A Fool There Was (1915)
Directed by Frank Powell
67 min.; U.S.A.; Black and White (tinted); Silent
V is for Vampire, but not for the vampire you might expect. Those blood-sucking freaks fearlessly explored in today’s delicious Vampire Blog-a-Thon demand investigation, especially around Hallowe’en, and you can drink your fill on the links below but, sneak a quick peak at your dictionary and you’ll uncover a second definition for vampire, one that is tied directly to the world of motion pictures as we shall see:
vam·pire n. 2. A person who preys upon others, as: b. A woman who uses sexual attraction to exploit men.
Though the blood-hungry vampire myth is ancient, this other type of vampire famously prowled through on-screen features years before Nosferatu (1922)’s Count Orlok, or Bela Lugosi’s caped count in Dracula (1931). And just because she doesn’t sport fangs please don’t make the mistake of thinking that this vampire isn’t deadly. Just like those reanimated corpses roaming the night to feed upon the living, the earlier cinematic vampire leaves behind a string of victims drained of their power, their fortunes and finally their will to live. Eve Golden’s 1996 book Vamp helps us delve into the convoluted origins that raised this other type of vampire into the light of the silver screen.
On April 24, 1896 a painting by Philip Burne-Jones entitled The Vampire was exhibited by the New Gallery in London. In the picture a woman wearing a vicious smile leans over an unconscious man lying on a bed. The picture was said to be a representation of the outcome of Burne-Jones’ tragic affair with stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell who loved then left him. But, the only explanation came in the form of a poem written that same year by Burne-Jones’ cousin, Rudyard Kipling, also entitled The Vampire.
The fool was stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you or I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside--
(But it isn't on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died--
(Even as you or I!)
Rudyard Kipling, "The Vampire"
Kipling’s poem inspired Porter Emerson Browne to craft a stage play under the title A Fool There Was. The March 29, 1909 New York Times review notes, "This one may be a bit raw and rough at times, but there is no denying its moral—beware of sirens who wait on ocean liners to sprinkle rose leaves in your path." The play, in turn, inspired William Fox Vaudeville Company to produce a motion picture that made the second denotative definition of the word vampire, a woman who uses sexual attraction to exploit men, common knowledge on screen. But, none of these disparate threads gathered together this alternative form of vampire in the minds of America—it was an invention of a film studio publicity machine: a mysterious new actress named Theda Bara.
As the story goes, Bara, the only child of an Italian painter and a French actress, was raised in the shadows of the Pyramids and learned the mystical ways of her homeland before relocating to Paris where she dominated French theater. Later discovered in France by director Frank Powell, she returned with him to the United States to escape the ravages of World War I and bring the secrets of Continental theater to American cinema. This story was an invention of the Fox's publicity machine. Theodosia Goodman was really a mid-30s also-ran stage actress from Cincinnati. Canny journalists knew that the origin tale was false, but many played along knowing that it was all part of show business. By the time the public was apprised of Theda’s true background they had already fallen under her cinematic spell and ate it up. After her successful turn as The Vampire in A Fool There Was (1915) the fictitious tales of her origin only served to increase her popularity. Like professional wrestling or reality TV making the audience privy to the scam only served to fuel their enjoyment and desire to see more.
The Fool (Edward José) registers horror at being torn between his family and The Vampire (Theda Bara).
