ETWEEN TAKES - Theda Bara Mystery Series Blog

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Writ In Water

Christopher DiGrazia
28 March 2011

If Theda Bara ever met the late Liz Taylor ("The Last Movie Star," in screenwriter Robert J. Avrech's sympathetic eulogy) or saw any of her films before her own death in 1955, we have no way of knowing. I would think, though, that if she saw Lassie Come Home, National Velvet or Little Women, she might have seen a bit of herself in the young Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, especially in what biographer Alexander Walker called her "old" eyes, reflecting "her mother's air of concentration."

The "Vampire Supreme," of course, left people dazzled by her "knockout drops for eyes," an eerie, serpent-like gaze that was supposed to represent seductive, scheming evil, but which was probably a fortuitous conjunction of Theda's own severe near-sightedness and "klieg eyes" caused by the brutal illumination from the primitive lights of the day.

But though they may never have met, Taylor and Bara are eternally twinned in movie history for their shared signature role –



Cleopatra text

Not that Theda was the first to screen the story of the Queen of the Nile. That honor goes to George Méliès' 1899 Cléopâtre, a short film whose plot (such as there was) apparently shows a magician cutting Cleopatra's mummy into pieces before restoring and resurrecting it. The Vitagraph Company released Antony and Cleopatra in 1908, which may – just may – have starred Florence Lawrence, "The Vitagraph Girl." Italian director Ferdinand Zecca was next out of the gate in 1910 with Cleopatre, starring Madeleine Roch as the Egyptian seductress.

Two years later, actor/producer/director Helen Gardner helmed one of America's first (if not the first) full-length movies, her Cleopatra clocking in at about 1 ½ hours. It was first broadcast on Turner Classic Movies and is now available on YouTube, both times complemented by a modern "trance" score that grows on you, if you can get past the annoying opening minutes. The production itself, filmed on the Helen Gardner Picture Players' lot in Tappan, New York, is sometimes laughably bare-bones (Cleopatra's barge, for example, is just a big wooden cutout of a ship towed by off-screen grips), but Gardner herself, as Cleopatra, turns in a regal, commanding and – even 90 years later – very sexual performance that must have been captivating to the 1912 audience.

The 1963 Taylor-Burton version is infamous for nearly bankrupting Twentieth-Century Fox to the tune of $44 million dollars (nearly $320 million today) while simultaneously destroying the careers of producer Walter Wanger, studio prexy Spyros Skouras and writer / director Joseph Mankiewicz as well as shattering the marriages of both Burton and Taylor. But while it was never a massive success and took three years just to break even, it did end up as "one of the top-10 grossers of all time" in 1964. One thing the movie did not do – despite legend - was force the sale of the studio's back lot in order to raise desperately needed cash; the sale had been planned for several years prior to Cleopatra and was completed only after the release of the movie.

Theda's 1917 version, on the other hand, immediately raked in the cash for the Fox Film Corporation; nearly $85 million in modern dollars off a budget of $300,000 in 1917 dollars ($4.5 million today), and it was rereleased in 1920 for more cash when Fox canceled production on The Queen of Sheba, a Theda Bara project that was dumped when her contract was not renewed.

Back to 1963. Mankiewicz's "director's cut" ran for almost six hours, setting Cleopatra in that rarified territory occupied by Abel Gance's Napoleon and Erich von Stroheim's Greed. The premiere showing was slashed down to four hours and then again in general release to a touch over three; the 1991 "Special Edition" DVD runs 248 minutes.

There's almost a cottage industry in accounts of the disaster that Cleopatra was for most everybody involved, and since it premiered at New York's Rivoli Theatre in 1963, hardly a year has gone by without yet another rehashing of the whole bloated enterprise, from Wanger's own self-justifying My Life with Cleopatra, studio publicists Brodsky and Weiss' The Cleopatra Papers (sounds like a bad Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode, doesn't it?) to David Kamp's 1998 Vanity Fair story When Liz Met Dick and then to the obligatory entries in books chronicling Hollywood disasters (Fiasco and The Hollywood Hall of Shame are the two on my shelf I'm looking at as I write).

