Monday, October 16, 2006
Theda Bara's Cleopatra, 1917
This past week I’ve been intrigued by a silent film classic which I will never be able to see, since the last surviving copies of it were destroyed by fire during the 1950s (one of the problems with storing nitrate film which was highly flammable). The 1917 film, considered by some to be Theda Bara’s most important work, was called simply, Cleopatra. Many of the images from the film have become cultural icons (think Bara’s eyes as the logo for the Chicago International Film Festival).
Eve Golden in Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara says that Bara did extensive research on Cleopatra before starting the film. Bara herself felt that the production was historically true to its subject. Looking at the production stills, we see more about pre-WWI fantasies than what life in Ancient Egypt was like. Several of Bara’s over 15 costumes exude pre-Hays Office sex -- appropriately, since Bara was considered the ultimate screen “vamp” (short for Vampire, one who like the prey mantis devours the men who love her). In a couple of cases Bara wears a nude body top, but in some stills she looks very nude underneath tissue gauze and chiffon.
One of the funniest costumes Bara wears looks very pre-art deco with some French high fashion blending into a futuristic “Metropolis” look. Wearing a vulture headdress with two feathers, the look suggests more sophisticated ant than Egyptian queen. Her flimsy blouse disappears into two straps at the open back. A peplum overskirt a la Poiret covers a skirt with stylized Egyptian motifs and shimmering brocade split trains. French designers of the period can be seen in Haute Couture - Designer Dresses from Gazette du Bon Ton.
Most of the production pictures suggest the actors use of the DelSarte method popular during the late 1800s. François Delsarte had created an acting method which utilized a standardized set of stylized gestures to convey emotions. Much of the overly melodramatic acting the early silent films seems to follow this metod.
After researching the film, I created a new series of paper dolls based on Theda Bara and the film. Check out Theda Bara: Just a Nice Jewish Girl from Cincinnati.