Category Archives: Egyptomania

Egypt in vintage popular culture.

Did MGM rebuild Shepheard’s in Hollywood?

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It’s a beautiful poster and it belongs to the most politically incorrect film you’re ever likely to see. This poster is Italian, but the film was American, released by MGM in 1933 as A Night in Cairo (aka The Barbarian).

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The plot is an American socialite (Myrna Loy) arrives in Egypt to marry her terminally dull English fiancé, where she attracts the attentions of a sleazy desert prince (Ramon Novarro) who poses as a tour guide in order to make moves on foreign women. This charmer kidnaps, tortures and rapes her, after which she decides she loves him and the pair elope up the Nile. What got everybody heated up back then though was a scene in which Loy appeared to be naked in a sunken bath, modesty not quite preserved by floating petals.

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Much of the film takes place in Cairo, the bulk of it in a hotel that is clearly modelled on Shepheard’s. The shooting took place on an MGM back lot in Culver City, California, with Yuma, Arizona used for the desert scenes. Being a studio shoot there are no street scenes and only a handful of well-used locations, including a railway station, the Pyramids, hotel rooms and the desert. The hotel rooms are totally generic and look nothing like the photos I’ve seen of rooms at Shepheard’s from that time. But then there are a couple of scenes in which the characters go out onto the hotel terrace and they baffle me. They look completely authentic. The doorway, the steps down to the street, the arrangement of the terrace all appear exactly as they really were. Check out the railings in the screengrab below and compare them with the actual photo of Shepheard’s beneath it.

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They are identical. In a scene in which Loy and party leave the hotel you see part of the name Shepheard’s on the terrace wall (a bit dark, I’m sorry), as it was in real life (bottom image, taken in the 1920s).

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No way did the studio fly out Myrna Loy (that’s her in the screenshots) to shoot a couple of exterior scenes in Cairo, so this must have been a studio set back in California. How intriguing to think that in the early 1930s technicians built a replica Shepheard’s terrace in Hollywood. I wonder, as was the way with these things, if it ever got recycled for any other films?

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Fate wove a rug, and other pulp tales of Egypt

While searching for images for my recent post on Shepheard’s in fiction I found so many wonderfully lurid pulp magazine covers on an Egypt theme (mostly harvested from pulpcovers.com) it seems a shame not to share them. One thing is clear: women who go around wrapped in bandages always end up in trouble.

So here you go.

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Sirena’s creamy skin was wealed with lash marks, old and new!

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“Every city has its something. Rome has St Peter’s. Peking has its Summer Palace. Moscow has the Kremlin. In Madrid there’s the Prado. In New York there’s the Empire State. Constantinople has St Sophia. Cairo has Shepheard’s.”

If it seems like this site seems to bang on about Shepheard’s hotel a lot, maybe the quote above goes some way to explaining why. It comes from the 1945 novel London Belongs to Me, written by author Norman Collins, which is a gritty slice of wartime British realism. What it illustrates is how familiar British readers were with the glamorous, internationally renowned Cairo hotel – it suggests that as a shorthand for the city, Shepheard’s was maybe even more familiar than the Pyramids or the Egyptian Museum. I was reading another canonical English novel recently, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, written in 1959, and Shepheard’s is namechecked in that, too.

The hotel’s fame and appeal to writers in the English language dates back far beyond the 1940s and ’50s. In 1893, a reporter named Richard Harding Davis in a book called The Rulers of the Mediterranean, noted, ‘Shepheard’s is so historical, and its terrace has been made the scene of so many novels [my italics], that all sorts of amusing people go there, from sultans to the last man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and its terrace is like a private box at a mask ball.’

I’ve no idea what those 19th century novels were that featured Shepheard’s, they’re long gone, but there is a vintage genre of fiction in which Shepheard’s frequently cropped up that is still read, and that’s pulp.

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Cairo was rich pickings for pulp writers: labyrinthine souks, inhospitable deserts, mighty pharaohs and ancient gods, treasures buried deep beneath the sands… and remote enough from the average reader’s experience that a writer could get away with all kinds of distortions, exaggerations and stereotyping, not to mention outright racism. Weird tales writer HP Lovecraft took a swerve from his usual New England setting to collaborate with Harry Houdini on the story ‘Under the Pyramids’, which had the famous escapologist visiting Egypt and becoming imprisoned inside one of its most famous monuments, but not before a stop off at Shepheard’s:

“We stopped at Shepherd’s Hotel, reached in a taxi that sped along broad, smartly built-up streets; and amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.

The next day, however, precipitated us delightfully into the heart of the Arabian Nights atmosphere; and in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again. Guided by our Baedeker, we had struck east past the Ezbekiyeh Gardens along the Mouski in quest of the native quarter, and were soon in the hands of a clamorous cicerone who – notwithstanding later developments – was assuredly a master at his trade.”

