Happy 100th birthday to Theda Bara’s Cleopatra!

Released 14 October 1917, Theda Bara’s Cleopatra is among the Holy Grail of lost films. In spite of what a huge star she was, we have almost nothing to judge her acting abilities by. On 9 July 1937, a heat wave, improper ventilation, the lack of a sprinkler system, and the highly flammable properties of nitrate all contributed to a major fire in a Fox Film Corporation vault.

More than 75% of Fox’s silents were destroyed, as well as over 2,000 Educational Pictures films (including Buster Keaton’s silents); the original negative of Way Down East; the negative of the controversial 1938 The Birth of a Baby; archives intended for MoMA’s film library; and films by studios including Serial Producing, Peck’s Bad Boy Corporation, Atherton Productions, and Principal Pictures.

Officials said “only old films” were lost, little realizing their importance. Theda Bara, Valeska Suratt, William Farnum, Evelyn Nesbit, Tom Mix, and George Walsh suffered total or near-total losses.

This fire forced improvement in film storage and fire safety.

The 1917 Cleopatra was based upon H. Rider Haggard’s 1889 novel of the same name, told from the POV of Egyptian priest Harmachis, in the form of papyrus scrolls found in a tomb.

The film was also based upon Shakespeare’s famed play Antony and Cleopatra (1607) and Émile Moreau and Victorien Sardou’s play Cléopâtre (1890).

The film was one of the most expensive, lavish, elaborate Hollywood productions up till that time, costing $500,000 ($9.35 million today) and employing 2,000 people not including actors.

Like all other films of the time, Cleopatra too had to contend with censorship boards. The Hays Code didn’t exist yet, but films still had to pass censorship before going into release.

From 1897–1965, there were at least 100 U.S. cities with local censorship boards. There were also many state-wide censorship boards, all with the power to ban or edit films.

The scenes for which cuts were demanded by various city and state censorship boards sound tame by modern standards, though in 1917, Theda’s costumes were really racy stuff. Moviegoers also weren’t used to seeing so much exposed flesh, suggestive poses, or a couple getting so up-close and personal.

After the advent of the Hays Code, Cleopatra was declared too “obscene” for further screenings.

The plot summary has to be pieced together from vintage reviews. It’s so painful to read all these reviews of lost films. These people had no idea how lucky they were to be able to see films like Cleopatra, Flaming Youth, A Sainted Devil, London After Midnight, The Miracle Man, and Salomé.

Cleopatra reaches Caesar via a clever ruse, and he falls under her seductive spell. Their plan to rule the world is spoilt after Caesar falls from power.

High priest Pharon is sent to murder Cleopatra with a sacred dagger, as the religious authorities are disgusted with her behavior, and the fact that she’s a woman in power.

Pharon falls in love with her instead, and when she falls on hard times, he takes her to his ancestors’ tomb. Cleopatra steals the treasures from the mummies, and uses this to travel to Rome.

Antony falls for her too, and leaves his governing duties to go to Alexandria with her. Their wanton, hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted when he’s called back to Rome and married against his will to Octavia.

Antony still loves Cleopatra, and sends her a message to arm her ships and meet him by Actium. There, they battle the opposing forces and are overpowered.

When they flee to Alexandria, they’re captured by Octavius, and Antony dies in Cleopatra’s arms.

To save Cleopatra from a horrible dragging death behind Octavius’s chariot, Pharon (who still loves her) gives her a venomous snake. She brings the serpent to her breast and dies still a queen, her crown on her head and her scepter in her hand.

The film was enormously popular, in spite of all the censorship cuts. If only better care had been taken with film preservation. Theda’s own personal library of her films turned to dust in her vault, which was a great source of pain, shock, and disappointment.

Only fragments are known to survive, of such insignificant length I haven’t bothered including them on my list of silents seen.

Only six complete prints of Theda’s films are known to survive, none representing her best work—A Fool There Was (1915), The Stain (1914), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and Hal Roach shorts Madame Mystery and 45 Minutes from Hollywood (both 1926).

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Limelight at 65, Part I (General overview)

Today is my English birthday. My Hebrew birthday was the fifth day of Chanukah, 16–17 December. I’m older than I’d prefer to admit to, but still young enough to have a baby.

Released 16 October 1952, Limelight was Chaplin’s penultimate starring role, and is a beautiful summing-up of his life and career. While I’m glad he made A King in New York (1957), Limelight would’ve been a great swan song.

