Though 75 percent of silent films are lost, there are a few which occupy the minds of film enthusiasts, preservationists and the like more than any others. London After Midnight, the uncut version of Von Stroheim’s Greed and Theda Bara’s star-making turn in 1917’s Cleopatra. Star-making in that Bara (prominent the year before, undeniable thereafter), and in no small part the film, helped usher the very concept of film star into reality, telling a story larger than life and therefore meant for the movies. Theda’s screen presence in her over 40 films (many in ‘vamp’ roles and only two of which survive in full) made her cinema’s first true sex symbol, and Cleopatra was a role befitting her; sensuous and grand. The same can be said for the sets and costumes, many considered outrageously scandalous in their day, and not halfway tame by modern standards.
Period films with lavish productions (Cleopatra employed some 15,000 extras and 2,000 crewmembers, plus an equal harras of horses, while recreating the Great Pyramids, Sphinx and Alexandrian waterfront in California) were en vogue during this era after Cabiria popularized and Griffith plagiarised the epic (an oversimplification, but who’s out there trying to defend D.W?) The blueprint for the spectacle and studio-toppling budgets of later Cleopatra films (including the impending one starring Gal Gadot) was set here, and indeed, what was potentially the final showing of the 1917 version was held by Cecil B. Demille, king of the epic, as research for his own Cleopatra.
That copy was returned to the Fox studio archives, where it was incinerated in their 1937 fire, along with many of Bara’s other movies. The last known print of the film, housed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, suffered the same fate. Twenty or so poor-quality seconds would be the only surviving fragment for decades to come, and therefore our only link to an irreplaceable chapter in film history. It was beat-up, un-tinted and brief, but it outdid the stills and reconstructions attempted over the years. Now, thanks to researcher James Fennell, we’ve got 40 additional seconds in brilliant clarity.
Fennell runs a YouTube channel named ‘Old Films and Stuff’ which has featured some choice discoveries over the years, but this most monumental of them all came bundled with an antique toy projector for sale online. As with many holding onto old reels of film, it appears the seller did not know what they had in their possession. James announced his discovery in August and uploaded the scanned footage to his channel. It can be viewed above. Appreciable in James’ excellently preserved discovery are the iconic, soot-like rings painted beneath the slinking Bara’s eyes, one of Cleopatra’s 50 extravagant costumes, the tall, frame-filling sets, the garrisons of extras we would see in Sword and Sandal films over the next hundred and then some years.
Excitingly, we recently caught James hot on the trail of another potential Cleopatra fragment (an Austrian film-fan, inspired by James’ discovery, raised the alarm after spotting a projector up for grabs online, along with a roll of film labelled “Kleopatra Anfang”, or ‘Cleopatra Beginning’). Many Cleopatra films were made during the silent era, and the likelihood of discovering more footage from one of cinema’s most wanted is low, but James’ discovery is more than encouraging. It’s miraculous.