Much like the devotees of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, film enthusiasts have scoured the globe for Cleopatra's lost footage, but so far none of it has made it to a commercial release. You can see a restored version of the movie using stills and the complete screenplay at Allan Trivett's marvelous website, but as with the reconstruction of Greed, stills are no substitute for moving pictures. Still, at least we can see Taylor move, which is more than we can say for poor Theda.

What happened to her Cleopatra?

Fire. The original camera negative was destroyed in 1937, when a fire at the Fox storage vault in Little Ferry, NJ burned to the ground (and, incidentally, taking the negatives of every Fox silent with it!). We know that the Museum of Modern Art in New York owned a print, but that was lost in another fire in the 1950s.

Neglect. It's very likely that Theda herself lost a print of Cleopatra; the young Joan Craig remembered her going "into a tizzy" when she tried to show Craig one of her movies and discovered her entire cache had crumbled to dust.

A reel of decomposing nitrate film.

Dead ends. We know that Cecil B. DeMille screened Cleopatra as a prelude to his own 1934 version starring Claudette Colbert; presumably, he used his clout to pull a copy from the Fox vault. Film historian Robert S. Birchard believes he then returned it to Fox to die a fiery death, but whether DeMille really returned the print or whether it languishes somewhere in a dark corner of a long-neglected Paramount archive, we may never know. Then there is a teasing note from the book Marilyn: The Last Take, suggesting that Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century-Fox, screened Theda's film at some point in the early 1960s before launching on his star-crossed project.

But beyond that. . .nothing. Despite Cleopatra heading dozens of "lost film" lists over the years, and despite the energetic searches of scholars and fans, the only fragment of the "Theda Bara Super Production" ever to surface is a 10-second fragment held by the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. It isn't much. It may not even be a proper part of the movie at all; according to Birchard, it's either a costume or lighting test. Theda, wearing the silly "coolie hat" costume below, turns slowly to her left, never looking at the camera and doing a slight shimmy of the shoulder.

Silly Girl.

And, naturally, it isn't available to see, even in this age of YouTube. It was used in the Timeline Films documentary The Woman With the Hungry Eyes, but that won't help you, since that's never been released.

However, you will get a chance to see it at 8.00pm EST on Sunday, April 3, when Turner Classic Movies presents Fragments: Surviving Pieces of Lost Films, a two-hour documentary featuring clips from Emil Jannings' The Way of All Flesh and Lon Chaney's The Miracle Man as well as several others, including our lovely Miss Bara's own star turn. So set your DVD recorder for this one. I know I will.

But let's close with a bit of fantasy. Let's go back to 1917. . .

You know, Helen Gardner was quite an actress," I teased as I started to apply Theo's makeup. "She didn't need to do the whole bathing beauty bit."

"Helen Gardner was an old frump with cardboard sets and dime store costumes," Theo snapped. "I'm going to blow her off the screen. So get a good look at this," she added, grabbing my chin and looking right into my eyes. "From now on, this is the face of Cleopatra."

I smiled as I smoothed out her face. "It's been a long time coming."

She matched my smile. "You bet your tuchas it has. But it's worth it. This is the one they're going to remember me for."


Between Takes Blog Rule


Christopher DiGrazia
22 March 2011

It's going to be one of those weeks. I'm stopped dead on Hollywood and Vain. So I turned to another project - a little Halloween story featuring Theo and Toby that I've had kicking around for about a year. I know that I could finish it if I buckled down for two good hours. . .but as the Essex sang, it's easier said than done.

Hence the picture of Theo in a frenzy. I'm about to scream right now, too. But I don't want to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. Have I encouraged you to visit Claroscureaux yet? You should. Kevin did the cover picture of Theo for The Director's Cut and has colored a few other pictures of mine as well.

