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).