Cleopatra Meets the Spanish Flu

Cleo-AD-retouched-smallAs I write this, the movie theaters in Houston have been closed for over two months. Regal and AMC were the first to take action, voluntarily making their announcement on March 17. The remaining cinemas had little choice when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers and businesses. It remains unclear how much longer the movie houses will remain shuttered since the decisions are now being made at the corporate level, affecting the chains nationwide. To date, only one Houston theater has reopened. The Star Cinema Grill resumed operations on Friday, May 8 after incorporating new public safety and social distancing measures.

The movie industry has reacted in kind, moving back the release dates for their most important films—or in the case of Universal, switching their animated Trolls World Tour movie to a video on demand release, much to the ire of the theater chains who planned on the masses of children flocking into their auditoriums, and the dollars piling up from snack bar sales of drinks, popcorn, and candy.

Not to worry; the postponed films will get their proper release and will be around for a long time after their initial run in the cinema. Once they get their time on the large movie screen, they will make their way to streaming, cable, blu-ray, 4-K, and all the other means available to keep the movie alive for decades to come.

This is not the first time that local theaters have shut their doors. Most of the time, it has taken place due to forces of nature and lasted only a matter of days. Houston’s last closure took place in August 2017 in the aftermath of the Hurricane Harvey. Those instances are fortunately few and far between and most have been minor discomforts to the operations of a movie house.

The most notable closing took place a hundred years ago. The parallels between the current Covid-19 pandemic and the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 are many, one being how a city shut down for a stretch as the illness ran its course. Places of mass entertainment were particularly targeted and so the city’s theaters closed their doors for two weeks.

Cleopatra was one of the casualties of that time.

When it first premiered in 1917, the William Fox feature about the Queen of the Nile was big news, largely due to its star. Theda Bara had become a household name several years earlier as the vamp in A Fool There Was. She quickly became associated as the ultimate femme fatale, the destroyer of men. Her line, “Kiss me, my fool,” became the popular catchphrase of the day. The film was far from Shakespeare, and Bara overacted to the hilt, but the public ate it up.

Cleo1It was only a matter of time before she took on the role of the ultimate seductress, Cleopatra. Fox launched the production in May 1917, reportedly spending $500,000 on the sets. Reproductions of the pyramids and the Sphinx were constructed in Ventura County. Hundreds of rugs and tapestries were purchased. The Battle of Actium featured countless extras. Most notable were Bara’s costumes, or lack of. The skimpy outfits left little to the imagination. This only added to her image as a wanton seductress.

Cleopatra reached Houston on Saturday, October 5 for a full-week run at the Crown Theater with special orchestral accompaniment. As noted in the Chronicle review, “It will be some time before a type will be found into which the savage beauty and personality of Miss Theda Bara enters more perfectly.”

The Crown only ran the film for four full days. Due to the threat of influenza, the city of Houston issued orders for schools, entertainment venues, and many non-essential businesses to close on Wednesday afternoon until further notice. Churches were asked to use discretion but should consider doing the same. The closure lasted fifteen days.

As for Cleopatra, it joined the ranks of approximately eighty percent of the films made before 1930 that are now considered lost. At the time, movies were not considered to have a long shelf life. Motion pictures had only been around for two decades and it would be many more before the idea of archives and film preservation came into play. When the talkies appeared in 1927, the older silent were considered to be worthless. Many studios chose to destroy their own product for silver content.

Cleo2The last two existing prints of Cleopatra were lost in fires, one at Fox in 1937 and the other at the New York City Museum of Modern Art. For film historians, it is considered to be the holy grail of lost films, alongside London After Midnight and Erich Von Stroheim’s complete eight-hour version of Greed. Only brief fragments of the film have survived.

But for four days in 1918 during the height of the Spanish Influenza crisis, Houstonians saw Theda Bara at her seductive best.

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Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.


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