And there's a new blog out - Vintage Movie Star Photos - which has a dazzling array of still photos as well as the stories behind the men (and women) behind the lens.

If you stop by either place, do a brother a solid and tell them I sent you, would you?

And now it's back to work. Wish me luck.

Theo in a frenzy

Theo in a frenzy.


Between Takes Blog Rule

A Theda Bara Sighting

Christopher DiGrazia
14 March 2011

(This is an irregular feature where I note references to Theda Bara, her films or one of her co-stars in books I happen to be reading.)

"Café Society of the Lower East Side shook down and stratified in the years before the First World War. Each café had its special attraction. Stark's, on Houston Street, was for chess and cards. Little Hungary, a favorite spot of Theodore Roosevelt's, was for gala occasions. The imported wines were free at Little Hungary, and Rigo the gypsy played his fiddle from table to table while his wife sang and jiggled her mountains of flesh and garlands of bangles. The Boulevard was the haunt of local politicians, the Monopole of the demigods of the Yiddish theater. One could tell, by which cloaks, hats and canes lay in the window of the Monopole, which impresarios of the drama were holding court inside. Elfenbein's was a favorite of uptown leading ladies, like Theda Bara, who used to wait there between fittings at Milgrim's. The Rathskeller, near Fourteenth Street, was a favorite of Jolson and Cantor, who generously obliged with songs when they came downtown for dinner."

- Rowland Barber, The Night They Raided Minsky's (Simon & Schuster, 1960), pp. 30-31

The wonderful book, Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York by William Grimes, has nothing to say about Stark's, the Boulevard, Monopole, Elfenbein's or the Rathskeller. But of Little Hungary, we learn that:

Little Hungary on Houston Street was the neighborhood's big attraction, an atmospheric ethnic restaurant offering slivovitz (Eastern European plum brandy), Gypsy music, a wine cellar, and a menu bearing the motto "You must eat it whether you like it or not."

And as for the Rough Rider's patronage, once he was elected president,

. . .it came to pass that on Valentine's Day 1905, after being feted at the Waldorf-Astoria the previous night, he descended on Little Hungary for a dinner of chicken paprika, salad with Little Hungary dressing, apple strudel and Hungarian wines.

Chicken paprika
Chicken Paprika. Yum!

Milgrim's, on 57th Street, was a fashion store that was opened in 1927 by the designer Sally Milgrim, with later satellite stores in several diverse places, including Detroit, Cleveland, Miami and Palm Beach, with the last one (in Cleveland) closing in 1990. Mrs. Milgrim's obituary (she retired in 1960 and died in 1994) noted that she designed Eleanor Roosevelt's first inaugural gown as well as dresses for Marilyn Miller, Pearl White, Ethel Merman and Mary Pickford, but the lovely Miss Bara sadly gets no mention.

Sally Milgrim
Sally Milgrim


Between Takes Blog Rule

The Shocking Mister Brabin

Christopher DiGrazia
28 February 2011

Is anybody reading this? I don't know. But if you are, you remember that two Fridays ago, I mentioned I was having trouble with Hollywood and Vain and promised you a post on Cleopatra. Well, since then, I have managed to get some H&V writing done and have a scene ahead of me that involves a famous missing person case of 1910 – the vanishing of New York blueblood Dorothy Arnold (look it up; it's fascinating). And, of course, Theo and Toby will very soon be meeting the Man You Love To Hate – genius director Erich von Stroheim.

But that's in the future, when H&V is released. And by the way, if you're reading this, have you bought your copy of The Director's Cut yet? If not. . .well, go ahead. I'll wait.

Theda Bara married Metro director Charles Brabin in 1921, after her failed stage comeback in the dreadful play The Blue Flame. By most accounts, they had a very happy marriage. One visitor to their house recalled seeing a birthday card on the mantelpiece from Theda to Charles that read 'To my darling Mouchy-Mou - from your Wiffle Tree,' and film historian DeWitt Bodeen noted, according to Theda's biographer Eve Golden, that Charles' devotion to Theda was just as "seventeenish."

