If you’ve ever read anything about silent film, you’ve likely seen the image of an impossibly pale, kohl-eyed Theda Bara wearing little more than two gravity-defying snakes coiled around her breasts. It’s as iconic an image as Charlie Chaplin in his tramp garb when it comes to encapsulating the allure of silent film. The famous photograph is a still from the Fox Film Corporation’s 1917 production of Cleopatra, an epic production that celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, making now the perfect time to give it a watch.
Except you can’t.
Cleopatra, like the majority of silent films, is gone. (Film historian David Pierce, in a study for the the Library of Congress, determined that of the 10,919 silent movies produced in the U.S. before 1930, only 14 percent survive in their complete, original format.) The fact that we can still feel the impact from that single still, even though almost no one living has seen the film, is a testament to just what a big deal Cleopatra was. It was directed by J. Gordon Edwards, at the top of his game as a helmer of big-budget epics. And, most importantly, it starred the biggest sex symbol of the time.
Bara wasn’t the first screen vamp (or vampire, the contemporary term for a specific sort of femme fatale who lured married men into sordid affairs and then left them penniless, shamed, and sometimes dead), but she was the one who made it a household word. She also made it a verb: women feared their own husbands being vamped by a hot, young Theda Bara type dripping in furs and sex appeal.
The studio knew that exoticism blew up the box office. A persona had already been created for Bara that ensured she’d be the most exotic of them all. Her real backstory was jettisoned as quickly as her birth name (Theodosia Goodman), and her Jewish parents in Ohio became artsy Europeans (though sometimes her mother was said to be an Arab princess). She was said to be “born in the shadow of the Sphinx.” It didn’t stop there. The Theda Bara persona took on a life of its own, part studio creation, but also part performance by Bara, who relished the role, and though she perfectly played her odd off-camera persona without cracking, she always seemed to be in on the joke.
In advance of Cleopatra, Fox sent out a press release (with a straight face, it seems) that actually said Theda Bara’s coming was foretold by ancient Egyptians. Reproduced in local newspapers around the country, it reported that writing on a recently opened tomb was translated to say:
“I, Rhames, priest of Set, tell you this: She shall seem a snake to most men; she shall lead them to sin, and to their destruction. Yet she shall not be so. She shall be good and virtuous, and kind of heart; but she shall not seem so to most men. For she shall not be that which she appears. She shall be called…” [Here was inserted the Greek letter ‘Theta’.]
When Bara moved from New York to L.A. to film Cleopatra, she and the studio stepped up their game. She moved into a faux-Tudor house that biographer Eve Golden says William Fox had already furnished “in Early Vampire.” Actress Leatrice Joy described it as stuffed with ottomans, fur, beaded curtains, and exotic tapestries. A snake resided in a cage, and Bara would take it out to stroke in the presence of reporters. All of this exotic oiling of the publicity machinery made the public more and more eager to see Bara on the screen, embodying a sensuality that was far removed from most women’s domestic lives (they were a few years away from even being allowed to vote).
The attention Fox gave to publicizing his star was nothing compared to the money and resources lavished on the production. The film reportedly cost $500,000 to make — the most expensive production ever at the time — and that’s in 1917 dollars. A big chunk went to Bara’s costumes, each more revealing than the last, yet elaborate in their detail. She went through a total of 50 costume changes, a record for the silent era, and reportedly only beaten by Elizabeth Taylor’s 65 costumes in her own performance as 1963’s Cleopatra. Bara vamped, lounged, and emoted in these ensembles while surrounded by artifacts, wall hangings, and carpets. A press release reported that one single tent interior had cost $50,000 in furnishings. (When a review referred to the set as “overdressed,” Fox may well have thought it a compliment.) In perhaps one of the most stunning examples of filmmaking excess, Theda Bara revealed that a famous “psychic perfumist” had created a scent for her to wear on the set, made from a 2,000-year-old formula. A movie magazine reported that “the fragrance is so strong that it would not be strange if it were detected on the screen.”
Fox wanted this to be a Cleopatra for the ages, and he made sure Bara had top-notch support. He brought in Fritz Leiber as Caesar and Thurston Hall (who had starred as Ben Hur on Broadway) as Marc Antony. Both actors moved on to talkies and worked in film until their deaths, proof of their acting chops. Publicity reports say there were 2,000 extras, and while that number may have been slightly exaggerated, there were literal boatloads of people in the crowd scenes. The tremendous set pieces included a full-size replica of the Sphinx along with pyramids and canals. The story itself was said to be drawn from Shakespeare and Sardou, but it also included a heavy enough dose of H. Rider Haggard’s novel of the same name that he sued Fox for £5,000 and won. Whatever the source material, it was suitably action-packed and full of spectacle, including elaborate portrayals of the feasts of Isis, chariot races, and the naval battle of Actium, the latter culminating in ships being set afire as extras jump into the sea.
The film did as it was intended: it smashed box office records, selling out performances well into the next year. The New York Times called the film “an uncommonly fine picture.” Cleopatra was even popular enough to be spoofed, in the form of 1918’s Cleopatsy, a Rolin film featuring a popular comedy character named Toto and set in the desert of Sa-ha-ha. Men and women alike were under Cleopatra’s spell, but it did have some detractors. Some thought it was bloated, that Bara’s performance was obscene (it would end up being heavily censored in some cities), and that the film was so much trash. Really, it’s like any blockbuster today. The bigger the film, the higher the likelihood it will have haters.
As different as the silent film world was from today, there are similarities. The publicity machine, the positioning of a sex symbol, the huge spending — it’s Hollywood at its most basic, and it was made before there was even a “Hollywoodland” sign. That’s part of the tragedy of losing something like Cleopatra. It’s not just the loss of the fruits of so many people’s labor, but the fact that these people were not so different from us. We think of film as a modern and permanent medium — a means of immortality — and yet, if not preserved, it’s as ephemeral as a one-night theatrical performance.
As film historian Frank Thompson has pointed out, Cleopatra represents “the loss of at least two careers.” It was the most-praised film of Theda Bara’s career, who has only four surviving films of 40. For director J. Gordon Edwards, the survival rate is even slimmer, with almost nothing left of his entire oeuvre.
The somewhat good news: about 40 seconds of film survive from Cleopatra, donated to the George Eastman house by a private collector. The number of seconds that feature Theda Bara can be counted on one hand, but you can see the smallest glimpse of her luminosity. The rest of the film was destroyed by fire. Two fires, to be exact. Fox lost their original copy in a devastating blaze at the film storage facility in Little Ferry, N.J., in 1937. A second copy was lost in a fire at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In a supreme twist of cruel irony, someone filmed the blaze at the Little Ferry vault fire. It’s easy to find on YouTube. You can’t watch Cleopatra on its 100th anniversary — but you can watch it burn.
Kelly Robinson survives in her complete, original format in Knoxville, Tenn.