Spending a few days in Los Angeles, one of my favorite cities in the world, is always refreshing– what’s even better is when I learn new and fascinating things while I’m there that lead me to research, reading, google searches and the uncovering of fascinating new facts about things I am passionate about.
Film, history and anything Greek-related are three of those things. Everyone equates Elizabeth Taylor with the quintessential Cleopatra. But before Liz brought the mystical and powerful Greek queen Cleopatra to the silver screen in 1963, there was the sexy and sultry Theda Bara. Known as “the vamp”, Bara portrayed Cleopatra in a 1917 film directed by J. Gordon Edwards and also starred Fritz Leiber, Sr. as Julius Caesar and Thurston Hall as Mark Antony.
I uncovered this story in an unlikely place– one of my favorite restaurants in Hollywood– called Cleo, inside the Redbury Hotel at the iconic corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.
An image of Bara, who was one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, hang at the entrance of the Mediterranean-inspired eatery, greeting guests with her sultry eyes. 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.
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. The last two prints known were destroyed in fires at Fox Studios and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
*If you’re craving more, check out the 2006 documentary, “The Woman with the Hungry Eyes.”