Charles and Theda
Mr. and Mrs. Charles Brabin request the pleasure of your company.

But there was at least one person who found Brabin's matrimonial devotion to be a sham – writer Frederica Sagor Maas, who told the following tale in her memoir The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (University Press of Kentucky, 1999). Maas doesn't give a date for her encounter with Brabin, but as she mentions immediately after this story that she had finished the script for the Clara Bow film The Plastic Age, it would seem to date Charles' amorous attempt to sometime in 1925, after he had been unceremoniously booted from the director's chair of Ben-Hur by the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio:

Charles Brabin was an erstwhile Universal director now glad to serve as assistant to any director who would have him. But to Elsie Werner1 1. A reader at Universal Studios. he was the greatest, and they were carrying on a torrid affair. All she could talk about was Charles Brabin, how he adored her, how fascinating he found her – a woman of the world – how much they had in common – their interest and understanding of Proust. I "had to" meet him.

I met him. Several nights later, at seven o'clock, he came to dinner. He was a tall, spare man, very dapper, wearing a velour hat (jauntily askew) and carrying a gold-knobbed cane. A colorful kerchief was draped around his neck – I'm sure to hide the wrinkles. He was doused with feminine perfume – the same scent I used, and one which I never used afterward. He dyed his thinning hair red. I suspected, too, that he wore a corset. He was a man past sixty2 2. Brabin was born in 1882. trying to look forty. Artificial all the way. A flatterer, a woman chaser, and not to be taken seriously. It was obvious he was trying to make a favorable impression on me, confirming my worst suspicions; he was not in love with Elsie.

After he left, my fluttery roommate asked excitedly, "What do you think? How do you like him? Isn't he wonderful?" I didn't have the heart to disillusion her. I knew she would find out sooner or later that her lover was a has-been whose chief claim to fame was being the husband of Theda Bara. Yes, the same Theda Bara that dear Ben Schulberg3 3. The former publicity chief for Famous Players-Lasky, at the times of the story, the head of Preferred Pictures. had wanted me to emulate!

That was not the end of Charles Brabin. The next day, he came a-calling, wearing carefully selected sports clothes – natty grey tweed plus fours with a cashmere jacket, a Tyrolean hat with a wisp of a feather, white shoes, the gold-knobbed cane, and another scarf carefully tucked around his neck. He was a fast manipulator, wanting me to know he had not slept a wink for thinking of me. And he was sure, because he could feel the vibrations, that I returned the attraction.

"What about Elsie?" I asked him incredulously, knowing the line he had been feeding her and also recalling Al Lichtman's4 4. Head of sales at Universal. indifferent dismissal of his amante. Like the villain in a barroom melodrama, he laughed scornfully and would have twirled his mustache if he had had one.

"That silly goose!" was his reply. My hand reached out, made perfect contract with his cheek, and nearly knocked him off balance. I never told poor Elsie what had happened. I knew her well enough to know she would not have believed me. She wept for days when he did not return her calls. Exit Charles Brabin.


The Shocking Miss Pilgrim

Between Takes Blog Rule

Queen of the Nile

Christopher DiGrazia
18 February 2011

Sometimes there are days when you just can't write (which is really more the lament of the amateur than the professional, but that's a discussion for another day).

I'm getting nowhere right now with Hollywood and Vain, so I was going to change gears and dash off a little bit about Cleopatra, especially since it gives me the chance to show off this lovely picture –

A publicity still from Cleopatra. Colorized by Claroscureaux.

But that ol' writer's block is pressing down on me. So I'm off to light up a nice cigar (it's nearly 50 here today in the wilds of northern Massachusetts!) and ponder. When we come back on Friday the 25th, we'll talk about the legendary lost "Theda Bara Super Production."


