By Daniel Barnes
By its very nature, film is a reactive medium. There is an incorrect impression that the cinema creates trends, but instead large budgets inspire little courage, and the inherent slowness of the production process means that the movies are always a step behind the zeitgeist. This is as true today as it was at the one-movie-a-week pace of the Hollywood studio system. Rather than creating trends, the movies simply mythologize them, and often permanently encode them into our popular imagination.
When a Cincinnati-born Jewish girl named Theodosia Goodman was rechristened as a French-Arab “vamp” seductress named Theda Bara (an anagram for “Arab Death”, although her biographer Ronald Genini suggests this was largely a coincidence), she may have inadvertently created the studio publicity department, but she wasn’t breaking any new thematic ground. She was merely playing off of the popular tropes of her time, which included the figure of a dark, sexually aggressive, soul-sucking she-devil leading decent family men astray.
On a similar note, Clara Bow’s two most recognizable silent roles came in 1927 (Wings and It), the same year that The Jazz Singer was released, and just two years before the stock market crash made the flapper irrelevant. Meanwhile, iconic silent roles of Louise Brooks (pictured above) both came in Europe in the late 1920s, and she was hardly employable in Hollywood. These were actresses already on their way out, even at the height of their fame.
More than anything else, the popular notion of “sexiness” is dependent on the sort of artifice that the movies excel in. The mythologizing properties of the medium allow a boxy, flat-chested Ohio girl named Theodosia to be presented as a wanton Arab sex goddess, just as they permit a diminutive brunette divorcee named Norma Jean to morph into someone as grandly alluring as Marilyn Monroe, or a slobbering mug named Humphrey to become a legendary woman-denominator like “Bogie”.
That brings us to the latest ESFS Festival – Silent Sirens – three movies that feature predominantly “silent film” actresses in their most iconic roles:
*Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (1915; Dir.: Frank Powell) [review by Daniel Barnes on Wednesday]
*Clara Bow (pictured below) in It (1927; Dir.: Clarence G. Badger) [review by Mike Dub on Monday, April 14]
*Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1929; Dir.: G.W. Pabst) [review by Daniel Barnes on Monday, April 21]
Here is why I centered on these three actresses:
1) Most importantly, I have never seen any of their films. I briefly considered other silent-era sex goddesses like Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo for this festival, but I felt that they both probably merited their own festivals at some point
2) Their careers were largely relegated to the silent era, and for the most part, they rejected talking pictures rather than wait to be rejected by them. Bara (pictured above) acted in nearly forty movies between 1915 and 1919 (take that, James Franco!), but her career was pretty much over by the dawn of the 1920s, and she retired from acting for good in 1926. Bow was still popular by the late 1920s, but the new demands of the talkies drove her to neurosis and drug abuse, and she retired from film in the early 1930s. Louise Brooks was similarly dismissive of talking pictures, and was informally “blacklisted” for refusing to return to Hollywood for overdubs on 1929’s The Canary Murder Case.
3) These three actresses are largely remembered for their appeal as sex goddesses, so their films say a lot about the obsessions and fears of their times. Remember that these movies were made at a time when church-based censorship organizations were at war with the largely unregulated film industry. Films like A Fool There Was, It, and (to a lesser extent) Pandora’s Box had to serve two masters – they needed to stay within the standards to prevent an outright ban, but provoke the censorship boards enough to promise ticket-selling titillation. As such, the popularity of these three actresses speaks volumes about the mores and popular obsessions/fears of the times in which they were made. A Fool There Was came out when the majority of the ticket-buying hoi polloi still lit their homes with gas lamps, and seems to evoke naïve fears of a sexually hypnotic Eastern other-ness that were then prevalent in the popular imagination (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, was still a relatively recent literary sensation). Bow had been playing flapper parts for nearly five years before It pushed her celebrity into the stratosphere, but the stock market crashed just 2 1/2 years later, putting her vivacious sensuality out of mode in favor of a more sad-eyed dancing puppet like Ruby Keeler.
4) While their images were all manufactured to some degree, their onscreen roles came to define their lives. Silent film actors are often regarded as primitive play-actors, overemphatic mimics who are the essence of cinematic artifice. And yet consider this: a) Bara affected a French accent in front of willingly gullible reporters, and was toted around by “Nubian” footmen for the benefit of an unsophisticated public; b) Clara Bow really was a flapper; c) Louise Brooks really was a sexually explorative socialite. These women, like so many other silent movie performers, make the case for pre-sound film as the petri dish of Method Acting. The line between the onscreen and offscreen identities of these three women was at best a faded smear.
The Silent Sirens festival kicks off on Wednesday with my review of Theda Bara’s iconic “vamp” role in A Fool There Was. It is only about one hour long, and it’s available in full on YouTube, as well as on DVD through Netflix.