Egyptian Revival in Hollywood

As an Egyptologist, I understand from first-hand experience how captivating Egyptian culture can be, and I find it interesting to contemplate the ways in which Egyptomania seized upon the minds and imaginations of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries and manifested itself in art, architecture, and advertising ranging from the absurd to the sublime. It spread throughout the Western world and beyond, from Europe and North America to Russia and South Africa. There are certainly numerous examples of the craze in London (see my Egyptological map of the city), but some other interesting examples have been featured on the internet lately.

Bonhams’s recently had an Egyptian Revival sale and the pieces that were auctioned can all be viewed on the site here. Some wonderful pieces are actually directly inspired by real Egyptian artifacts, for example this chair modelled on the chair of Sitamun from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya as pictured here, while others provide comedy value with their extravagant over-blown design and heavy-handed interpretations of Egyptian design that bear little resemblance to their supposed origins.

I also stumbled across a very interesting article, purely by chance, mainly about the Egyptian-inspired movie theatres of the United States but also touching on the history of Egyptomania itself. The entire article by Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair is well-worth reading, but the most gripping description is perhaps that of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and its spectacular role in the very first ever movie premiere. Back in 1922, before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, when Hollywood was just a sleepy stretch of orchards dotted with a few fledgling movie studios and the joke was that ‘cannonball could be fired down Hollywood Boulevard any time after nine at night and never hit a soul’, it was decided that a movie theatre would be ‘the perfect anchor for commercial development. And not just any movie theater: it would be one of the most spectacular the world had ever seen’.

As Handy states:

‘On October 18, 1922, with newspaper ads promising that “every star and director in the motion picture industry will be there,” Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was unveiled in all its pharaonic splendor, playing host to the world premiere of Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood.

Grauman theater

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

It was a hell of an evening. The newly installed Hollywood Egyptian Theatre Symphony Orchestra played the overture from Aida. Speeches were given by Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky (one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures), and the mayor of Los Angeles. Fairbanks, of course, was in attendance, as was his wife, Mary Pickford, along with John Barrymore and the Talmadge sisters, all of whom had strode down a long red carpet, which had been laid over the theater’s extended courtyard and was flanked by crowds of gawkers and photographers. It was, literally, the original Hollywood premiere. “First night audience rivals Paris in styles”, bragged one Los Angeles paper. “Greatest gathering of kind in Hollywood history”, trumpeted another, describing “a jam of people and motor cars … extending in all directions” while “the picture stars were wildly greeted” and numerous photos taken of the “kaleidoscopic human spectacle.”

The theater was its own kind of kaleidoscope, a riot of hieroglyphs and cenotaphs, animal-headed gods and winged scarabs, bas-relief sphinx heads and a gilded sun-disk ceiling. Even the bathrooms featured what one critic described as “fascinating Egyptian decorations done in the soft reds, blues, and yellows in which this early nation delighted.” The screen itself, one of the interior’s few unadorned surfaces, was framed by four pillars, decorated like papyrus plants and topped by a pair of massive, heavy-looking lintels seemingly awaiting only the fulfillment of an ancient mummy’s curse to tumble down and seal the auditorium in the dust and gloom of millennia. Earlier theaters had had Egyptian elements, but this was ancient Egypt given the full, unabashed Hollywood treatment…

Art and Archaeology declared in 1924 that Grauman’s Egyptian “is not made up of grotesque statues, sphinxes, pyramids, and meaningless signs in lieu of hieroglyphics, but is a replica of real Egyptian art and architecture.”

For a second opinion, [Bruce Handy] asked Richard A. Fazzini, an Egyptologist at the Brooklyn Museum who is also a passionate scholar of Egyptomania, to look at photos of various Egyptian theaters, including Grauman’s. He praised the accuracy of many of that theater’s “playful” design elements, but noted, “Nothing in Egypt ever looked like that as a whole.” He pointed to the decoration of the theater’s massive lintel: “A winged scarab flanked by what—swans? No, that doesn’t work. A winged scarab maybe, but not flanked by swans. I don’t know if they had swans in Egypt, but they didn’t appear in the art really”.’

Grauman’s ignited a vogue for Egyptian-themed theaters in America and in the 1920s some four dozen were built ‘bringing the glories of the Nile to exotica-poor locales such as Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, Milwaukee, and Ogden, Utah’.

Grauman detail

Detail from Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

But why did the movie industry in particular seize upon Egyptomania so enthusiastically? The main reason is the obvious coincidence of timing between the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the birth of cinema. As Handy notes: ‘Of negligible import as a pharaoh, Tut nevertheless enjoys one of the ancient world’s highest Q ratings, right up there with Jesus, Mary, Cleopatra, and the first two Caesars. The discovery also unleashed one of the West’s greatest waves of Egyptomania… Filmmakers, then as now not immune to popular taste, released Tut-ankh-Amen’s Eighth Wife and Tut-Tut and His Terrible Tomb, both in 1923. Tin Pan Alley staked its own claim with “Old King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut.”’ However, I think there were several other reasons why Egyptian design became so popular a style for movie theatres and they lie in the nature of the movie industry at the time, how Egypt was perceived and what it represented to people.