Lovecraft never visited Egypt and, like the story’s protagonist, he probably gained all his information from a Baedeker, but not so other pulp writers, as reported in the Egyptian Gazette of 15 April 1929:

“There is an immense fascination about Egypt which never fails to appeal to imaginative folk and it is not surprising therefore that many well-known authors are constant visitors to this country. Just at the moment Mr Sax Rohmer, whose works include a number of stories with an Egyptian setting, is staying at Shepheard’s. Mr Robert Hichens, who is a very regular visitor to Egypt – one might almost call him a resident here – is staying at Mena House. Mr AEW Mason spent the greater part of the winter in Aswan and Cairo, and Mr Rudyard Kipling, who finds this country so much to his liking that he is engaged in writing a book about it, only left these shores a short time ago.”

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Kipling’s no pulp writer but Hichens wrote supernatural fiction and Mason turned out detective stories (as well as the novel The Four Feathers), while Rohmer is the pulpiest of the pulp, creator of the brilliantly over-the-top stories of master-criminal Fu Manchu. In 13 bestselling books and at least as many film adaptations, Fu Manchu plots to take over the world, only to be constantly thwarted (in the early books, at least) by the dogged colonial police commissioner Nayland Smith. Although Fu Manchu was Chinese, the orient was the orient and Rohmer’s stories freely mixed the eastern Asian with the Middle Eastern and North African. The wily Fu Manchu was as liable to pop up in Cairo as Shanghai or London’s Limehouse. Rohmer also wrote reams of stories and novels that did not feature Fu Manchu, and many of these were set in Egypt, a country with which he had a deep fascination.

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Apparently Shepheard’s was one of his favourite hotels; he once met Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, on its terrace, and it crops up numerous times in his novels (including in Brood of the Witch Queen, 1918, and Daughter of Fu Manchu, 1931) and short story collections (including Tales of Secret Egypt, 1918). There was even a short story called ‘A Date at Shepheard’s’ published in Blue Book magazine, a slight tale of a mysterious woman imprisoned in room 34B.

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Rohmer’s frequent namechecking of the hotel apparently paid off: in his author’s biography in the Blue Book, the editors claim that Rohmer (who died in 1959) never had to pay a bill at Shepheard’s. The practice of product placement has been around a lot longer than you imagined.

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A visit to the Louxor

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I was in Paris last week and I went to the cinema – not just any cinema, but the magnificent cinema above. It’s a place I’ve passed it many times on trips to Paris over the years, but previously the building was always derelict and boarded up. Apparently, it had been that way since the 1980s. But recently it has undergone a three-year long restoration and the regenerated Louxor – Palais de Cinema opened in April this year.

It’s a beautiful example of Egyptian-inspired Art Deco that followed in the wake of the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – except that this theatre was built the year before Carter’s epic find, in 1921. One theory is, it was designed this way to capitalise on the massive success of the 1917 silent film Cleopatra staring Theda Bara.

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After the cinema closed, the building was a disco and a gay nightclub. Now it’s back to showing films. Good films, too, with an eclectic programme heavy on arthouse and world cinema, the latter reflecting the make-up of neighbouring multi-racial Barbès district.

The Ancient Egyptian theming isn’t limited to the mosaics and columns on the façade – the main auditorium also has a painted relief spanning the whole of the room and moldings of pharaonic heads. I particularly loved the 1920s bar up on the third floor, which has a small outdoor terrace from where you can see the roof-line mosaics close up – or, if you are facing the other way, the domes of nearby Sacré-Cœur. You can use the bar even if you aren’t intending to watch a film. The Louxor is in front of Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station, one stop from the Gare du Nord.

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Glamour girls and sphinxes, part 2

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Some time ago I posted a picture of Sophia Loren on a sphinx for no better reason that it was a beautiful photograph – well, in a similarly spurious vein, here is Russian ballet star Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) in front of a sphinx at the Serapeum, Alexandria in 1923. A regular trooper when it came to touring, she was in town for a run of seven nights of performances at the Grand Theatre Mohamed Aly (she’d also been in Egypt in 1910 and would return in 1928). Below, she poses in Cairo with a more famous Sphinx, while bottom that’s her beside a hideous fountain in the garden at Shepheard’s, which is presumably where she stayed.

NPG x135875; Anna Pavlova in Egypt by Anglo-Swiss Photo-Studio, Cairo

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Sophia and the sphinx

I don’t know what the background to this image is, I just chanced on it today while doing some internet research. The only information on the site where I found the photo was that it was taken possibly in 1954. That’s the same year Two Nights with Cleopatra was released with Loren as Cleo, and the year after her first big break, playing the title role in Aida. Hence, probably, the sphinx. What I can add is the location – that’s one of the pair of sphinxes that flank the obelisk on London’s Thames Embankment. I should know, I pass it a couple of times a week heading to or from Waterloo station. So what, you might ask, is the relevance to the grand hotels of Egypt. None at all. It’s just Sophia Loren and a sphinx. Isn’t that reason enough?

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