Tuesday, 21 June 2016


If you mention Cleopatra today most people will probably recall the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor in her most sensual, voluptuous prime in the 1963 film of that name. 

Earlier, in 1946, Vivien Leigh starred against Claude Raines in Caesar and Cleopatra. 

Before that, in 1934, Claudet Colbert sizzled on the screen in a version by Cecil B. DeMille.

But there were also silent films that depicted the mythical femme fatale, with some of them created at the dawn of the age of cinema - and one of the very earliest was the short French horror, Cleopatre, also known as Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb.

Directed by Georges Méliès and released in 1899, the plot involves an archeologist who visits a tomb and then disturbs the mummified corpse of an ancient queen, who he goes on to resurrect.

Sadly, that film is now lost to us, as so many early movies are. But we still have records of the work created by Helen Gardner, a seductively beautiful actress who is known as one of the very first ‘vamps’ - not in the sense of a vampire hell-bent on sucking her victims' blood, but because any man would be powerless to resist the danger of her charms.

Having first appeared in films produced for the New York Vitagraph company, Helen Gardner gained some great acclaim when playing the parts of femme fatales, such as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair - before she then went on to use investment from her mother to start up her own company.

The Helen Gardner Picture Players first created Cleopatra. Based on a play by Victorien Sardou, this lavish black-and-white silent film was released in November 1912. It lasted for just over an hour (which was long by standards at the time) and showed a series of tableaux where the queen is on screen with her various lovers; from the likes of a lowly fisherman slave, to the Roman general, Marc Antony.

The film promoted itself with the line: ‘The most beautiful motion picture ever made.’ And you can still judge for yourself today, with the film being available on various accounts on Youtube.

Theda Bara

Then again you might prefer a film that came a little after that; the one that starred Theda Bara, whose image has very much inspired the fictional Edwardian actress whose story is found in my forthcoming novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey.

Much like my central character, Theda Bara (born in Ohio in 1885 as Theodosia Burr Goodman) had the sort of dark seductive looks that were perfect when she came to play the part of the Serpent of the Nile.


The Fox film studio even created a fictional history for their star, who was billed as being the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculpter, who had spent many of her childhood years living in the shadow of the Sphinx.

When she starred as Cleopatra, that film version had been inspired by the work of the Victorian novelist, H. Rider Haggard - just as a film in my novel is based on his thrilling adventure story, She.

Theda Bara's film is lost, the last two prints of it being burned in a fire at the Fox studio vaults in 1937. Even so, some fragments do remain, along with stills that clearly show just how glamorous the settings were; not to mention the actress's sex appeal, and the most provocative costumes that some critics called ‘objectionable’. 

The film was heavily censored with scenes being cut where they happened to show a close-up of Bara’s navel, or with her legs or breasts exposed, or embraces that suggested sex.

Coming out in 1917, this scandalous Cleopatra was one of Hollywood’s most sensual films at the time. It was also very elaborate, and to give some idea of its scope and ambition, over 2,000 staff were employed backstage, and it cost around $500,000 - which amounts to many millions now.

If only we could see it, but some fragments on Youtube must suffice - along with all the remaining stills that go some way to show us just how alluring Theda Bara was.


thewhitespike said...

I love that close up of her, the one with the gold, well it looks like gold, sort of head dress and her big dark eyes. I keep saying it I know but, I am really looking forward to The Last Days of Leda Grey.

Essie Fox said...

Thank you George. I love that close up too. It really as an inspiration for me.

thewhitespike said...

Sorry that reply came up twice, I did write it twice as I thought I'd lost, the first one. You've used that close up of Theda Bara for your avatar, haven't you? She kind of looks like you a wee bit.