15 December 2018

Photo by First National Pictures

First National Pictures was an American film production and distribution company. It was founded in 1917 as First National Exhibitors' Circuit, Inc., an association of independent theatre owners in the United States, and became the country's largest theatre chain. Expanding from exhibiting films to distributing them, the company reincorporated in 1919 as Associated First National Theatres, Inc., and Associated First National Pictures, Inc. Approaching stars' and directors' production companies as a direct buyer, First National eventually signed Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Mary Pickford, Norma and Constance Talmadge. In 1924 it expanded to become a film production company as First National Pictures, Inc., and became an important studio in the film industry. Among the major players the studio had under contract by then were Richard Barthelmess, Barbara La Marr, Harry Langdon, Colleen Moore, and Alla Nazimova. In September 1928, control of First National passed to Warner Bros., into which it was completely absorbed in November 1929. 

First National Studios, Burbank, California
American postcard by Western Air Express, no. 888. Caption: 'Where Motion Pictures Are Made' An overview of the First National Pictures studio complex in the mid-/late 1920s.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin. British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 11575B. Photo: Albert Witzel.

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford. French postcard by Europe, no. 160.

Jackie Coogan
Jackie Coogan. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 701/2, 1925-1926. Photo: Transocean-Film-Company, Berlin.

Colleen Moore
Colleen Moore. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3469/2, 1928-1929. Photo: DeFina / First National Pictures.

Against high cost rentals, block-booking, and inferior prints

The First National Exhibitors' Circuit was founded in 1917 by the merger of 26 of the biggest first-run cinema chains in the United States. It eventually controlled over 600 cinemas, more than 200 of them first-run houses as opposed to the less lucrative second-run or neighbourhood theatres to which films moved when their initial box office receipts dwindled.

First National was the brainchild of Thomas L. Tally, who was reacting to the many problems exhibitors had experienced with established distributors, such as the high cost of rentals, block-booking, and the inferior quality of some prints. The exhibitors also wanted to bypass distributors such as Adolph Zukor's Paramount, which had begun to try to control all aspects of the film industry.

In 1912, Tally thought that a conglomerate of theatres throughout the nation could buy or produce and distribute its own films. In 1917 Tally and J. D. Williams formed First National Exhibitors' Circuit. The first film released through First National was the British film, The Mother of Dartmoor (George Loane Tucker, 1916).

A success was Tarzan of the Apes (Scott Sidney, 1918) starring Elmo Lincoln as the first screen Tarzan and based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novel Tarzan of the Apes. The film adapts only the first part of the novel, the remainder becoming the basis for the sequel, The Romance of Tarzan (Wilfred Lucas, 1918) starring Elmo Lincoln and Enid Markey.

Between 1917 and 1918, the company made contracts with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, the first million-dollar deals in the history of film. Daddy-Long-Legs (Marshall Neilan, 1919) was produced by Mary Pickford, and based on Jean Webster's novel Daddy-Long-Legs. A Dog's Life (Charles Chaplin, 1918) was Chaplin's first film for First National Films. Chaplin's contract allowed him to produce his films without a set release schedule.

However, the production of the feature film The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921) ran so long that the company started to complain. To address their concerns Chaplin invited the exhibitors to the studio, and they were so impressed by the project and charmed by the players, especially co-star Jackie Coogan, that they agreed to be patient. That patience was ultimately rewarded when The Kid became a major critical and box office success.

First National's distribution of films by independent producers is credited with launching careers including that of Louis B. Mayer. Mayer produced the Western In Old Kentucky (Marshall Neilan, 1919) starring Anita Stewart. Neilan and Mayer worked often together, but after Mayer became head of MGM in 1924, the two had a falling out.

Charlie Chaplin in A Dog's Life (1918)
Charlie Chaplin. Spanish postcard by Chocolate Amatller, serie 9, no. 11. Photo: publicity still for A Dog's Life (Charles Chaplin, 1918).

Constance Talmadge
Constance Talmadge. French postcard by A.N., Paris in the Les Vedettes de Cinéma series, no. 12. Photo: B. Frank Puffer / First National Location.

Norma Talmadge in Camille/ La dame aux camélias
Norma Talmadge. French postcard by J.R.D.R., Paris, no. 104. Photo: First National. Publicity still for Camille (Fred Niblo, 1926), produced by Joseph Schenck, the later producer of United Artists, and based on the famous novel by Alexandre Dumas fils.

