may seem improbable but it's true: A character from a movie nearly eight-decades-old just might share something in common with Dale and Saul from "Pineapple Express."
Best Piece of Bonus Point Trivia: During his "Cleopatra" commentary, Feeney notes that actor Warren William, who plays Julius Caesar in the movie, patented a "vacuum cleaner for lawns" in the early 1940s. And that, at least according to Feeney, means that we should credit the actor with having a small role in inventing the leaf blower.