Before Elizabeth Taylor brought the mystical and powerful Greek queen Cleopatra to the silver screen in 1963, there was the sexy and sultry Theodosia “Theda” Bara. Although not Greek herself, she was said to be captivated by the role of Cleopatra, the most famous Greek woman of the ancient world.
Known as “the vamp”, Bara portrayed Cleopatra in a controversial 1917 film directed by J. Gordon Edwards and starring Thurston Hall as Mark Antony. Bara was one of the most popular actresses of the silent era, and one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname The Vamp (short for vampire).
Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926. At the height of her fame, she was as well known and beloved as her contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
Unfortunately, a 1937 fire destroyed almost all of her films, including Cleopatra, from which only a few seconds of footage remain of her as Cleopatra.
The 1917 version of “Cleopatra” was one of the most elaborate Hollywood films ever produced up to that time, with particularly lavish sets and costumes. According to the studio, the film cost $500,000 (approximately $8.3 million in today’s dollars) to make and employed 2,000 people behind the scenes.
Bara was said to be captivated with Greek history and Cleopatra’s impact on history and took her role so seriously, she actually believed she was the Greek queen while she shot the film. The story of this silent film was very loosely based on the plot of William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
Theda Bara appeared in a variety of fantastic costumes, some quite risqué. The film was a great success at the time. However, years later, with the imposition of Hollywood’s Hays Code, the film was judged too obscene to be shown and was taken out of circulation.
Hollywood Today: Guests at Cleo Restaurant in the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood receive a smoldering stare from Theda Bara herself when they arrive. The restaurant, named after the Greek queen which features delectable treats from throughout the Mediterranean region that she once ruled over, has a huge portrait of Bara as Cleopatra in the 1917 film. If you’re craving more, check out the 2006 documentary, The Woman with the Hungry Eyes.