Nazimova and Milton Sills in Madonna of the Streets (1924)
Nazimova and Milton Sills. Danish postcard by Stenders Kunstforlag, no. 39. Photo: First National Pictures. Publicity still for Madonna of the Streets (Edwin Carewe, 1924).

Richard Bartelmess
Richard Barthelmess. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 704/1, 1925-1926. Photo: James Abbe / Transocean-Film-Co., Berlin.

A rustic tale of violence set in the mountains of West Virginia

Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures was threatened by First National's financial power and its control over the lucrative first-run theatres, and decided to enter the cinema business as well. With a $10 million investment, Paramount built its own chain of first-run movie theatres after a secret plan to merge with First National failed.

First National Exhibitors' Circuit was reincorporated in 1919 as Associated First National Pictures, Inc., and its subsidiary, Associated First National Theatres, Inc., with 5,000 independent theatre owners as members. First National had new successes with Constance Talmadge in the comedy A Virtuous Vamp (David Kirkland, Sidney Franklin, 1919). It was produced by Talmadge and written by Anita Loos and John Emerson based on the 1909 play The Bachelor by Clyde Fitch. Anita Loos also wrote Two Weeks (Sidney Franklin, 1920), starring Constance Talmadge and Conway Tearle.

Sister Norma Talmadge starred in such dramas as A Daughter of Two Worlds (James Young, 1920), The Branded Woman (Albert Parker, 1920). The latter was also produced by Talmadge with her husband Joseph Schenck through their production company, Norma Talmadge Productions. Later followed such hits as Camille (Fred Niblo, 1926).

Director King Vidor also worked for First National, such as on the drama The Family Honor (King Vidor, 1920) with Florence Vidor. A major box office success was Tol'able David (Henry King, 1921) starring Richard Barthelmess. It was a rustic tale of violence set in the Allegheny Mountains of eastern West Virginia. The acclaimed film was voted the 1921 Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor and is seen by now as one of the classics of silent film.

Associated First National Pictures expanded from only distributing films to producing them in 1924 and changed its corporate name to First National Pictures, Inc. It built its 62-acre (25 ha) studio lot in Burbank in 1926. The Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America and the Independent Producers' Association declared war in 1925 on what they termed a common enemy — the ‘film trust’ of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, and First National, which they claimed dominated the industry not only by producing and distributing films but also by entering into exhibition as well.

Maria Corda in The Private Life of Helen of Troy
French postcard by Europe, no. 315. Photo: Mercure Film. Maria Corda as Helen of Troy in The Private Life of Helen of Troy (Alexander Korda, 1927).

Ivor Novello
Ivor Novello. Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, nr. 506. Photo: First National Film.

Jack Buchanan
Jack Buchanan. British postcard in the real hand-coloured photograph series, no. 136. Photo: Defina / First National.

Clive Brook in Yellow Lily (1928)
Clive Brook. British postcard, no. 4010/1. Photo: Defina / First National Pictures. Publicity still for Yellow Lily (Alexander Korda, 1928).

Colleen Moore
Colleen Moore. Austrian postcard by Iris-Verlag, no. 5855. Photo: First National-Film.

The Flapper - a new kind of female behaviour

Madge Bellamy became a star with Lorna Doone (Maurice Tourneur, 1922) a film version of Richard Doddridge Blackmore's often filmed novel. Another success was Oliver Twist (Frank Lloyd, 1922), a silent film adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novel, featuring Lon Chaney as Fagin and Jackie Coogan at the height of his success as Oliver.

One of the major directors at First National was John M. Stahl who made such dramas The Dangerous Age (John M. Stahl, 1923) starring Lewis Stone. Another interesting director was Frank Borzage who directed the drama The Age of Desire (Frank Borzage, 1923) starring Josef Swickard, William Collier Jr., and Mary Philbin.

A popular success was Potash and Perlmutter (Clarence G. Badger, 1923), based on an ethnic Jewish comedy with characters created by Montague Glass and Charles Klein. This film was the first production of Samuel Goldwyn's independent production company. Stage stars Alexander Carr and Barney Bernard reprise their famous roles in this film. The film's success would inspire two Goldwyn sequels, In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter (Alfred E. Green, 1924) and Partners Again (Henry King, 1926), but the latter was distributed by United Artists.