Between Takes Blog Rule

Let's Watch the World Go to the Devil

Christopher DiGrazia
14 February 2011

Happy Valentine's Day and best wishes to you all.

A little change today from our Theda Bara programming –

Theda Bara Blog - 1933 Theda Bara in Frank Powell's A Fool There Was
Maria - The Man-Machine

Probably one of the most famous robots in the world, Maria (or, to give her her proper name, The Man-Machine is the fascinating – and, as embodied by Brigitte Helm, seductive – centerpiece of Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis.

As part of the Tambakos Silent Film Series at Merrimack College, I'll be discussing the movie itself, as well as talking a little bit about German Expressionism, this Wednesday at 6.30, with the movie to follow at 7.00. Stop by and say hello!


Between Takes Blog Rule

The Vampire — Miss Theda Bara

Christopher DiGrazia
11 February 2011

Here's a picture I picked up on eBay, auctioned from the files of the Baltimore Sun. On the back, someone penciled '1933 Theda Bara in Frank Powell's A Fool There Was.' As you can see, it's been pretty roughly handled over the years – there are crop marks on either side of the lovely Miss Bara, and while it's hard to see here, someone once outlined her eyes, mouth and hands to make them more distinct.

Theda Bara Blog - 1933 Theda Bara in Frank Powell's A Fool There Was
1933 Theda Bara in Frank Powell's A Fool there Was'

This obviously isn't a posed photo, but a blowup of a frame from Fool, about five minutes or so in. The Vampire has just been snubbed by Mrs. John Schuyler (Mabel Frenyear), and as she and her child (Runa Hodges) walk away, Bara snarls,

"Some day, you will pay for that."

Unfortunately, I don't know why this photo is dated 1933. Theda wasn't doing anything at the time, but perhaps the rumor mill was throwing out gossip about her returning to the movies. I'm having this picture restored and colored, so you'll see it again. But enjoy it for now as it is.


Between Takes Blog Rule

The Vampire Supreme

Christopher DiGrazia
7 February 2011

A lot of mystery novels use Hollywood or showbiz for background. I'm thinking, off the top of my head, of James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, Robert Parker's Stardust and (though I only learned of its existence the other day) The Morning Show Murders by TV weatherman Al Roker. And I'm sure you can come up with quite a few on your own.

But the subgenre of "movie mysteries" are something else altogether. And while I was writing The Director's Cut, I was continually surprised to learn how many of them there are. For example, you have George Baxt's campy romps, including The Talking Pictures Murder Case, The Clark Gable and Carol Lombard Murder Case and The Humphrey Bogart Murder Case (with our own Miss Bara popping up mid-book in a special guest-star appearance). They're not really my cup of tea, but they do have their devoted fans.

On the other hand, I did enjoy Edward Wright's moody Clea's Moon and its sequel, While I Disappear, both featuring down on his luck B-Western star John Ray Horn making his way through a sour, corrupt postwar Los Angeles. Poke around library shelves and you might find Stuart Kaminski's gumshoe Toby Peters lightly sauntering through Golden Age Hollywood, crossing paths with legends like Bela Lugosi (Never Cross a Vampire), Judy Garland (Murder on the Yellow Brick Road) and Clark Gable (Tomorrow Is Another Day). Then there's the prolific Loren Estleman's Frames and Alone, featuring film archivist-cum-amateur-detective Valentino (yes, you read that right).

So the idea of Theda Bara, amateur detective has plenty of predecessors. But I think the idea of using a silent movie queen as a mystery heroine is unique (of course, if I'm wrong, let me know!) But still – why Theda Bara? Why not Gloria Swanson? Mary Pickford? Heck, why not Pola Negri?

