The movie vamp took pop culture by storm, thanks to some clever marketing from Fox Studios and some consciously over-the-top acting from overnight sensation Theda Bara. The film is the story of a diplomat who falls into the clutches of a cruel vampire and spends the rest of the film whining about his fate. Mwahahaha! Girls win! Girls win!
Kiss me, my Fool!
Just as Rudolph Valentino was not the first lusty sheik to set hearts aflutter, Theda Bara wasn’t the first movie femme fatale or even the first on-screen vampire. However, like Valentino, she was responsible for turning the character into a cultural phenomenon. He would always be the Sheik and she was always the Vamp.
Theda Bara is notable for another reason. Of all the big stars of the early feature film era, her motion pictures have the most abysmal survival rate. While Cecil B. DeMille, William S. Hart and Mary Pickford managed to save most of their features, Bara’s rotted or disintegrated or burned. A Fool There Was was her first vamp role and the movie that put her on the map but it is also the only one of her true vamp pictures that seems to survive intact. This is a pity as it would be fascinating to see the evolution of her screen persona. As things stands, we can only watch fragments of her career and guess at the missing pieces.
I will repeat for emphasis that Theda Bara, vamp extraordinaire, was a work in progress at this point in film history and we may never know her as audiences of 1915-1918 saw her. This fact must absolutely be taken into account with any criticism of her work. (Here’s hoping a treasure trove of lost Bara silents emerges!)
(By the way, the idea that Bara’s name was an anagram for Arab Death is a myth, likely from the studio publicity department. In fact, her surname was just a shortened version of the family name Baranger and Theda was a childhood nickname for Theodosia. I wonder what would have happened if she had opted for one of her other nicknames, Theo or Teddy. “I just wanna be your Teddy Bara!” And, needless to say, this film was not the first movie to use publicity stunts.)
A few notes before we dig in. Since this movie gets cute and names the characters things like the Husband, the Wife and the Wife’s Sister, I am just going to refer to everyone by the first name of the actor playing them if no name is forthcoming. Otherwise we are going to end up describing “the friend of the fiancé of the wife’s sister” and I don’t want to do that. The exceptions are the Husband, who is called John “Jack” Shuyler throughout the film, the Wife, who we learn is called Kate, and one or two supporting characters. See, movie, naming a character wasn’t so hard, was it?
By the way, I am highly indebted to Eve Golden’s Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara for background information on this film. Do check it out if you have the chance. (Some reviewers have complained that it lacked juicy details and was unlikely to appeal to the Mommy Dearest Crowd. I cannot think of a higher recommendation. Heck yeah, I’m judging. These dolts are the ones who keep setting back serious silent film scholarship. They should be marooned.)
Finally, the role of the vamp regarding gender roles and women’s rights has been discussed and discussed and discussed. I am going to briefly touch on it later but the majority of this review is going to be focused on aspects and interpretations of the film that I think are usually glossed over or overlooked entirely. There is nothing I dislike more than trotting out old theories and retreading on retreads of retreads. My goal in watching this film was to bring a fresh perspective.
The story opens with Kate (Mabel Frenyear), a happy mother, awaiting the return of her husband, John (Edward Jose). The couple dote on their young daughter (Runa Hodges) and everything seems sunny for them. That is, however, before they run into the Vampire (Theda Bara).
Theda has a lover who is just starting to get on her nerves and so she is clearly on the hunt already. Kate knows her reputation and cuts her, refusing to even acknowledge her existence. This is all the reason Theda needs to make John her next target.
Later, John learns he has been named special envoy to England but he needs to sail immediately. Theda reads about his assignment in the newspaper and she prepares to pursue, much to the horror of her soon-to-be-dumped beau. Meanwhile, Kate’s little sister (May Allison) has an unintentionally funny accident and falls out of a moving vehicle. She is alive but badly injured. Kate feels she must stay to nurse her sister back to health. John is on his own, much to his annoyance.
Theda boards the ship but her abandoned lovers are all about. Apparently, she drove one man to become a beggar, another one rots in prison. How she accomplished this is left vague. I think the screenwriters just had no idea.
And here is where I must clear up a misconception about this film. It has been repeated again and again in scholarly and not-so-scholarly sources that Bara’s seduction of Jose is culminated with her giving the order to “Kiss me, my Fool.” Movie history!