Associated First National both distributed and produced the drama Flaming Youth (John Francis Dillon, 1923) starring vivid Colleen Moore and Milton Sills. The reaction to the film was enthusiastic, and it firmly fixed in the public's imagination a new kind of female behaviour. There had been several films prior to Flaming Youth which used the flapper as subject matter, such as The Flapper (Alan Crosland, 1920) with Olive Thomas, but the financial success of Flaming Youth made it the film credited with launching a cycle of pictures about flappers and helping Colleen Moore be seen as the original film flapper.

Blanche Sweet was the star of the silent film version of Anna Christie (John Griffith Wray, 1923) based on the 1921 play by Eugene O'Neill. Producer Thomas H. Ince paid a then-astronomical $35,000 for the screen rights to the play. Another success was the fantasy monster adventure film The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925) adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel of the same name. The film stars Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger and featured pioneering stop motion special effects by Willis O'Brien, a forerunner of his work on the original King Kong (1933).

Ricardo Cortez in The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3216/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Defina / First national. Publicity still for The Private Life of Helen of Troy (Alexander Korda, 1927), in which Ricardo Cortez co-starred as Paris opposite Maria Corda as Helen of Troy.

Richard Barthelmess in The Drop-Kick (1927)
Richard Barthelmess. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3475/2, 1928-1929. Photo: Defina / First National. Publicity still for The Drop-Kick (Millard Webb, 1927).

Colleen Moore
Colleen Moore. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3862/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Defina / First-National-Film.

Ken Maynard
Ken Maynard. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4561/1, 1929-1930. Photo: Defina / First National Pictures.

Billie Dove
Billie Dove. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4726/3, 1929-1930. Photo: Defina / First National.

The First National studio as the official home of Warner Bros

The financial success of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) and The Singing Fool (Lloyd Bacon, 1928), both with Al Jolson, enabled Warner Bros. to purchase a majority interest in First National in September 1928. Warner Bros. held 42,000 shares of common stock out of 72,000 outstanding shares while Fox Pictures held 21,000 shares; 12,000 shares were publicly held.

Warner Bros. acquired access to First National's affiliated chain of theatres, while First National acquired access to Vitaphone sound equipment. Warner Bros. and First National continued to operate as separate entities. On November 4, 1929, Fox sold its interest in First National to Warner Bros. for $10 million.

The First National studio in Burbank became the official home of Warner Bros.–First National Pictures. Thereafter, First National Pictures became a trade name for the distribution of a designated segment of Warner Bros. product. Forty-five of the 86 Warner Bros. feature films released in 1929 were branded as First National Pictures. Half of the 60 feature films Warner Bros. announced for release in 1933–1934 were to be First National Pictures.

Although both studios produced A and B budget pictures, generally the prestige productions, costume dramas, and musicals were made by Warner Bros., while First National specialised in modern comedies, dramas, and crime stories. Short subjects were made by yet another affiliated company, The Vitaphone Corporation, which took its name from the sound process.

In July 1936, stockholders of First National Pictures, Inc. (primarily Warner Bros.) voted to dissolve the corporation and distribute its assets among the stockholders in line with a new tax law which provided for tax-free consolidations between corporations. From 1929 to 1958, most Warner Bros. films and promotional posters bore the combined trademark and copyright credits in the opening and closing sequences ‘A Warner Bros.–First National Picture’.

Edward G. Robinson
Edward G. Robinson. British postcard. Photo: First National Films.

Joan Blondell
Joan Blondell. British postcard. Photo: First National Films.

Bebe Daniels
Bebe Daniels. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6498/1, 1931-1932. Photo: First National Pictures. Publicity still for Honor of the Family (Lloyd Bacon, 1931).

Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 7297/1, 1932-1933. Photo: First National Pictures.

Leslie Howard
Leslie Howard. British postcard by Real Photogravure, London, no. 64. Photo: Warner Brothers / First National. Publicity still for The Scarlet Pimpernel (Harold Young, 1934).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Oscars.org, and Wikipedia.

14 December 2018


Blonde, slim Vera-Ellen (1921-1981) was one of the most vivacious and vibrant musical film talents to glide through Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Whether performing solo or dueting with the best male partners of her generation, including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, Vera-Ellen gave life to some of the most extraordinary dance routines ever caught on film. She was a dance sensation in a string of light-hearted but successful films. Vera-Ellen retired from acting in the late 1950s.