In summer 1914 London, has-been clown Calvero drunkenly struggles to open his building’s front door, while three kids (Chaplin’s real-life kids Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael) talk to him.

Inside, Calvero smells gas. He breaks down a door and finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) passed out, the stove open, a bottle in her hand. He sets her on the stairs and runs for a doctor (Chaplin’s halfbrother Wheeler Dryden), though doesn’t remember to turn off the gas.

Calvero and the doctor carry her upstairs to his room, where she regains consciousness. The doctor gives Calvero instructions on how to nurse her back to health. If she goes to hospital, she’ll be arrested for attempting suicide.

Calvero’s busybody landlady, Mrs. Alsop, sees the broken-down door, and decides not to let this woman back. She’s convinced this is a woman of ill repute. Mrs. Alsop is even more outraged when she discovers her in Calvero’s room.

Calvero says it’ll cause a scandal if word gets out she allows unmarried opposite-sex roommates, and rented to an attempted suicide. And for all anyone knows, they might be married.

Calvero then goes onstage, in very animated form. It ends in every performer’s worse nightmare, as he gazes out into an empty audience. It was all a dream.

That evening, Calvero and his guest finally get acquainted. The young lady introduces herself as Thereza Ambrose, called Terry. She’s a ballerina who’s all alone in the world, and deep in depression since having rheumatic fever. Calvero assures her she only has to pretend to be his wife in name, and that he’ll take good care of her as a platonic friend.

Calvero has another dream of performing onstage, this time with Terry. It ends in applause instead of an empty audience.

In the morning, Terry says she tried to get up, but collapsed. She’s convinced she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t want to bother with a doctor, for fear of wasting his time. Terry remains deep in depression, and doesn’t think she has any future.

Calvero says he was given up for dead six months ago, but now has a new outlook. He tries desperately to convince Terry life is worth living, and that someone her age should have more hope and desire for survival than someone his age.

He admits he lost contact with his audience as he got older, and thus became less funny. He turned to drink, had a heart attack, and almost died.

Calvero’s mood lifts when he gets a telegram from his agent. When they meet, the agent promises a week by the Middlesex Music Hall. If Calvero’s name is poison to the audience, he’ll use another one.

When Calvero comes home, he bumps into the doctor, who says he couldn’t find anything wrong with Terry. He believes her paralysis is all in her head. She either invented it or convinced herself she has it for some deep-seated psychological reason.

Trying to get to the bottom of things, Calvero talks to Terry about her past.

Terry says she was in love with a customer at her music shop, Mr. Neville (Chaplin’s son Sydney). She often gave him extra change and music sheets, and came to listen to his music.

Neville fell on hard times, and Terry got fired for giving him extra change.

Calvero urges Terry to find him and admit her feelings, spinning a beautiful, romantic story about their reunion, but that still isn’t enough. No matter what he says, she’s convinced her life is hopeless and that she’ll never dance again.

Calvero says life is just as inevitable as Death, if only she has courage and the will to use it.

Calvero says since he’s begun preaching and moralizing to her, he’s begun to believe it himself. His mood is on the upswing.

Calvero’s comeback performance isn’t a success. The only person who doesn’t walk out early is someone who’s sleeping. His contract is terminated.

This time, Terry is the optimistic one trying to cheer him up. While she lectures him, she realizes in jubilation she’s walking.

Six months later, Terry is dancing by the Empire Theatre, and uses her influence to get Calvero a position as a ballet clown. By this point, Mrs. Alsop’s attitude has completely turned around, and Calvero has gone back to drinking.

Neville plays the music by Terry’s audition for prima ballerina. Afterwards, Calvero says she’s a true artist, and Terry confesses her love. She asks him to marry her.

When Terry and Neville become friends, Calvero leaves, feeling they’re a much better match. He starts performing on the streets, while Terry goes from strength to strength in the ballet.

Terry tracks Calvero down and begs him to return to the stage. With his former partner (Buster Keaton), he gives a triumphant performance with a bittersweet, poignant ending.

I highly recommend this beautiful, personal film. The mature roles in his sound films wouldn’t have worked with the Tramp, but were perfect for who he grew into as an elder actor.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VI (The history of sound on film)

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, 1894 or 1895

One of the myths about the early sound era is that The Jazz Singer was the very first talking picture. While it was certainly the most successful up to that date, and has become the best-known early talkie, it was far from the first experiment.