Movies were a way of transporting people, allowing them to use their imaginations and escape. Ancient Egypt had already been a popular subject for early filmmakers with five features about Cleopatra alone made between 1908 and 1918. Ancient Egypt was exotic and mysterious; by designing theatres in Egyptian styles, the cinemas themselves became fuel for the imagination, pure escapism in architecture. With cinema in its early stages, studios and theatres wanted to convince people of the industry’s stability and potential for success and longevity. What better association to make than with the eternal land of pyramids and temples? Also, the image Hollywood has always cultivated for itself is one of opulence, and it seems hardly coincidence that the first glamorous red carpet parade happened at the opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, with its rich Egyptian style decor suggesting all the golden wealth of the ancient civilization that Hollywood wished to emulate. Using the motifs of Egyptian design was more than just an architectural fad, they could be used to convey a message to audiences and contribute to the image Hollywood studios wished to present.

Handy also discusses why Egyptian themes were so popular with early America as a nation:

‘Nineteenth-century America clasped ancient Egypt especially close to her bosom. “The Egyptian style,” writes the historian Blanche Linden-Ward, “captured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another ‘first civilization’ … They nicknamed the Mississippi the ‘American Nile’ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.” Perhaps the most famous example of our forebears’ Egyptophilia, aside from the Great Seal, is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Another proposed monument, serious enough to be entertained by Congress, would have entombed the father of his country pharaoh-style in a giant pyramid, which demonstrates the pitfalls of modeling a fledgling republic after a millennia-old monarchy, at least when it comes to questions of official taste.’

Although Washington didn’t get a pyramid from Congress, according to theater historian David Naylor, the flamboyant movie exhibitor Grauman gave him an even more bizarre memorial in his second downtown theatre, the Metropolitan: ‘a sphinx with the head of George Washington on a pedestal beside the lobby staircase. The quote near the base of the sphinx read, “You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask him to make us good American citizens”‘.

Although Grauman’s Egyptian Theater has been restored and is currently the home of the American Cinematheque, of the 40 to 50 Egyptian theatres built in America in the 1920s, only a handful survive.

The sad thing I find is that I can no longer imagine an Egyptian revival of such magnitude ever taking place again, or at least not one that would be taken seriously and valued for the elegance and energy of its design. The media, movie-industry, and disappointingly even the way Egypt and its treasures are promoted, have all contributed to some people’s view of Egypt not just as a stereotyped land of gold and mummies, but have also added tacky, over-the-top, crude, and laughable overtones to the way it’s perceived. Sadly some of the crasser examples of Egyptomania can also be said to have contributed. Despite the general public’s fascination with Egypt, their exposure is superficial, with few people able to tell the difference between crude inaccurate Egyptian-style reproductions and the real artistry of the originals.

As the author of the aforementioned article, Bruce Handy, similarly notes:

‘Most of us have gleaned whatever knowledge we have of ancient Egypt from popular culture, whether Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, Victor Buono’s King Tut on the old Batman show, Steve Martin’s novelty song “King Tut” (in which the boy king moves from Arizona to Babylonia, where he owns a “condo made of stone-a”), or Brendan Fraser’s frantic Mummy remakes. Indeed, judging from these sources, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ancient Egypt’s was the silliest civilization that ever existed’.

None of this is going to be changed anytime soon, if Egypt continues to be presented in a way that aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator with sensationalism rather than aspiring to a more informed representation. Commercialism feeds people’s misconceptions of Egyptian culture in an attempt to cash in and sadly one of the most disappointing examples of this happening is connected to what should be an opportunity to educate people.

I think the marketing for the Tutankhamun exhibit at the O2 buys too much into stereotypes, trying to sell it on gold, gold, and more gold, and raising false hopes of seeing the famous death mask, rather than helping people see that viewing more domestic objects can actually give us more insight into the life of the boy king. I’ve even heard that the gift shop features a tissue box in the form of the famous mask, where the tissues come out of the nostrils! But I shouldn’t really judge until I’ve seen it myself. I’m planning to visit it at the end of March, and when I do I’ll let you know what I think of it.

I believe that it’s possible to harness the interest in Egypt inspired by Hollywood and the media, and use it as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Egypt. Though exciting action and glittering gold can glamorize Egypt, it remains that this fascinating culture has intrigued people since ancient Greek and Roman times and will continue to in spite of the misleading publicity it gets. For those willing to actually take a close look at the objects and monuments or read about them will realize that it can be even more thrilling to pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the *real* Egypt and to delve into the lives of the people who created this astounding civilization.

For further reading on Egyptomania, I can recommend Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing Architecture, a nice collection of essays on examples from around the world.

Grauman sign

Sign for Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Kevin Stanchfield.