Vera Ellen
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. A 320. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Vera Ellen in On the Town (1949)
Dutch postcard, no. 553. Photo: M.G.M. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Publicity still for On the Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1949).

Vera Ellen and Gene Kelly in On the Town (1949)
French postcard, no. 1. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for On the Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1949) with Gene Kelly.

Blessed with a sweet, apple blossom appeal and elfin charm

Vera-Ellen Westmeyer Rohe was born of German descent in Norwood, an enclave of the larger city of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1921. Vera-Ellen was the only child of Martin F. Rohe, a piano dealer, and Alma Catherine Westmeier. She was given a hyphen in her name because her mother had a dream when she was expecting that she would have a baby-girl named Vera-Ellen. Later, she told  interviewer Gene Handsaker that she liked simple screen monikers like Margo and Annabella and refused to adopt a synthetic last name for the cinema.

Some sources incorrectly indicate that she was born in 1926. Gary Brumburgh explains at IMDb: "Blessed with a sweet, apple blossom appeal and elfin charm, Vera-Ellen's movie career started to take shape in 1945. Supposedly her mother thought that since her daughter looked much younger than she was, it might be wise to shave five years off of her age in order to promote the dancing teen sensation image."

Vera-Ellen began dancing at the age of 9 (some sources say 10). She was rather frail and studied dancing to build up her body. At age 13 she was a winner on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and embarked upon a professional career.

At age 18, Vera-Ellen made her Broadway debut with the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Very Warm for May in 1939. She toured with the Ted Lewis Band and became one of the youngest Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Vera-Ellen eventually broke into Broadway musicals, dancing with Ray Bolger in By Jupiter (1942) and in the revival of A Connecticut Yankee (1943).

She was only 24 years old when she was spotted by film producer Samuel Goldwyn who cast her in Wonder Man (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1945) opposite Danny Kaye in his film debut. Wonder Man (1945) and another Danny Kaye vehicle, The Kid from Brooklyn (Norman Z. McLeod, 1946), were both hits and people soon fell in love with the lovely lady's fresh-faced innocence.

A hard-working, uncomplicated talent, she paired famously with Gene Kelly in MGM's Words and Music (Norman Taurog, 1948) in which their 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue' number was a critical highlight. The landmark musical On the Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1949), in which she played Miss Turnstiles and the apple of Kelly's eye, served as the pinnacle of her dancing work on film.

Vera Ellen
Dutch postcard by DRC, no. F 167 Photo: M.G.M. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

Vera Ellen
Dutch card. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Dutch postcard, no. AX 232. Sent by mail in 1952. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The woman of a thousand dance moves

The versatile and acrobatic Vera-Ellen could be counted on to perform any kind of dancing requested - tap, toe, jazz, adagio - whether solo or with partners and/or props. She became the woman of a thousand dance moves. Her light singing voice, however, was usually dubbed.

According to Hal Erickson at AllMovie: "In a moment of weakness, Vera-Ellen agreed to co-star in the Marx Brothers' valedictory film Love Happy (David Miller, 1949), where she was 'rewarded' with some of her worst-ever costumes and camera angles."

Vera Ellen went on to appear twice with Fred Astaire, in Three Little Words (Richard Thorpe, 1950) and The Belle of New York (Charles Walters, 1952), both example of MGM's musical unit at the height of its powers. She also shared dance steps with the Donald O'Connor in Call Me Madam (Walter Lang, 1953). Craig Butler at AllMovie: "O'Connor is a delight throughout, as is Vera Ellen as his love interest. Their duets, 'It's a Lovely Day Today' and 'Something to Dance About', are highlights."

The blockbuster and evergreen White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954) is usually considered her best-remembered film in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. Craig Butler: "Considering the amount of talent involved, it's surprising - and rather a shame - that White Christmas is only an enjoyable little trifle rather than a truly classic movie musical. (...) But pay special attention to Clooney's creamy, entrancing rendition of the beautiful 'Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me'; this is a genuinely superior musical performance. Throw in such other treats as 'Blue Skies' and 'Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep', as well as the amusing antics of Kaye, the laid-back playing of Crosby, and the effervescent dancing of Vera-Ellen, and most people will be more than willing to sit through the corny script."

