Last night at 9:45 p.m. Turner Classic Movies ran an intriguing and historically important film that wasn’t very good as a movie but was still well worth watching: Cleopatra, a 1912 production featuring actress Helen Gardner and produced by her own company, Helen Gardner Picture Players. This is apparently the very first film dealing with the legendary Queen of Egypt — there’ve been plenty of others since, notably the now-lost (except for a fragment lasting only a few seconds) 1917 Fox version with Theda Bara, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 production with Claudette Colbert and Henry Wilcoxon (a nice-looking but mediocre actor who himself wondered what qualified him to play Mark Antony; DeMille said, “Because Fredric March is unavailable and all the other actors in Hollywood look like sissies”), and the one everybody knows about even if almost no one has actually seen it, the 1958-1963 20th Century-Fox bomb written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. Given that this was a film being made in 1912 and directed by someone other than D. W. Griffith — Gardner had courageously left one of the Motion Picture Trust companies, Vitagraph, in 1912 after two years making 10-minute shorts because that was all the people running the Trust thought audiences could sit still for, while Griffith was working at another Trust company, Biograph, which was about to fire him precisely over his desire to make longer films — I didn’t expect much from it artistically. But it’s fascinating in that Gardner not only starred in it but produced and formed her own company to distribute it, taking a projector and a print around the country and screening it in live theatres, opera houses and other venues that typically didn’t show films. Gardner was clearly putting her own money and her reputation (and her freedom, given that the broad reach of Thomas Edison’s patents literally made it illegal in 1912 for anyone other than the Trust companies to make films) on the line. Her director was Charles L. Gaskill, who isn’t specifically credited as a writer but almost certainly did the adaptation. The writer who is credited is French playwright Victorien Sardou, who was (in)famous for writing barely coherent melodramas George Bernard Shaw dismissed as “Sardoodledum.”
To the exent that Sardou has a reputation today it’s only because one of his plays, La Tosca — about a convent-raised girl who grows up to be an opera singer, gets caught up in the Napoleonic wars and finally kills herself when her boyfriend is executed — got turned into an opera by Puccini, and while Sardou’s play passed into oblivion with the death of the actress he wrote it for, Sarah Bernhardt, Puccini’s Tosca is a staple of the mainstream operatic repertoire. The 1912 Cleopatra — one of the first feature-length films (TCM’s print is nearly 90 minutes long) ever made in the U.S. (most film histories say the first U.S. feature was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man, made two years later) — is indicative of what elite producers, critics and audiences thought would elevate the film medium above the cheap, hackneyed 10-minute movies being shown at the nickelodeons: a series of dull, ponderous tableaux shot in front of elaborate sets (probably the same ones with which Gardner and her supporting cast had performed Sardou’s play on stage) but with few, if any, changes of camera angle within a sequence and no attempt at creative editing. The acting of Gardner and her cast — for some strange reason the actors’ first names were not listed in the credits and the only ones whose full names we know are Gardner’s, Charles Sindelar (her Mark Antony), Pearl Sindelar (whose exact relationship to Charles is something of a mystery — they look about the same age and ordinarily one would think they were a married couple, but the female Sindelar is identified as “Miss” instead of “Mrs.,” suggesting she was more likely Charles’ sister than his wife — either that or she was billed as “Miss Sindelar” out of courtesy), and Helene Costello, then still a child but ultimately a featured player at Warner Bros. (where in the 1920’s her sister Dolores Costello became a star) as Nicola. The plot starts out with a kinky romantic triangle in which Cleopatra’s lady-in-waiting Iras (Pearl Sindelar) has a crush on Greek fisherman and slave Pharon (Mr. Howard — who at least gets a nicely revealing costume of a tunic and tight little shorts that show off his basket and his ass quite well), but Pharon only has eyes for Cleopatra. Instead of punishing him for his lese-majesté Cleopatra cuts him a deal: she’ll make him her lover for 10 days if he’ll agree to kill himself at the end of that period.