The thing that elevated TJS above all over sound-on-film experiments was Al Jolson’s incredible star power, charisma, personality, talent, personal affinity with the story. Had George Jessel’s demand for a higher salary been granted, silent cinema may have continued much longer.

This is a Kinetophone (or Phonokinetoscope), the technology used to create The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. It was Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s attempt at creating a sound-on-film system, a Kinetoscope accompanied by a phonograph. A Kinetoscope is a single-user film-viewing device with a peephole.

The Kinetophone didn’t attempt to synchronize sound and image. Instead, people listened to the phonograph through a tube. Only 45 were ever made, and only three Kinetophone films are known to survive. The others are Nursery Favorites (1913) and a 1912 demo.

Other early sound-on-film systems included Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, Théâtroscope, and Phonorama (or Cinemacrophonograph), all used by the 1900 Paris Exposition. While interesting experiments and novelties, they weren’t practical or popular.

Lack of efficient synchronization was the main problem. Audio and visual images were both recorded and projected with different devices, and thus rarely worked in exact harmony. Proper playback volume was also difficult to achieve, particularly in large theatres.

Sound recording systems of this era were of generally low quality, unless the performer were planted right in front of the clunky acoustic horn. In the early sound era, this dilemma manifested itself again.

In 1902, Léon Gaumont, a pioneer of the French film industry, demonstrated his sound-on-disc Chronophone system to the French Photographic Society, using an electric connection he’d patented. In 1906, he débuted the Elgéphone, which used compressed air for amplification. The Elgéphone was based upon the British Auxetophone.

U.S. inventor E.E. Norton’s Cameraphone was Gaumont’s systems’ main competition, though neither adequately addressed the three main issues with sound-on-film technology. They were also too expensive.

In 1907, Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee, got the first sound-on-film technology patent. His system transformed sound into lightwaves which were then photographically recorded directly onto celluloid. However, he never made effective use of this.

In 1913, Edison débuted a new cylinder-based sound-synching system, also called the Kinetophone. Unlike the earlier Kinetophone, this one projected films onto a screen instead of necessitating individual viewing through a peephole.

An intricate pulley system connecting the projector and phonograph enabled synchronization, though conditions weren’t often ideal. After barely more than a year, this system too was retired. Popular interest in sound-on-film had also abated.

The Photo-Drama of Creation (1914), a four-part, eight-hour Jehovah’s Witnesses’ film, synchronized live action and slides with music and lectures on phonograph discs. This was the first major film of that type.

Over nine million people in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand saw it. The budget was $300,000 ($7,173,000 today).

Slides used in The Photo-Drama of Creation

In 1914, Eric Tigerstedt (one of early 20th century Finland’s most important inventors) got a German patent for his sound-on-film innovations, and demonstrated this to scientists in Berlin.

In 1918, Hungarian inventor and engineer Dénes Mihály submitted his Projectofon system to the Royal Hungarian Patent Court. He received his patent in 1922.

In 1919, U.S. inventor Lee De Forest got several patents which led to the first optical sound-on-film system with commercial potential. Soundtracks were photographically recorded onto a filmstrip’s side to create a composite print. If audio and visual were properly synchronized while recording, it would be accurate in playback.

Another system came from research engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner. In 1922, he demonstrated it to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, but it was never used commercially.

15 April 1923 by New York’s Rivoli Theater, De Forest Phonofilms gave the very first commercial screening of sound films. A series of shorts accompanied a silent feature.

Though the company created some original films, most of them were celebrity documentaries, and comedy and musical performances. De Forest’s sound-on-film system was used through 1927 in the U.S., and till the end of 1930 in the U.K., but Hollywood remained skeptical.

In 1919, German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle patented the Tri-Ergon system, and gave a public screening 17 September 1922, by Berlin’s Alhambra Kino. This became Europe’s dominant sound-on-film system.

In 1921, Orlando Kellum created Photokinema, which was used for a few shorts. It was most famously used for sound effects, singing, and an introduction in D.W. Griffith’s bomb Dream Street.

In 1923, Danish engineers Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen created the Cinéphone system.

Things began changing with the advent of Vitaphone. In 1925, Sam Warner of Warner Bros. saw the potential of Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system, and convinced his brothers to experiment with it by New York’s Vitagraph Studios, which they’d recently bought.