Gary Brumbrugh at IMDb: "Musicals went out of vogue by the late 50s and, as Vera-Ellen was practically synonymous with musicals, her career went into a sharp decline. But that was only one reason. A light acting talent, she might have continued in films in dramatic roles, as she had in the movie Big Leaguer (Robert Aldrich, 1953) with Edward G. Robinson, but dark, outside influences steered her away altogether. Personal unhappiness and ill health would quickly take their toll on her." 

Vera's film career ended with the British musical Let's Be Happy (Henry Levin, 1957) co-starring Tony Martin. It was an updated remake of Jeannie (Harold French, 1941), one of the most likable British comedies of the 1940s.

Vera Ellen
Dutch postcard, no. ax 240-157. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Vera Ellen
Belgian postcard, no. 752. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Vera Ellen
Vintage collectors card, no. K 17. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

A lithe and lovely presence who deserved a better personal life

On TV Vera-Ellen appeared in variety shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour, and The Dinah Shore Chevvy Show. She also starred in the successful 1955 Las Vegas dancing revue.

It was later discovered that, due to the dancer's compulsive dieting obsession, she had silently battled anorexia throughout much of the 1950s before anyone was even aware or doctors had even coined the term or devised treatments. Moreover, she had developed severe arthritis which forced an early retirement.

In order to combat it, she reverted back to taking dance lessons again. The worst blows suffered, however, was in her personal life. Her two marriages failed. Her first husband was a fellow dancer, Robert Hightower, to whom she was married from 1941 to 1946. Her second husband was millionaire oil-man Victor Rothschild of the Rothschild family. They were married from 1954 to their 1966 divorce.

While married to Rothschild, she gave birth to a daughter, Victoria Ellen, who died at three months of age from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 1963. Following the death of her only child, she withdrew from public life and became a virtual recluse in her house in the Hollywood Hills.

Little was heard for decades until she had died at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center in 1981, of cancer. She was 60 years old. Author David Soren wrote a book, Vera-Ellen: the Magic and the Mystery, about her life.

Gary Brumburgh: "Perhaps less remembered today compared to several of the big stars that shared the stage with her, Vera-Ellen was a lithe and lovely presence who deserved a better personal life than she got. Nevertheless, she has provided true film lovers with a lasting legacy and can easily be considered one of Hollywood's finest dancing legends."

Vera Ellen
German postcard by Ufa/Film-Foto, Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 975. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

French postcard by Edition P.I., Paris, offered by Les Carbones Korès Carboplane, no. 26F, 1953. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), David Westman (IMDb), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Craig Butler (AllMovie), Gene Handsaker (Altoona Tribune), Kit and Morgan Benson (Find A Grave), New York Times,  Wikipedia and IMDb.

13 December 2018

Cleopatra (1963)

The American historical drama Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) chronicles the struggles of Cleopatra, the young Queen of Egypt, to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome. It achieved notoriety for its massive cost overruns and production troubles, which included changes in director and cast, a change of filming locale, sets that had to be constructed twice, lack of a firm shooting script, and personal scandal around co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard BurtonCleopatra almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, but was also the highest-grossing film of 1963, and it won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for five more, including Best Picture.

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)
Elizabeth Taylor. Belgian postcard by SB (Uitgeverij Best), Antwerpen (Antwerp). Photo: still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Rex Harrison, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton in Cleopatra (1963)
Rex HarrisonElizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Vintage postcard. Image: poster art work for Cleopatra (Joseph l. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
German postcard by ISV, no. A.104. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Elizabeth Taylor in the epic Cleopatra (Joseph Manckiewcz, 1963).

The triumph and tragedy of a legendary queen

Cleopatra (Joseph Mankiewcz, 1963) was based on a screenplay adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from a book by Carlo Maria Franzero. It tells the story of the legendary Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt (Elizabeth Taylor), who experiences both triumph and tragedy as she attempts to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome.

In 48 B.C., Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has beaten Pompey the Great in a brutal civil war for control of the Roman Republic and pursues Pompey from Pharsalia to Egypt. Caesar learns that Pompey has fled to neutral Egypt, hoping to enlist the support of the young teenage Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O'Sullivan).

