Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cleopatra (1917)

So what's the most difficult part of reviewing silent movies, you might ask. That's easy: the fact that something like 80% of them no longer exist.

For a case in point, take Cleopatra, the 1917 blockbuster starring Theda Bara. It was far and away the most popular movie of that year. Not only did it finish atop the list of top grossing movies of 1917, but you see references to it all over the place—for example, Roscoe Arbuckle spoofing Bara's famous dance in his comedy short The Cook (which you can see here).

Unfortunately,the last print of Cleopatra was destroyed in a fire in the 1930s, not an uncommon fate for films of that era which were printed on silver nitrate—nitrate being a key component of gunpowder.

All that remains of Cleopatra are some stills and a legend. Unfortunately, it's impossible to judge a silent film by its legendary status. Too many times, a lost film has acquired a reputation for greatness, then been rediscovered and turned out to be a tremendous letdown. Based on stills alone, Alla Nazimova's Salome, for example, was considered a classic; then the film itself was rediscovered and turned out to be a train wreck, nearly unwatchable.

Add in that Bara's fame was very brief—only about four years—and that her most famous surviving film, A Fool There Was (1915), reveals a rather stiff performance, and I'm inclined to think Bara's success was more a matter of notoriety than actual talent. I could be wrong—lots of people will disagree—and if a complete copy of Cleopatra turns up in somebody's attic one day, I'll cheerfully revisit the question.

Anyway, here's all that remains of the most popular movie of 1917, Cleopatra:


14 comments:

Jandy Stone said...

Seeing these clips always make me sad. MoMA put together a program of silent film fragments and showed it at a couple of classic movie venues in LA last year, and while it was great to see bits of Clara Bow films and John Ford films that have been largely lost, I also wanted to cry that so much is gone.

I was a bit baffled by A Fool There Was when I saw that, though - I was like, wait, this is the famous vamp who destroyed men's lives with her allure? Don't get it at all. Other parts of the film I quite liked, like the bits with the wife and kids, if I recall correctly. But it was way less believable than, say, the similar-storied The Blue Angel, even allowing for 1915 filmmaking styles.

Jandy Stone said...

*makeS me sad. I knew I should've hit "preview" first.

POPPY said...

What a discover!!
Beautiful blog;)

Poppy.

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks, Poppy! I've added you to my blog roll -- the photos on your site are fabulous.

And here's a link (here) for my faithful readers.

Mythical Monkey said...

Seeing these clips always make me sad.

I'm with you, Jandy. Earlier this year, TCM showed several clips from lost films (I think they called it Fragments). It was great to see anything at all, but frustrating thinking about how much we've lost.

POPPY said...

Ow! You are so sweet, thank you!

Poppy:)

FlickChick said...

What wouldn't you give if someone somewhere came up with a copy of this film? This truly is one of the holy grails of lost films. Sigh. We can only imagine! A terrific post!

Mythical Monkey said...

What wouldn't you give if someone somewhere came up with a copy of this film?

That would be fantastic -- and stranger things have happened. The Passion of Joan of Arc turned up in a closet at a mental institution in Norway in 1981, and the lost 25 minutes of Metropolis was in South America. I keep hoping Cleopatra might turn up somewhere, too.

KC said...

Cleopatra has got to be out there somewhere. That's what I keep telling myself. I don't know if Theda Bara was talented; I have trouble making allowances for old acting styles. I do enjoy her presence though.

I still can't believe that a flick with such amazing costumes as Salome ended up being as dull and messy as it was. I really love Nazimova's headdress with all the white balls though. Cool head gear can make up for a lot, like Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.

Gunnar Deckare said...

It is sad that so many old films are lost. To late to do anything about that now but I believe there are still old films that ought to be copied. I gues it is all about lack of money... or maybee lack of interest from govenrnment

Mythical Monkey said...

Cleopatra has got to be out there somewhere. That's what I keep telling myself.

I'm betting on some place like Russia or New Zealand where they take film preservation seriously. Either that or some off the wall place like somebody's attic.

Mythical Monkey said...

but I believe there are still old films that ought to be copied. I gues it is all about lack of money... or maybee lack of interest from govenrnment

Yes, that's the other problem. There are a number of silent films by big stars -- for example, Carole Lombard when she worked for Mack Sennett, and dozens of Norma Talmadge movies -- that exist as a single copy in an archive somewhere, but nobody has bothered to make them available. The National Film Registry is a nice start, but it needs to be expanded for older films. And how about some DVD prints for the rest of us?

Jandy Stone said...

Earlier this year, TCM showed several clips from lost films (I think they called it Fragments).

That was probably the same program I'm talking about. I think MoMA premiered it at the 2010 TCM Festival; I saw it there, and then it played at Cinefamily where I volunteer. I'm glad TCM played it on TV, too.

Yes, that's the other problem. There are a number of silent films by big stars -- for example, Carole Lombard when she worked for Mack Sennett, and dozens of Norma Talmadge movies -- that exist as a single copy in an archive somewhere, but nobody has bothered to make them available.

As long as they're in an archive somewhere, I'm fairly hopeful. Doesn't mean they're in good condition or restored, but they're as safe as possible until there's time and money to do it. I'm acquaintances with a couple of film archivists, and it sounds like rewarding but often frustrating work - they'll have things they really want to restore and release, but the funds just aren't there. When money does come in from Film Foundation or somewhere, it's usually earmarked for a specific restoration, which puts everything else on hold. Of course I'm grateful to Film Foundation for everything they do, but there's just so much that NEEDS to be done. And even just cataloguing everything that they have is a nightmarishly big job (this is the UCLA and AMPAS archives).

Mythical Monkey said...

I agree -- it's all about funding. Otherwise, you're limited to the vagaries of the marketplace, and it's hard to generate a broad interest in silent films if nobody sees them. At least when Chaplin or Keaton shows up locally with a live orchestra, they play to a packed house -- which maybe can broaden the appeal of the medium as a whole.

The logical answer would be government funding, which theoretically can support long-term and unprofitable enterprises which nevertheless have social utility, but let's be honest -- we can't get these guys to agree to build roads which carry our goods to market or schools which educate our workforce or, for that matter, raise the debt ceiling which would avert a worldwide economic meltdown, the value of which are (or should be) obvious. No way are they going to agree to preserve and restore 100 year old movies ...