4 thoughts on “Egyptian Revival in Hollywood

  1. Fascinating article as usual, I know there’s an Egyptian-inspired bingo hall which may have been a cinema not far from mine, so maybe the Egyptian trend crossed the Atlantic to the UK as well?
    But it was this paragraph that really hit me:

    “The sad thing I find is that I can no longer imagine an Egyptian revival of such magnitude ever taking place again, or at least not one that would be taken seriously and valued for the elegance and energy of its design. The media, movie-industry, and disappointingly even the way Egypt and its treasures are promoted, have all contributed to some people’s view of Egypt not just as a stereotyped land of gold and mummies, but have also added tacky, over-the-top, crude, and laughable overtones to the way it’s perceived. Sadly some of the crasser examples of Egyptomania can also be said to have contributed. Despite the general public’s fascination with Egypt, their exposure is superficial, with few people able to tell the difference between crude inaccurate Egyptian-style reproductions and the real artistry of the originals.”

    That is exactly why I do not feel comfortable telling people how much I love ancient Egypt. I just know that my friends see it a laugh, a cliche, as being tacky or strange, a laughable civilisation full of cat-worshipping death-obsessed curse-loving weirdos who did nothing but create what are really just glorified sandcastles (with the help of whipped slaves, of course!) for no purpose other than to celebrate the death of a tyrant or the worship of a terrifying death god. Nothing like the noble Greeks and Romans, they would say…but I’m pretty sure that the Greeks got a lot of inspiration from Egypt-I’m sure that Greek contact with Egypt gave their civilisation a boost (even though Egypt was on the wane at the time).

    I fear that many see Egyptian design and inspiration as being naff, camp or kitsch, but I think real Egyptian art is some of the most beautiful in the world, right up there with other well known works of art. I disagree with the quote in the article saying that Egyptian art is ‘overgilded and overdone’, I think Tut’s treasures are truly a sight to behold, and I do think they are tasteful…more than can be said for a lot of replications of these treasures.

    A lot of people have no idea how much we owe to ancient Egypt and just what a great civilisation they were even if you strip away the bling and the glamour. For example, they treated women a lot better than other cultures of the time. Their religion was sophisticated and not all of it was morose and death-obsessed (look at Hathor’s festivals of drunkenness!) and they certainly weren’t into evil rituals, slavery and curses, not in the overblown way that modern culture perceives it anyway. They also had medicinal knowledge which is surprisingly advanced and only now are we beginning to understand just how scientific it was, and it wasn’t all spells and prayers.

    Although I’m not sure by what you mean by the way Egypt promotes it’s treasures as being detrimental. Are you referring to the way they promote themselves to tourists, advertising etc? Or the way that Egypt is forcing to reclaim the antiquities in other countries and possibly even copyright them? Or the way documentaries are done with too much sensationalism? I myself think that the construction of new museums there is a very good thing, although I don’t agree with everything Hawass says or does or how often he gets himself on TV, I do think it’s good to see him promoting the proper scientific study of Egypt and encouraging Egyptians to respect their past.

    It feels a shame not to be proud of telling people that I’m fascinated by a culture so fascinating and even more interesting than the movies would have it, because the modern perception of Egypt is so negative or the way that Egypt is treated as nothing more than ‘a country which is just one big cliched tourist trap’.

    btw sorry about the essay I just wrote there. That’s how passionat I am about Egypt. But there’s one more thing. Go to see Tut with an open mind. Ignore the negative reviews. Look past the gloss and glitz. It is really fascinating. There may be gold there, but it is beautifully crafted, and there’s nothing more wonderful than seeing these antiquities for real, in the flesh.

  2. Thanks for your comments Izzy. There’s certainly lots of examples of Egyptian revival in England, especially in London and I think that the bingo hall you mention might be the former Carlton Cinema (http://tinyurl.com/2pbsne)- I’ve got it and other Egypt-inspired buildings nearby marked on my Egyptological map of London here: http://www.eloquentpeasant.com/map/

    At least we can live in hope- you mention that your friends think Greece and Rome superior to Egypt, and while that opinion used to be universal, when the great bust of Rameses II first went on display in the British Museum, Egyptian objects began to be discussed by critics as actual *art* for the first time ever. Perhaps with time and effort popular opinion can be changed.

    When I referred to the negative side of the promotion of Egyptian treasures, I was thinking of some of the critical reports I’ve heard from the exhibition at the O2, for example this from the Times:
    ‘From an introductory voice-over by Omar Sharif through the sort of piped music that accompanied a Liz Taylor Cleopatra to the Pharaoh’s Palace lounge bar at the end of the exhibition, designers shamelessly camp up the Egyptian mood. Mostly it’s tacky. Forget the hushed atmosphere of a scholarly institution. Think: Tutankhamun goes to Hollywood. This is a rapaciously commercial show. It charges you £20 a pop and shamelessly peddles the most ridiculous King Tut tat in its shop.’ I haven’t seen it for myself, but I don’t think that’s the sort of message that should be promoted in connection with these magnificent artifacts. I will try to go with an open mind though and I’m certainly excited to get to see the antiquities once more without having to travel all the way to the Cairo Museum again. I know that despite the surrounding trappings that the objects will speak for themselves. They cannot help being eloquent voices for their distant civilization, I just hope that other people will be able to hear their message above the commercialized din.

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