They renamed the system Vitaphone, and publicly débuted it 6 August 1926, with a full-length synchronized soundtrack and sound effects for Don Juan. The film was accompanied by eight musical shorts and a four-minute introduction by the infamous Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

While sound-on-film technology ultimately triumphed, sound-on-disc was initially superior due to lower costs and greater audio quality. More and more films were released with synchronized soundtracks and sound effects, along with more Vitaphone shorts, until the historic night of 6 October 1927.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IV (Jewish subjects on film before 1927)

Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (1904)

The Jazz Singer marked the first time many American Gentiles were exposed to Judaism. Sure, it promotes assimilation over religiosity, and the characters are a bit stereotypical, but by 1927 standards, this was a huge step forward.

Many prior Jewish characters typified all the worst, ugliest, most anti-Semitic stereotypes. Legendary director Edwin S. Porter’s Cohen series was a prime example of the “scheming merchant” stereotype.

Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907)

In Cohen’s Advertising Scheme, a grotesquely stereotyped shopkeeper tricks a passerby into buying a coat on which he’s hung a large sign advertising the store.

In Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907), Cohen is once again grotesquely made up like an ugly anti-Semitic stereotype. When a shipment of hats is accidentally picked up by rubbish collectors, Cohen chases their wagon through the streets of New York in hot pursuit.

After the hats fail to sell, Cohen reviews his insurance policy, sets a fire, and holds a fire sale. The film ends as Cohen reads the insurance policy and gives his wife a ring.

In Cohen Saves the Flag (1913), directed by the legendary Mack Sennett, popular comedian Ford Sterling plays Union Sgt. Cohen. He and Lt. Goldberg are bitter rivals for Rebecca (Mabel Normand). Yet again, Cohen is made up as a grotesque, ugly, anti-Semitic stereotype.

However, Cohen turns the tide of battle when he throws back an enemy grenade and raises a fallen flag. The film also contains impressive battle scenes, and a positive portrayal of a Jewish woman.

Goldberg tries to get Cohen shot by firing squad, but Rebecca rides to the rescue and conveys the truth about his battlefield heroics. Cohen is now hailed as as hero, and gets revenge on Goldberg.

Another early depiction of Jewish life was D.W. Griffith’s A Child of the Ghetto (1910), set on the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street. After Ruth’s mother dies, she supports herself as a seamstress. Then the son of the factory owner steals some money, and she’s accused of the crime.

Ruth flees the city and hides in the countryside, where a young farmer takes her in, and they fall in love. At the time, few other films dealing with Jewish subjects suggested moving from the city to the country might improve people’s lives and offer a better future.

Griffith’s Romance of a Jewess (1908) is also set on the Lower East Side. Professional actors commingle with real street vendors and locals. Again, the protagonist is named Ruth, and played by Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl.” She was also known as the first American moviestar, and was very popular before people even knew her name.

The story involves not only romance, but the conflicts between different generations, representing the Old and New World.

Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker (1908) was one of Griffith’s very first films. Though it does contain more stereotypically-made up characters, it features a pawnbroker as a humanitarian hero. A little girl goes to the Amalgamated Association of Charities to get help for her sick mother, but all the red tape makes it impossible.

She then goes to a pawnbroker to beg for help. First she offers shoes, which his assistant rejects. When she returns with her doll, the manager’s heart melts, and he stops the goons trying to evict the family. He also pays their rent, gives them food and medicine, and buys the girl a new doll.

Hungry Hearts (1922) is based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives. She was the first writer who brought such stories to a mainstream audience.

This film tells the story of the immigrant Levins. Janitor Sara falls in love with landlord Rosenblatt’s nephew David, who teaches her to write and read. David dreams of opening his own law office and getting out of his uncle’s clutches, but his uncle breaks them up and raises the Levins’ rent.

Mrs. Levin goes crazy from the stress, and damages the walls. When Rosenblatt takes them to court, David defends them. He and Sara reunite, and the Levins move to suburbia.

From Germany came a Golem trilogy, of which only the last installment, The Golem, is known to survive in full. These films are devoid of stereotypes like hook noses, money-grubbing, and nefarious scheming.