Pharon accepts the deal — much to Iras’s understandable upset — but just as he’s about to leave the gates of Alexandria to go into the desert and go through with his suicide, he runs into the advance guard of Roman co-emperor Mark Antony (Charles Sindelar), who’s there to conquer Egypt and annex it to the burgeoning Roman Empire. Antony enters Alexandria but falls victim to Cleopatra’s charms — which in this version consist mainly of her lying akimbo on her couch until Antony responds by approaching her and giving her a decorous screen (or stage) kiss — and with his wife having died back in Rome Cleopatra sees nothing wrong with marrying him and building her own empire to rival Rome’s. Only Antony is torn between love (or at least sex) and duty, which in this case consists of settling his differences with his co-emperor Octavian (Mr. Paul), ending the Roman civil war and sealing the deal by marrying Octavian’s sister Octavia (Miss Robson). The principals end up at the city of Actium, where Cleopatra sends her fleet to support Antony’s in the big sea battle with Octavian’s forces, only Cleopatra withdraws her fleet out of a jealous hissy-fit and Antony orders his fleet to chase hers, essentially throwing the battle. Antony receives word that Cleopatra is dead and orders the head of his forces to kill him, and when the officer kills himself rather than do in Antony, Antony stabs himself and then receives word that Cleopatra isn’t dead after all. Cleopatra ends up a prisoner of Octavian’s in the elaborate tomb she’d had built for herself — apparently, though Cleopatra was descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals who got Egypt when Alexander split up his empire on his deathbed (making it a bit ironic, come to think of it, that Richard Burton played both Alexander the Great and Mark Antony) — and her other lady-in-waiting, Charmian (Miss Fielding), sneaks her a lethal snake (a “serpent,” it’s called in the intertitle) so she can off herself and join Antony (whose dead body is laying there beside her) in death.
Cleopatra suffers from the horrendously outdated acting style — this is one of those films which is acted the way people who’ve never seen a silent film start-to-finish think they were all acted like, with the actors registering distress and anguish by thrusting their hands above their heads, heaving like they’re experiencing seasickness, and otherwise making preposterous and unreal gestures. (By the end of the silent era actresses like Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo were giving far more restrained and subtle performances, proving that you didn’t need dialogue to perform naturalistically.) Ironically, Gardner and writer-director Gaskill stuck a written prologue on the film that talked a much better movie than the one they actually made: “Certain stage traditions originally founded in ignorance and preserved after they became traditions, have not been considered; the object of the Director has been to insure naturalness in an atmosphere of romance, the object of the Author to intimate the nobilities and grandeur of the woman who was devotedly loved by Julius Caesar. Perfect freedom has been exercised in the adaptation.” Unfortunately, the entire movie remains mired in the “stage traditions” of the time, including not only ridiculously stylized acting but also long scenes taking place on a single set, shot from a single angle, set either indoors or in courtyards and other confined, enclosed exteriors. No action scenes appear in the film — unless you count the preposterous representation of the Battle of Actium, which is shown by depicting Antony and Cleopatra on rocking platforms meant to represent the decks of ships, posed in front of an obviously painted backdrop of sea and sky, with an unseen stagehand occasionally throwing a bucket of water at them to make it look like they’re at sea. There’s even one continuity glitch in which an actor disappears from the screen — obviously they stopped the camera in the middle of a take and when they resumed the actor had left the set.
The 1912 Cleopatra is a film of obvious historical importance, and one distinction is the quite creative use of color tinting throughout most of the scenes (very few silent films were actually shown in black-and-white; obviously most early filmmakers regarded the absence of photographic color as a major handicap of the medium and tried to work around it with elaborate tints and tones; they went out of style in the sound era largely because tinting compromised the fidelity of a sound-on-film soundtrack), but for the most part it’s a ponderous bore. A creative director like Griffith or the young DeMille could have helped a lot — just a year later Griffith would get himself fired from Biograph by sneaking behind his bosses’ backs to film a similar story, Judith of Bethulia (based on the Biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes), in four reels and throwing into it the whole armamentarium of cinematic tricks he had invented or developed (close-ups, changes of camera angle within a scene, cross-cut editing and the like), which would definitely have benefited Helen Gardner’s Cleopatra and made it look more like a movie than a photographed stage play without dialogue. It also didn’t help that the version TCM showing was a restoration they did in 2000 in association with the George Eastman House in which they hired Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida to give the film an absolutely terrible score, full of electronic burbles, insistent percussion, off-screen voices chanting and a couple of bad soft-rock songs sung by a Cyndi Lauper wanna-be which were supposed to represent Cleopatra’s innermost thoughts.