The only problem? Didn’t happen. Here’s the real sequence of events: John has not arrived yet but Bara’s previous victim follows her onto the ship and confronts her, pistol drawn. She playfully taps the gun down with the flower she is carrying and then delivers the deathless line. The fool promptly shoots himself in the head, presumably to free himself from the vampire’s curse. Theda Bara’s character has not even so much as glimpsed John Shuyler at this point in the film. Her contact has been limited to reading newspapers and scowling at his wife.
I know it’s a fairly minor quibble but I find it irritating not in itself but because exposes that these scholars and historians are unforgivably lazy. A Fool There Was is readily available on home video and has been for years but they did not bother watching it. This is my pet peeve about the state of silent movie literature. Authors will confidently write biographies and scholarly works on the silent era and its personalities without bothering with even the most basic research.
Writing about silent films does indeed necessitate discussion of movies we may never see—the vast majority of all silent films are lost—and so it really boils me that people would ignore the silent films that we do have available to us on home media. Time and again, these authors will concoct elaborate theories as to the background of one film or another when everything can be easily explained by taking an hour or two to watch the films in question. Is this really too much to ask?
We’ve all inadvertently repeated bad information. Silent movie history is very muddled, knotted and generally a challenge to wade through. But this? This is laziness, pure and simple. If you can’t plunk down $15-20 and sacrifice an hour of your life, maybe you shouldn’t write about silent films.
(For specific case studies and related rants, read my reviews of Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North and Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen, both of which were subjected to darn fool theories because some authors fell down on the job.)
Okay, I’m done. Back to the film. John’s family sees him off and then he has the long cruise to England with Theda Bara eyeing him like he’s a dark chocolate bon bon. How will she seduce this very married and very happy man?
What’s this? She moved his deckchair close to hers? Is there no end to this fiend’s cunning schemes? What next? Will she go up and ask him if they have met before? Such wiles cannot possibly be evaded. As you probably guessed, this vamp’s appeal is treated as almost supernatural with very little actual substance. Men cannot resist her and fly to her like moths to flame! And, of course, this attitude ties in with the dreadful and damaging belief that men simply cannot control their libidos and that they will all eventually succumb to temptation. This myth is unflattering and damaging to both genders but was—and remains— incredibly common. (For another example of this in an iconic silent film, check out The Sheik. The heroine is informed that being kidnapped by the hero is an inevitable result of her being just too darn beautiful. Boys will be boys, eh?)
John is the fool of the title and he is supposed to represent an everyman caught in the vamp’s web—never mind that he is an everyman of the one percent and knows the secretary of state by name—but he is really more of a jerk and a weirdo. Let’s examine the evidence. (And, by the way, before we bring in the dreaded yelps of “CONTEXT!” please remember that the behaviors I will be discussing are, I’m pretty sure, loathsome by the standards of 2015, 1915 or 1815.)
First of all, we have John’s reaction when he learns that Kate plans to stay with her sister. The sister, you will recall, was severely injured in an accident (let’s forget that it was very poorly filmed and just looked goofy) and needs care in order to recover. Kate tells him that she cannot go with him and he looks like she just spit in his face. How dare she put her sister above him?
By the way, I also love the fact that the story indicates that if only Kate had accompanied John on his journey, all might have been saved. Nice to know that a woman is not only responsible for her own honor but she also bears some blame if hubby decides to look for something on the side. This goes along with what we discussed earlier about men being let off the hook for failing at monogamy while the woman has the hammer fall on her—even if she is the innocent spouse.
John’s odd behavior continues. As he is boarding the ship, he sees Theda’s previous victim being carried away on a stretcher. What does he do? Stops the medics, uncovers the body and gawks at the corpse! It makes you wonder how this guy behaves at funerals. “Stop him! He’s opening the casket! Oh no! He’s in the crematorium and he’s sneezing in the urns! Aunt Calpurnia got blown out the window!”
Later, after he has succumbed to Theda’s charms and has gone AWOL from his diplomatic post, he receives a letter from his family but Theda tears it up and demands his undivided attention. John’s response? Try to throttle his lover, of course! He starts to choke her but she uses a little flirting to make him stop. However, the fact still remains that his reaction to a torn letter was to attempt to kill someone. Oh yeah, really stable fellow. And he is the United States’ special envoy to England? I’m astonished he didn’t reignite the War of 1812.
