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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A mad doctor’s bargain

Released 3 December 1922, A Blind Bargain is one of approximately 100 of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s lost films, out of the 157 he made. While the vast majority of his lost films are from his pre-stardom years (1912–19), many of his stardom-era films are lost as well.

Many of Lon’s films, and other silents and early sound films, were destroyed in a horrific fire on 13 May 1967. Nitrate is highly flammable, and stands no chance when it comes in contact with flames. An electrical fire in MGM’s Vault #7 destroyed hundreds of films that day.

This is why film preservation is so most vitally important, as is always backing up our work. There should always be at least two copies of something, and storage conditions should never be careless. It’s easier to put a nitrate film onto safety stock, or back up a file, than it is to restore a damaged product or rewrite entire sections.

A Blind Bargain was based on British writer Barry Pain’s 1897 novel The Octave of Claudius. From the synopses I’ve read of both, it seems like the film stayed fairly close to the book’s basic storyline. One change from the novel was that Dr. Lamb’s nurse and butler became two of his macabre human experiments. The film also seems to have done away with the soap opera-esque storylines of many secondary characters.

Unsuccessful writer Robert Sandell (Raymond McKee), hurting over his mother’s poor health and his lack of publishing success, attacks and tries to rob theatregoer Dr. Arthur Lamb (Lon). Instead of having him arrested, Dr. Lamb takes Robert to his New York home and asks him to tell his story.

Dr. Lamb, a mad scientist, agrees to give Robert’s mother an operation on one condition—Robert must submit himself for experiments at the end of eight days (hence the word “octave” in the source novel’s title). Robert agrees, since he’ll do anything to save his mother.

Robert and his mother move into Dr. Lamb’s home, where they’re closely watched by Dr. and Mrs. Lamb. Also watching Robert is a hunchback (Lon in a dual role) who’s the result of one of Dr. Lamb’s experiments. So anxious is Dr. Lamb to experiment on Robert, he butters him up by giving him large amounts of cash enabling him to live high off the hog and impress all the people who wrote him off.

Dr. Lamb also arranges for Robert’s book to be published through Wytcherly, who runs a publishing company. Predictably, Robert falls in instalove with Wytcherly’s daughter Angela.

Mrs. Lamb, who’s been driven crazy by her husband’s experiments, and the hunchback warn Robert about Dr. Lamb’s true intentions. They also show him a strange underground vault containing an operating room and a tunnel of cages. Held prisoner in the cages are victims of Dr. Lamb’s experiments.

In addition to creating the hunchback and the people in the cages, Dr. Lamb’s experiments also killed his infant child.

With one day left to go, Robert tries to buy his way out of the bargain with his newfound publishing royalties. Dr. Lamb, terrified Robert will escape, drags him into the underground vault and ties him to the operating table.

His evil plans are foiled when Mrs. Lamb rescues Robert and the hunchback releases a cage door which brings Dr. Lamb to a most horrible end at the hands of an ape-man (Wallace Beery). This ape-man is yet another of Dr. Lamb’s monstrous experiments.

Robert returns home as a successful author, with Angela waiting for him by their wedding ceremony.

The film met with a standing ovation after its première by NYC’s Capitol Theater. Critics praised the film highly, particularly Lon’s dual role.

The film was beautifully tinted and toned in colors including straw amber, night amber, blue tint, blue tone, flesh tint, light lavender, and green tint. There was also a sequence colored with the Handschiegl process, featuring multicolored bubbles at a party.

In 1925, Raymond McKee (Robert) played a hunchback in Free to Love (which co-stars Clara Bow). This character was directly influenced by A Blind Bargain.