By Daniel Barnes
As I stated in my festival intro, while Theda Bara may have created a cinematic archetype and inspired an evolution in movie publicity machines with A Fool There Was, her “vamp” character did not break any new thematic ground. In the wake of Bram Stoker’s 1897 literary sensation Dracula, the vampire became a popular cultural figure, and the “vamp” was his essence-sapping female offshoot, non-supernatural but just as sexually carnivorous. A Fool There Was actually originated from a hit 1909 Broadway play, itself an expansion of an 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem inspired by a painting called The Vampire.
Theda Bara helped create the screen character of the “vamp” in Frank Powell’s 1915 “psychological drama“, and while she technically plays a supporting part in the film, she owns the picture from the first time we see her gleefully crushing flower petals in her palm. In fact, the enduring images from A Fool There Was are not of Bara seducing anyone, but of the smile that washes on to her face whenever she bends the will of one of her many male “fools”, even when they helplessly try to wring her neck. She takes pleasure in dominating dim-witted males, and laughs “like the devil” when one of her spurned conquests commits suicide in front of her.
Bara’s character is referred to as “The Vampire” in the film, even by the daily newspapers, which seems like a libel lawsuit waiting to happen. She is presented as a coal-eyed, alabaster-skinned “other”, clad in feathers, flowers, and prints in contrast to the virtuous ladies clothed all in white. It is notable that besides wielding her sexuality like a weapon, the Vampire also hires non-white servants, another sign for 1915 audiences of her withdrawal from polite society.
The Vampire has already left a trail of ruined “fools” in her wake before she gets to John Schuyler (Edward Jose), the middle-aged bureaucrat who becomes the film’s protagonist. Her interest in John springs from a perceived slight by his lily-white wife, with Bara casting her seductive powers in an act of revenge, like a witch’s curse. When John gets sent to England on a diplomatic mission, The Vampire follows and strikes (“away from America/family” = “away from familiar moral standards”), and within two months he is an idle zombie-primitive completely under her spell.
From there, A Fool There Was follows John as he descends into alcoholism and sloth, abandons his family, and tarnishes his respectable name, while his long-suffering wife struggles to break The Vampire’s spell. It is far from a silent masterpiece, and although released the same year as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, it displays that level of technical and narrative sophistication only a couple of times (most memorably, in a scene involving John shamefully hiding his face from his daughter while they travel side-by-side in moving cars). The intertitles are mostly florid garbage, filled with puffed-up piety (“Innocence breakfasts.”) and dim-witted foreshadowing (“Storm and darkness. Is it an omen?”).
Any interest in the film is largely due to the myth-making performance of Bara. If you need proof that the bipolar nature of movies was established in its primordial ooze, just realize that John’s wife (Mabel Frenyear) is presented as a paragon of moral virtuousness and The Vampire as the embodiment of the sinister “other”. Yet the wife character and the actress who played her make no impression and are forgotten to time, while the disgraceful Vampire made Bara an overnight star, and her power still resonates nearly a full century later. The wife was intended to appeal to moral standards, but The Vampire is what actually appealed to ticket buyers, and that appeal endures to this day.
*ABOVE: Clips and stills from Theda Bara’s performance as Cleopatra in 1917, which like most of Bara’s 40-some movies, does not survive. Over the second half of the video, there is audio from a later-in-life interview with Bara, where she talks about her craft and an imminent comeback in a manner befitting Norma Desmond.