Ptolemy, now supreme ruler of Egypt after deposing his older sister, Cleopatra, attempts to gain favour with Caesar by presenting the conqueror with the head of Pompey, borne by his governors, Pothinos (Grégoire Aslan) and Achillas (John Doucette). Caesar is not pleased. For him, it is a sorry end for a worthy foe.

To win Caesar's support from her brother, the young Cleopatra hides herself in a rug, which her servant Apollodorus (Cesare Danova), disguised as a rug peddler, presents to Caesar as a gift from Cleopatra. When a suspicious Caesar unrolls the rug, he finds Cleopatra herself concealed within. The Roman is immediately infatuated; banishing Ptolemy, he declares Cleopatra Egypt's sole ruler and takes her as his mistress.

The ambitious Cleopatra uses her charms to manipulate Caesar and to establish her authority. A year later, she bears him the son he never had, Caesarion, and strives that their son will take his rightful place in Rome. Cleopatra can almost taste Egypt's long-awaited union with Rome, and the formation of a mighty empire. Caesar, however, must return to Italy for his triumph.

Two years pass before the two see each other again. After he is made dictator for life, Caesar sends for Cleopatra. She arrives in Rome in a lavish procession and wins the adulation of the Roman people. On the Ides of March in 44 B.C., the Senate is preparing to vote on whether to award Caesar additional powers for the Republic. Despite warnings from his wife Calpurnia (Gwen Watford) and Cleopatra, he is confident of victory. However, he is stabbed to death by various senators. Octavian (Roddy McDowall), Caesar's nephew, is named as his heir, not Caesarion. Cleopatra returns home to Egypt leaving Rome in turmoil.

Two years later in 42 B.C., Caesar's assassins, among them Cassius (John Hoyt) and Brutus (Kenneth Haigh), are killed at the Battle of Philippi. The powerful Roman general Marc Antony (Richard Burton) establishes a Second Triumvirate government with Octavian and Lepidus. Antony will take control of the eastern provinces including Asia Minor and Syria. In 38 B.C., when Mark Antony, Caesar's protege, beholds the beautiful Cleopatra aboard her elaborate barge at Tarsus, he is smitten and becomes both her lover and military ally.

Octavian uses their affair in his smear campaign against Antony. When Antony returns to Rome to address the situation brewing there, Octavian traps him into a marriage of state to Octavian's sister, Octavia (Jean Marsh). The marriage satisfies no one. Cleopatra is infuriated. Antony, tiring of his Roman wife, soon returns to Egypt and divorces Octavia. IN Egypt, he marries Cleopatra in a public ceremony. It leads the two lovers to a personal and political demise.

Shocked and insulted, the Senators who had previously stood by Antony abandon their hero and vote for war. Octavian murders the Egyptian ambassador, Cleopatra's tutor Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn), on the Senate steps. Sensing Antony's weakness, Octavian attacks and defeats his forces at Actium in 31 B.C. Alarmed, Cleopatra withdraws her fleet and seeks refuge in her tomb. Realising Anthony and her son are death, she arranges to be bitten by a poisonous asp.

In the final shot, Octavian and Agrippa enter Cleopatra's temple afterwords to see her dead, dressed in a gold funeral robe with her two handmaidens, also bitten by the same venomous snake that Cleopatra allowed herself to get bitten, dying by her side. Octavian also finds a last letter from Cleopatra requesting to be buried with Marc Antony.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. German postcard by Filmbilder-Vertrieb Ernst Freihoff, Essen, no. AX 5536. Photo: publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Elizabeth Taylor and Hume Cronyn in Cleopatra (1963)
Elizabeth Taylor and Hume Cronyn. Czech postcard by UPF, Praha / Press Photo. Photo: publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Czech postcard by UPTF Pressfoto, Praha (Prague), no. S 206/7. Photo: publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

The most expensive film ever made

As the story of Cleopatra had proved a hit for silent-screen legend Theda Bara with Cleopatra (J. Gordon Edwards, 1917), and for Claudette Colbert with Cleopatra (Cecil B. De Mille, 1934), 20th Century Fox executives hired veteran Hollywood producer Walter Wanger in 1958 to shepherd a new remake into production. Although the studio originally sought a relatively cheap production of $2 million, Wanger envisioned a much more opulent epic, and in mid-1959 successfully negotiated a higher budget of $5 million.