Theda Bara Blog - Pola Negri photo
Pola Negri

Mmmm. . .Pola Negri. She's gorgeous. Of course, Theo's beautiful too, in her own way, but even I have to admit she didn't photograph well unless you got her just right – for example, in that picture of her from The Blue Flame that tops the home page. But I've always had a crush on Theda Bara, so she was my choice when I decided to write The Director's Cut.

Iris out. Let's go back to the beginning.

In 2002, I'd spent about ten years researching and writing about the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, which is the fancy name "Ripperologists" give to the Jack the Ripper killings. I'd written a regular column for Ripperologist magazine and co-authored a reference book on newspaper coverage of the case, The News From Whitechapel (currently available from and other fine retailers, cough, cough. . .).

Theda Bara Blog - Whitechapel Magazine Cover
Whitechapel Magazine cover

I've always been fascinated by unsolved mysteries, so for my next book I thought about investigating the snatching of Charley Ross, who, in 1874, was the first American child kidnapped for ransom. The problem was that the primary documents – Philadelphia police reports, Pinkerton case files and so on – were long gone. So what else could I write about? What interested me enough to devote at least a year to?

I've always loved silent movies. In the third grade, I even staged a live version of Chaplin's Dough and Dynamite for a class project (nobody liked it, if you want to know; they just rolled their eyes. I got that a lot in school). And as I said, I've always had a crush on Theda Bara.

I don't know why, though I think it's the sheer exotica of her which first intrigued me. I didn't know then that the bizarre name and sultry stare belonged to a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati. She looked like the most overripe, cosseted, flashing-eyed, imperious diva that ever stalked a movie set, and I wondered - what was she really like?

Theda Bara, amateur detective. It was an idea that kicked around in my head. Nothing more. Then one day I sat down and watched A Fool There Was. I'd been reading Eve Golden's Vamp and I knew that by 1915, Bara had spent ten years near the bottom of the theatrical world. It was because of this movie that she became a star.

And there was my hook. What would her life have been like if she'd never made Fool?

What if your dream came true - and was taken away? What would you do?

What would. . .Theda Bara do?


Between Takes Blog Rule

A Fool There Was…

Christopher DiGrazia
4 February 2011

... and he made his prayer —

(Even as you and I.)

To a rag and a bone and a hand of hair —

(We called her the woman who did not care)

But the fool he called her his lady fair —

(Even as you and I.)

Ninety-six years ago, flickering beams of light shot out from projectionists’ booths across the country. There, on the screen, was a lithe, pale shadow. A dark-eyed, white-faced woman plucking the bud of a rose from its stem, crushing the petals and letting them fall limply to the ground as she watched with a cruel smile. Then, as she laughed, a title card introduced her to the world:

The Vampire… Miss Theda Bara

Ninety-six years! Not that long ago, really, though when we watch her slink her way across the screen, it seems so very far away, so odd, so funny, so… different. Watching her now, it seems incredible to believe that this icy, pasty-faced woman, her wide sloe eyes rimmed with thick rings of kohl could ever be a movie star, even if Motion Picture Magazine praised her as playing the role with ‘great skill.’ But she was. For four years, she was the queen of the lot at the Fox Film Corporation, the money from her movies turning a small shoestring operation into a film powerhouse.

And then — it was gone. Tastes changed. Oh, they still loved her, and they loved reminiscing about her wicked, wicked ways on screen, yet she just couldn’t make a comeback.

But then again, she never really went away. Movies made her immortal. And now, in the pages of my mystery, The Director’s Cut, she laughs and cries and lives again.

Look into those eyes. You’ve seen them before. You’ve always seen them. Over the years, the face of Theda Bara has become the face of silent movies – sometimes ridiculous, sometimes alien, but always alluring. Seductive. Vampirish.

Theda Bara Blog

"You'll never forget me. Because I'll always be with you."

Theda Bara lives. On the screen, she reaches out to you. On the page, she embraces you. I hope you will fall into her arms and into her world.

Welcome to Welcome to The Director’s Cut.

Welcome to the Theda Bara Mysteries.