A Fool There Was, directed by Frank Powell (formerly with Biograph), follows Browne's drama closely, and Kipling's poem dominates the intertitles too, so it retains some flavor of its inspiration. In the film we witness The Vampire (Theda Bara)'s seduction of U.S. diplomat John Schuyler (Edward Jose) with tragic consequences for himself and his family. He sails for Europe on a mission for the State Department leaving his wife and daughter behind to care for an injured sister-in-law. Early in the journey he encounters The Vampire and quickly falls under her spell. She's had her sights on him since reading about his assignment in the newspaper. Before the seduction of Schuyler, however, we see the fates of some of her previous victims. She shrugs off a string of weak, emaciated men; one tries to shoot her for revenge but after tasting her kisses again (during which she delivers the famous line, “kiss me, my fool,”) he commits suicide instead. Schuyler, now her latest fool, becomes tragically addicted to her for the rest of the picture. Not even an emotional reunion with his family can break the fiendish grip she has on him even as guilt and shame slowly drain away his vitality. The Vampire, meanwhile, revels in her power to destroy men and live a completely decadent lifestyle (unconvincingly shown through brief flashes of her drinking, smoking and enjoying wild parties). Bara makes the most of her penetrating kohl-rimmed eyes and cruel thin lips in the vampire role, but the attraction that once made her the first true sex symbol of American cinema—The New York Dramatic Mirror January 20, 1915 review of the film claims that she ”has enough sex appeal to supply a town full of normally pleasing women,”— is lost on these jaded eyes. And though the film isn’t a great work of art it was a box office hit, largely because of the aforementioned publicity campaign Fox built around Bara. She went on to star in some forty-plus films—all but three are unfortunately now lost—including a reputedly fantastic version of Cleopatra (1917) (also now lost), while Fox enjoyed the profits.
While Bara was perfecting and popularizing the role of the vampire in many of her films, a less-threatening sounding version of the word vampire itself came into being to describe her work at Fox: vamp. Again, a glance at Webster:
vamp Informal. —n. An unscrupulous woman who seduces or exploits men with her charms.
"Kiss me, my fool," one of The Vampire's victims (Victor Benoit) makes a vain threat.
Vamp, the seemingly gentler diminutive of vampire has come to describe not only the screen roles of Theda Bara but also a host of filmdom’s most viciously irresistible and inscrutable characters. What forces drive us to want to watch these depraved characters on screen (interesting to note that when Bara played good girl roles Fox would get letters demanding a return to vampire form)? Sad to say, I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to that question yet. But perhaps there is an association with the fascination we have with watching cinema's undead vampires, the evil creatures lurking in the shadows to prey on the living. Suffice it say that we love watching this stuff!
Though Bara was one of silent film's most popular actresses, and owed her success to her portrayal of some of the most despicable women on film, she's somehow not as well remembered as many other silent-era stars who enjoyed similar popularity in their time. As Golden notes “by 1918, Theda Bara was one of the top three stars in movies, ranking behind only Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin...but, by the time talking pictures became popular, she was all but forgotten.” Maybe the reason for the relative lack of interest in Theda Bara is a lack of Bara? Most of her work (and all of her best work) is lost, crumbled to nitrate dust. Still, thanks to her we know on-screen vamping (like the all best jargon it quickly became a verb) when we see it: Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931), Barbara Stanwick in Double Indemnity (1944), Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992), Linda Fiorentino (1994) in The Last Seduction, etc, etc. A whole lotta vamping goes on in Hollywood, and we couldn’t enjoy such nasty nonsense without the progenitor of the form, Theda Bara—a true Queen of the Vampires.
Now go feast on more of the Film Experience's Vampire Blog-a-Thon
Some of my favorites:
Flickhead has capsules on five favored vampire flicks|
Certifiably Creative offers up Theater Des Vampires
No More Marriages on Pittsburgh as the star of Innocent Blood
Silly Hats Only on George Romero's Martin
goatdog on the dwindling House of Dracula at Universal
Richard Gibson goes contemporary: Martin and The Addiction
Pfangirl on a "bloody awesome trio" of lady bloodsuckers
zoom-in requests a DVD fix of The Addiction
Way of Words on women: from victims to vampire slayers
Tuwa's Shanty on Martin & Nosferatu
|Catherine Cantieri the giant sucking sound of 1992's Dracula|
European Films on Frostbite, a Swedish horror comedy
popbytes recommends Christopher Lee in Hammer's Dracula series
100 Films the monster mashup: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Peter Nellhaus on Brides of Dracula
Bright Lights After Dark 'Browning and the Slow Club' (Dracula)
Tim Lucas declares his half dozen favorite vampire flicks
Film Vituperatum Ninjas and Vampires --uncanny similarities!
Cinevistaramascope finds Herzog's Nosferatu superior to Murnau's
Cutting Room remembers his first time...w/ Bram Stokers Dracula