Rouben Mamoulian was assigned to direct and Elizabeth Taylor was awarded a record-setting contract of $1 million. Filming began in England but in January 1961 Taylor became so ill that production was shut down. Sixteen weeks of production and costs of $7 million had produced just ten minutes of film. Fox was reimbursed by the insurance company and Mamoulian was fired.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz was brought on to the production after Mamoulian's departure and the set moved to Cinecittà, outside of Rome. Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd left the production owing to other commitments and were replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton.

During filming, Taylor met Richard Burton and the two began an adulterous affair. The scandal made headlines worldwide, since both were married to others, and brought bad publicity to the already troubled production. Mankiewicz was later fired during the editing phase, only to be rehired to reshoot the opening battle scenes in Spain.

The cut of the film which Mankiewicz screened for the studio was six hours long. This was cut to four hours for its initial premiere, but the studio demanded (over the objections of Mankiewicz) that the film be cut once more, this time to just barely over three hours to allow theatres to increase the number of showings per day. Mankiewicz unsuccessfully attempted to convince the studio to split the film in two in order to preserve the original cut. These were to be released separately as Caesar and Cleopatra followed by Antony and Cleopatra.

Cleopatra ended up costing $31 million, making it the most expensive film ever made at the time, and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It was also the highest-grossing film of 1963, earning box-office of $57.7 million in the United States (equivalent to $461 million now), yet lost money due to its production and marketing costs of $44 million (equivalent to $352 million now), making it the only film ever to be the highest-grossing film of the year to run at a loss. Cleopatra later won four Academy Awards, and was nominated for five more, including Best Picture which it lost to the British adventure-comedy Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963).

On 21 May 2013, the restored film was shown at a special screening at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, to commemorate its 50th anniversary. It was later released as a 50th-anniversary version available on DVD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately Fox had long ago destroyed all of the trims and outs from negatives to save costs, preventing the release of traditional outtakes.

Derek Armstrong at All Movie: "Cleopatra is an interesting study in contradictions, as both a dud that won five Oscars and a lavish production that wastes most of its time on scenes of talking heads. Unfortunately, it's also not a 246-minute movie that breezes by; any modern viewer brave enough to sit through its four hours will feel the passage of every minute, with little ultimate reward for the time spent. The leads all acquit themselves admirably, especially Rex Harrison as Caesar, but viewers better acquainted with these characters through Shakespeare's lyrical language will lament the all-too-ordinary and sometimes anachronistic dialogue that comprises Joseph L. Mankiewicz's film. Elizabeth Taylor shines like the star she was, jumping in and out of dozens of ornate costumes, many of which hug her figure tightly, in a way that was provocative at the time. But she's a little too petulant and melodramatic to ultimately be taken seriously."

D.B DuMonteil at IMDb calls the film a 'visual poem, a feast for the eye and for the mind': "it was one of the most underrated Hollywood epics. First of all,it's only partially an epic: most of the scenes are intimate,generally two characters who are constantly tearing each other apart. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of the most intelligent director of his time, rewrote the dialogue during the shooting, night after night, and the results are stunning, considering the difficulties he encountered with his budget and his stars. Cleopatra's dream is perfectly recreated, much better than in De Mille's version."

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
Elizabeth Taylor. German postcard by Filmbilder-Vertrieb Ernst Freihoff, Essen, no. 824. Photo: Cleopatra / Centfox. Publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
German postcard by Kolibri-Verlag, Minden/Westf., no. 1657. Photo: Centfox. Publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
German postcard by Kolibri-Verlag, Minden/Westf., no. 1866. Photo: Centfox. Publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
German postcard by Kolibri-Verlag, Minden/Westf., no. 2163. Photo: Centfox. Publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963)
German postcard by Kolibri-Verlag, Minden/Westf., no. 2312. Photo: Centfox. Publicity still for Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at the set of Cleopatra (1962)
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Czech collectors card by Pressfoto, Praha (Prague), no. S 229/2 769. Photo: a 1962 set photo of Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).

Cinecittà, Rome
Costume of Richard Burton in Cleopatra (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1963), Cinecittà, Roma. Photo: Ivo Blom.

Centrale Montemartini, Cleopatra
Portrait of Cleopatra. Hellenistic age. Found at the Via Labicana, Rome (1886). Centrale Montemartini Rome, Machine Hall. Photo: Ivo Blom.

Sources: Derek Armstrong (AllMovie), D.B DuMonteil (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.