Meeting at the Sphinx

Per the IMDb, the script of CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945) is by George Bernard Shaw, George Bernard Shaw, George Bernard Shaw, and George Bernard Shaw, which seems about right: original play, scenario, script and dialogue. Those don’t normally warrant more than two credits, but maybe they should.

Marjorie Deans is credited as Script Editor, which was her role, and Script Supervisor, a job title which didn’t exist yet. The film had, in addition to four writers embodied in one person, seemingly four cinematographers and two continuity girls (which is the job title that eventually became script supervisor).

Deans also wrote the making-of book, which was a very uncommon thing at the time. This was an epic super-production so it warranted commemoration. In fact, it was kind of a disaster and it ended the British career of its producer/director, Gabriel Pascal, despite his being the only filmmaker with whom Shaw would work. The book doesn’t talk about that, but Deans, a screenwriter herself, devotes a lot of time to praising Shaw as a screenwriter, pointing out that his plays are full of striking imagery —

“They come down the corridor, Caesar peering keenly about at the strange architecture, and at the pillars’ shadows between which, as the passing torch makes them hurry noiselessly backwards, figures of men with wings and hawks’ heads, and vast black marble cats, seem to flit in and out of ambush.”

It’s questionable if any stage director ever managed to fully achieve this effect, but Pascal (at 14:55 in the movie above) barely suggests it either — he stages the scene outdoors, at the entrance to the palace, and though Claude Rains remembers to peer keenly, and Pascal remembers to move the camera, whichever great cinematographer* was on lighting duty that day doesn’t create any moving shadows (apart from Caesar’s, which shouldn’t appear since he’s the light source), just a moving glow which doesn’t illuminate anything that’s not already visible. And Pascal fails to provide a POV shot, which is what the play, for God’s sake, is clearly indicating.

*The cinematographers between them shot most of BLACK NARCISSUS, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE THIRD MAN.

No script is director-proof — you can suggest what we should see, and a sensitive director will pick it up (and many times improve it) but a clod will drag everything down to his level.

It’s a really beautiful book. Sometimes the insights could be more meaningful (and of course it’s all a puff-piece). We’re told that composer Georges Auric is “a big, loosely-built, rather indolent-looking man” with a dangling cigarette, but we’re not told that he used the first electronic instrument ever employed for the screen (the fabulously-named ondes martinot) for this film. My late friend Lawrie Knight was in the crew and reported the excitement this caused, though how the crew ever got to see it I don’t know.

I was hoping the book would confirm one or two of Lawrie’s stories, but most of those were too unflattering to Pascal and the production, or too racy, to serve Deans’ purposes. BUT — Lawrie did own a framed picture of Gabbie Pascal, in Arab dress, leading a camel. And Deans supplies the backstory to this —

“There is a camel-driver, played by Gabriel Pascal himself, because only he understood and was understood by the camel, and could make it do what he wanted. And there is the camel, who bit Gabriel Pascal…”

Lawrie made much more of this story. They had a real camel-driver, who protested that a camel could not be made to stop on a precise mark. Pascal said this was rubbish, took on the costume, led the camel to its position in one perfect take, yelled “Cut!” and then had a bite taken out of him.

The crew clustered round, concerned/delighted. Pascal, in his broken English, insisted it was nothing. “But Gabbie, what about the danger of syphilis?” “What you say, I no have syphilis.” “No, it’s true, all camels are full of syphilis.” (I think this is probably untrue, and likely an offshoot from the joke about why camels are called ships of the desert…)

A doctor was sent for. He dressed the wound and pronounced it trivial.

“But doctor,” says a crewmember/provocateur, “What about the danger of syphilis being passed on?”

“Well, if you think it’s necessary, I can give the camel an injection.”

Now, this may well be a fictitious elaboration. It has the shape of a deliberate joke, not a real incident. But I’m pleased that at least part of Lawrie’s story is confirmed.

I don’t think Pascal and the camel made the cut — the set where they were to have appeared is at 22:48.

Deans has more to say that relates to the tales I was told twenty years ago, and I shall get another blog post (at least) out of those. And I shall scan more of the gorgeous images, though scanning is a pain.

10 Responses to “Meeting at the Sphinx”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Carry On Cleo

    and leave us not forget

    “The White Virgin of the Nile”

  2. bensondonald Says:

    In 1968 there was a Broadway musical version titled “Her First Roman”. It bombed.

  3. Pronoun Adjective Noun — I think My Fair Lady was on their minds.

    Has Cleo EVER been played by an Egyptian?

  4. “but we’re not told that he used the first electronic instrument ever employed for the screen (the fabulously-named ondes martinot) for this film”

    Didn’t Rozsa use the theremin first in Spellbound?

  5. And Shostakovish used it for Odna (Alone) in 1931 so what the hell am I talking about?

    I think *maybe* the martenot was the first electronic instrument used in film, but this would be in France, and I’m still hunting for the source I conflated to make the Cleo factoid.

    The martenot was also used in Bride of Frankenstein and Rebecca, so it does predate the theremin in Hollywood…

  6. Hopefully this doesn’t come off as pedantry – but rather as a shared enthusiasm for odd film trivia – but I believe the first use of the ondes martinot in a film score was for Berthold Bartosch’s L’IDEE (1932), which is also sometimes credited as the first self-consciously poetic animated film. It’s based on a woodcut novel by Frans Masereel, and the score was by Arthur Honegger – it makes extensive use of the instrument. Bartosch (who had worked with Lotte Reininger on THE ADVENTURES IF PRINCE ACHMED) completed his film in the attic of the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. He was working on an animated film based on the figure of Saint Francis when the Nazis invaded Paris – though Bartosch escaped, the Nazis destroyed his negatives. It’s high up on my list of mourned lost films.

    Here’s a link to L’IDEE:

  7. Mark Fuller Says:

    Some Making Of behind-the-scenes footage for you……and the moment the BFI Library reopens I’m up there to find out what in heaven is going on in that AMOLAD footage….

  8. Thanks for reminding me of L’Idee!

    Ah yes, the mystery Blimp cameo. The script of AMOLAD must be extant (a big volume of Powell-Pressburger screenplays would be a valued object). I know there are other cuts: Lawrie remembered a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rehearsed in the movie, but originally performed (in part) too. That might account for the abrupt (but painless) transition to Niven being suddenly taken ill and in need of an ambulance — maybe he fainted at the play?

  9. Mark Fuller Says:

    I understand that Special Collections has MP’s copy of the shooting script….

  10. With some good annotations, I bet!

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