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Cleopatra (1912).

September 17, 2010

The Scoop:
One of the first-ever feature length films in America, this silent version of the oft-told tale of the Queen of Egypt (this one based on a stage play by Victorien Sarnou) is the brainchild of cinema pioneer Helen Gardner.

Although virtually forgotten now, she was one of the biggest stage and screen stars of her day, and an important leader in the early movie industry. She owned her own studio, and was among the first stars to have their own production companies. In addition to starring in “Cleopatra” she also produced and edited it, and even designed the costumes.

The film itself is an interesting historical piece, representing a stepping stone in the evolution of filmmaking from early, stage-bound shorts to the cinematically modern features that D.W. Griffith would pioneer just a few years later. In fact, the evolution plays out on screen before our eyes as the film, which from the surviving evidence seems to have been shot in chronological order, progresses from its static, stagy early scenes to its more dynamic and intimate later scenes. It’s apparent that Gardner and director Charles Gaskill were learning and exploring as they went along.

Much of the film looks clunky and wooden to modern eyes, just as most films of the period do. But there are flashes of inspiration here, too, that make it worth seeing. The restored print features the original color tinting and a terrific new soundtrack mixing traditional and avant garde electronic music. It’s an important building-block of cinema as we know it.

Best Bit:
The trip down the Nile.

Side Note:
Sardou’s play, originally staged in 1890 with the legendary Sarah Bernhardt and adapted from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” was also the basis of a 1917 film starring Theda Bara.

Companion Viewing:
“Intolerance” (1916).

Helen Gardner’s official site.

Take a Look:
Just look at that gown… and that hair…

A clip with an alternate score:

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