The Jazz Singer is no Left Luggage or Ushpizin, but it was a positive step forwards. Progress never comes overnight, all at once. It has to start somewhere.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part III (The life of Al Jolson)

It was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that George Jessel demanded too much salary from Warner Bros. for the lead role of The Jazz Singer. As talented and popular as Jessel was, Al Jolson was the only one with the charisma, star power, voice, and raw personal authenticity to carry the film and make it the first successful sound on film experiment.

Asa Yoelson was born 26 May 1886 in Sredniki, Russia (now Seredžius, Lithuania). Its Yiddish name was Srednik. Thankfully, he was spared the fate of the rest of Srednik’s Jewish community. On 4 September 1941, the Nazis murdered 193 people near Skrebėnai.

Asa was the baby of five children born to Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858–23 December 1945) and Nechama (Naomi) Cantor (1858–6 February 1895). His older siblings were Rose, Etta, a sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry).

Like many people in that era, he didn’t know when he was born, and chose 26 May 1886. His sister-in-law Margaret Weatherwax, however, claimed he was the same age as her father, born in 1881, and that he was 46 when he married her 18-year-old sister Ruby Keeler in 1928.

In 1891, Asa’s father immigrated to the U.S., and by 1894, he’d saved up enough money to bring his wife and children over. When they arrived, he was working as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation (now Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Asa’s mother died in 1895, aged only 37. This sent him into a deep depression and withdrawal, and deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Later, his father remarried a woman named Ida, shown in the previous picture.

Asa was taken in by St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (now Cardinal Gibbons School), a progressive orphanage in Baltimore. Another famous alum was Babe Ruth, who enrolled in 1902.

Asa and Hirsch were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves in 1897, and began singing for money on street corners as Al and Harry. They often used the money for National Theatre shows.

In 1900, he moved to New York, where his first show was Children of the Ghetto. Then, in 1902, he began working for Walter L. Main’s Circus as an usher. Main was so impressed by his voice, he hired Asa as a singer in the Indian Medicine Side Show.

The circus folded that same year, leaving Asa unemployed. In 1903, he was hired for one show of Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His rendition of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” was so strong, he was kept for future shows.

This show too folded within the year, and Asa joined Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer called Harry. Though they gained nationwide bookings, live performances were no longer so popular, thanks to the rise of movies.

In 1904, the renamed Al began performing in blackface, which was a huge boost to his career. Harry left Al and their partner Joe Palmer following an argument, and the duo wasn’t as successful as the trio.

In 1906, Al was left solo. He soon became a nationally successful vaudeville singer. For awhile, he lived in San Francisco (wanting to cheer up earthquake survivors), then moved to New York in 1908 with his new wife Henrietta.

His singing career began growing by leaps and bounds after this move. By 1914, he was a huge star, and by 1920, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Al went from strength to strength, becoming more popular and beloved with each new show and song. At 35, he became the youngest person to have a theatre named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre (later renamed the New Century Theatre, and razed in 1962).

In spite of how many modern people don’t understand the historical context and intent of blackface, this method of performing gave him a freedom to step into an alternate persona, disguise his true origins, express the Jewish liturgical tradition and cry of suffering, introduce jazz, blues, and ragtime to white audiences.

His blackface stage persona, Gus, was also smarter than his white masters, often helping them out of problems they’d made themselves. There was no bigotry or racism intended.

Al had many African–American friends, and promoted their careers at a time when Broadway barred them. He also demanded equal treatment for African–American co-stars, and was the only white person allowed into an all-Black Harlem nightclub.

When he learnt Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie, musicians he’d never met, had been denied service by a Connecticut restaurant, he tracked them down and took them to dinner himself. He and Blake became great friends.

The African–American community saw Al as a great friend and ally.

Over the course of his life, Al starred in many live shows and films, entertained the troops, recorded many songs, and starred on the radio many times.

He was married four times, to Henrietta Keller, Alma Osborne (professionally known as Ethel Delmar), Ruby Keeler, and Erie Galbraith. He adopted a child with Ruby in 1935, Al, Jr. He and Erie adopted Asa, Jr., in 1948, and Alicia in 1949.

With Ruby in 1934

With Erie and Asa, Jr., in 1948

While entertaining troops in the Pacific during WWII, Al got malaria and had to get his left lung removed. In Korea in 1950, the dust and dirt of the front clogged his remaining lung and sapped his health.

On 23 October 1950, he collapsed of a massive heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest in show business history.