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).

Celebrating 120 years of going to the movies

Exactly 120 years ago, on Saturday evening, 28 December 1895, in a cellar room of the Grand Café’s Salon Indien, at 14 Boulevard des Capuchins, Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumière projected ten of their pioneering moving images to an audience of about one hundred paying patrons. These films included La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), L’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled), and Repas de Bébé (Baby’s Meal).

Charles-Émile Reynaud actually had the first showing of moving pictures, starting 28 October 1892 at the Musée Grévin in Paris, but his Théâtre Optique was just a successor to his Praxinoscope and the zoetrope, not an actual film projector such as the Lumières used.

Using highly-flammable nitrate film (the industry standard until about 1952), at a 35-millimeter width, the Lumières used their own version of a device known as the Cinématographe, which worked as projector, camera, and printer. Unlike the films made by Thomas Edison’s studio, which had four circular perforations on each side of the frame (the industry standards which continues to the present day), the Lumières’ films only had one set of circular perforations per frame.

Though today we understand just how volatile nitrate film stock can be, with the evidence of many silent and early sound films being presumed lost forever due to devastating vault fires, the Lumières actually used open flames to project their moving images, and even set up their projector in the middle of the room, among the audience. They wanted the patrons to have a good look at the magical new toy and wonder just how it worked.

Only after the first devastating nitrate fire, on 4 May 1897, did people really begin to understand just how dangerous nitrate could be. Though this particular fire was due to the projectionist lighting a match while putting ether into the tank of illuminating fluid, not the nitrate itself, the film industry regardless implemented some very heavy, serious restrictions on its transportation, handling, and storage. The projector also needed to be in a fireproof booth, and multiple projection rooms per theatre were called for. These rules persist to the present day.

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Over the last 120 years, rumors have spread about how the audience reacted to this first public showing of true moving images, such as claiming they screamed and fainted. However, the reality probably isn’t nearly as extravagant as what the legends depict. For example, L’Arivée d’un Train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) wasn’t shown till January 1896, and isn’t listed in the December 1895 program, but many people cite that as one of the ten films shown.

The problem with historical rumors and urban legends is that they often start with a grain of truth, and then become exaggerated over the years. Before long, people don’t investigate what really happened, and sources all start quoting one another and taking unverified stories as established historical truth. You can find the same lack of attention to accuracy and game of telephone regarding a lot of myths about the silent era and the transition to sound.

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Though film industry standards to this day still follow the Edison Kinetoscope standard of four circular perforations on each side of the frame, the Lumières’ Cinématographe set another established industry standard. Because their magical projector only used intermittent motion by equally resting and moving the film, this produced better image clarity. Projectors 120 years later still do this.

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Who in that cellar room 120 years ago, including Auguste and Louis themselves, could’ve ever predicted moving images would not only become a lasting part of the culture, but also develop by such leaps and bounds? The Lumières didn’t think cinema had a future, and thus refused to sell their Cinématographe to other filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès.

Yet the people gathered there so long ago didn’t care these films were just snippets, in black and white, without a synchronized soundtrack or dialogue, without plots. All that mattered was the exciting, amazing novelty of seeing moving images on a screen. Filmmakers today constantly up the ante with bigger and better special effects, but there’s no substitute for the good old-fashioned sense of wonder and awe coming from a simpler, more innocent era.

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Though my favorite period of the silent era is the 1920s, I’ve always had great love for these early snippets from the dawn of film in 1887 to about 1910. Watching these films is like literally looking back in time at beautifully-preserved time capsules, with people who are long since deceased, buildings that are long since torn down or radically changed, money no longer in circulation, clothes long since out of fashion, modes of transportation which are now obsolete.