08 June 2010

Lost and Found

Back in 1986 I found myself at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art wandering around a really cool exhibition called "Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film" which displayed the original sketches and costumes for historical films contrasting them with what actually would have been worn during those time periods. On display were costumes from the 1917 silent "Cleopatra" starring Theda Bara (pictured). Signage on the costumes said the designer was unknown.

Of course, anything "unknown" is, to a journalist, like a piece of meat to a starving dog, and -- in this case -- started me on a years-long odyssey to discover the name of the person who designed the costumes. Unfortunately, I never found any documentary evidence for the costume designer, although several sources said Bara designed them herself, which has about as much veracity as saying Angelina Jolie did her own stunts in the "Tomb Raider" movies.

Even though my research resulted in a featured article in the December 1989 issue of Los Angeles magazine, it was frustrating because this 1917 film is thought to be lost, part of the 80% of all silent films made before 1920 that disappeared owing to the ravages of time, willful damage or just plain old neglect. Only a few scant seconds are known to exist of a film that was one of the first really big Hollywood epics.

My heart gave a little leap, then, Monday when it was announced that a veritable treasure trove of silent films had been discovered in a film vault in New Zealand -- could "Cleopatra" be among them? Sadly, it is not. However, quite a few gems are included in the lot of 75 films, including a complete copy of a previously-thought-lost John Ford film.

So, I guess it is still possible for "Cleopatra" to be sitting in some other film vault in some other far away land (or maybe tucked away in your garage) to be found one day.

You can read more about this great discovery

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