When the film opens, the Egyptian queen (known for her many affairs) has just taken a new lover, a slave called Pharon. He is so enthralled by the queen that he is willing to die for her. But it is not until Cleopatra meets Antony that she experiences both all-consuming passion and a relationship that puts her nation and herself in jeopardy. (Upon their first meeting, Antony professes to the queen, "I am ready to sacrifice all -- friends, wife, country, an Empire -- everything for thy love.")
One of the early cinema's first dramatic feature films at six reels, Cleopatra was undoubtedly projected at the typical rate of 16 frames per second, which would have made the film an epic hour in length in 1912. And Cleopatra covers enough material for several epics as its story gallivants across time even as its storytelling technique remains fairly static like many early silents. The stagey, histrionic action is interrupted by long explanatory intertitles. Oceanic battle scenes are recreated with smoke and close-ups of Antony standing on a ship's deck, preparing to sail into battle against Cleopatra's fleet. Like other films of its day, Cleopatra was defiantly set-bound and unrealistic, even when compared with stage productions of the time, which tended to take more creative risks.
But unlike other early silents, Cleopatra was noteworthy for being exhibited in a novel manner. Though the nickelodeon was still the definitive venue for motion picture audiences, Cleopatra's producers took the innovative strategy of playing up their film's high art, theatrical pedigree by exhibiting the film as a road show production. Prints of the film were sent to provincial theaters, opera houses or town halls along with an advance-man, a lecturer-projectionist and a manager.
Cleopatra was innovative in other ways as well. It starred the multitalented Helen Gardner, who was the first woman filmmaker at Vitagraph, where she began as a teacher of pantomime at the studio in 1911. An incredibly accomplished figure in early motion pictures, Gardner was also one of the first women to form her own production company, Helen Gardner Picture players.
As an actress Gardner specialized in playing exceptionally strong women, whether starring as Becky Sharp in the successful 1911 Vitagraph version of Vanity Fair or in 1915's Miss Jekyll and Madame Hyde. Considered by many to be the cinema's first "vamp," Gardner was thus well equipped to play the notoriously seductive Cleopatra. Adding one additional credit to her extensive resume, Gardner not only starred in Cleopatra, which was directed by her husband Charles Gaskill, she also designed Cleopatra's costumes.
Producer: Helen Gardner
Director: Charles L. Gaskill
Screenplay: Charles L. Gaskill
Cinematography: Lucien Tainguy
Film Editing: Helen Gardner
Art Direction: Arthur Corbault
Music: Chantal Krevinzuk and Raine Maida
Cast: Helen Gardner (Cleopatra), Pearl Sindelar (Iras), Miss Fielding (Charmiann), Miss Robson (Octavia), Helene Costello (Nicola), Mr. Sindelar (Marc Antony).
by Felicia Feaster