So, we have a boorish, whiny, violent little man-child and Theda was supposed to have destroyed him? Puh-leeez. This man is unstable and he just happened to find a woman who outpaced him in nuttiness. If it hadn’t been Theda, it would have been someone else. Or maybe John would have rummaged around the wrong corpse and would have been attacked by grieving family members. This guy is not the sharpest crayon in the box, if you take my meaning.
The performance doesn’t save the role. Edward Jose is very much a leading man of 1914/1915. They liked ‘em solid and distinguished in those days (though fresh and boyish faces like Antonio Moreno and Wallace Reid were starting to take over). The problem, of course, is that Jose looks too old and dignified to make such a fool of himself believably and ends up looking more like a mad scientist when he should look like a tragic figure. (Creighton Hale plays another of the vampire’s victims and he would have been much better in the lead, in my opinion. His youthful and somewhat weak features fit the role.) That’s not to say that older men cannot be foolish but rather that Jose’s part seems to have been written for a younger man.
The rest of the cast is equally dull. Kate spends most of the movie flapping around ineffectually. May Allison, Kate’s sister, is the only character with some degree of common sense and Allison’s performance is the only one worth noticing, save Bara’s. (Well, if we ignore her rather silly accident at the beginning.) She calls out the men on covering over John’s folly when they would be more than happy to condemn a woman’s affair. She also encourages Kate to get a divorce but Tom, a family friend, is all, “You promised ‘til death” and guilts her into not initiating divorce proceedings. Um, John is openly living with his mistress, I think the marriage vows are pretty well smashed to pieces.
Oh but wait, he’s a helpless victim of her supernatural wiles. Phooey! John’s pushing forty and really needs to learn to take some responsibility. I know, I know, the vamp has him in her somewhat supernatural clutches but this guy is such a sad sack and a milquetoast. I wanted to shake him.
(Theda, honey, we need to talk about your taste in men.)
Theda Bara is truly the glue that holds this thing together. A Fool There Was is very much a product of its time and Bara’s character was exotic because she treated men the way movie cads had been treating women. None of her seduction techniques are particularly sexy but the very idea of what she was doing was titillating to audiences of her day. Women could not yet vote and the idea that a husband had sole control of a couple’s property was not eliminated in the United States until 1981. Is it any wonder that Bara’s all-powerful vampire had everyone talking?
Of course, the vamp craze was too extreme and outlandish to last and the supernatural seductress was soon knocked off her perch by flappers, femme fatales and generally more subtle characters. Vamps still existed in the twenties but they were toned down, sleeker. The 1915 vampire’s assertive romancing was no longer shocking. Her reign was over in just a few years but what a ride while it lasted! It should also be noted that vamps were not the only wild women of the 1910s. The serial queens were full-fledged action stars who could rumble with the burliest thugs and often saved their leading men.
And now we are going to tackle something even more controversial. Appearance and weight: I’m not going to mince words. The idiots who quip about Bara’s appearance need to shut up and sit down. What she had worked for the audience of her time and it is impossible to judge a silent performer’s appeal from still photographs. These people were all about movement and judging them from stills is like judging a fine oil painting from a black and white snapshot. And since most of Bara’s films are lost, it is impossible to form a complete opinion of her skill as a performer.
Further, Bara seems to have been a delightful and intelligent woman who didn’t take her own hype too seriously. Is A Fool There Was tongue in cheek? No. But it would be a mistake to think that the performers did not know exactly the sort of film they were making. It’s an over-the-top morality tale that shows sin (well, “sin”) in loving detail before condemning it. Yes, silent movie stars were very aware of hokum and they were adept at the different styles of acting required for different pictures. A Fool There Was communicates exactly the style it is going for from the opening credits. We see Bara admire a rose and then pull off all its petals. The thorns cut her hand and she stands there giggling at the blood. Gritty realism was not exactly the goal.
Still, it must be admitted that A Fool There Was has not aged well. The sexual politics are pretty silly and explaining away Theda’s seduction by hinting that she is magical does not make for a satisfying character. With the exception of Bara and May Allison, the cast is dull and the direction is lackluster. This is not the best film of 1915 but it is one of the most important. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first silent film but I definitely do consider it worth watching for fans of silent cinema and students of film history. I would grade this one as more interesting than actually good.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
There are some bargain editions out there but you’ll want to get the Kino Lorber release. Philip Carli’s excellent piano score really sets the mood. Grapevine has released a version that pairs this film with another surviving Bara picture, The Unchastened Woman, her 1925 comeback vehicle.