Helen Gardner's CLEOPATRA

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Christopher Jacobs
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Helen Gardner's CLEOPATRA

Unread post by Christopher Jacobs » Wed Sep 10, 2008 12:05 pm

Helen Gardner's 1912 production of CLEOPATRA, while cinematically primitive, remains something of a milestone, and can be strangely compelling when presented under optimum conditions with a good music score. As an actress, Gardner has a strong screen presence, delivering an artfully stylized performance whose obvious theatical influence can't be called realistic but is far more restrained than would register on stage. As a producer, she is notable as one of, if not the first actress to form her own production company and to specialize in feature-length films at a time when the industry was still geared to one and two or occasional three-reelers.

Unfortunately her writer-director husband Charles Gaskill seems more interested in recording her performance as though it were a stage play than in using cinematic techniques to tell the story. The battle of Actium is the worst offender in betraying a low budget and limited ability, and one longs for even cheesy-looking miniatures cut in among the series of alternate medium closeups of Antony and Cleopatra peering intently into wisps of smoke. The theatrical moviemaking style makes it difficult for modern audiences to get into or take seriously. Of course in 1912, this was the fashion for feature-length films that were exhibited in legitimate theatres, and CLEOPATRA compares quite well with similarly conceived features of its era like QUEEN ELIZABETH, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, RICHARD III, etc.

The film was evidently popular enough that Gardner and Gaskill shot some new scenes in 1917 and re-issued it in 1918 to compete against the Theda Bara CLEOPATRA (complete with a two-page spread in "Variety," but only the 1912 edition of the film appears to have survived. Due to its historical interest, it really deserves a good DVD treatment with a GOOD music score -- or two or three -- and audio commentary to set it in context.

Helen Gardner's granddaughter is writing a biography of her, and trying to find copies of her surviving films. She has a website at http://www.helengardner.org with a little bit of background.

--Christopher Jacobs

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Unread post by Danny » Thu Sep 11, 2008 5:49 am

Due to its historical interest, it really deserves a good DVD treatment with a GOOD music score -- or two or three -- and audio commentary to set it in context.

A GOOD score, indeed. I can hardly stand to watch the TCM version with that avant garde cacophony.


James Bazen
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Unread post by James Bazen » Fri Sep 12, 2008 5:45 pm

This is terrific and the website is very nice. I know that we lovers of this stuff ask for an awful lot, but I wonder if there will be any attempts to put any of Gardner's existing films on DVD. Perhaps due to her importance as an early female independant producer.

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