Friday, February 10, 2006

Vamp-Camp: A Fool There Was

"A Fool There Was" (1915), the film that made a star out of star Theda Bara, is a poorly dramatized piece of vamp-camp that lingers over Bara's exotic sexuality. This is what the attraction of the film was in 1915, and that is still the main reason to see it today: Bara's sinful ways are as exaggerated as Mary Pickford's innocence, and its extremity is what makes it exciting. Her eating a grape out of her lover's mouth still carries erotic appeal; and her lifting the hem of her dress off the floor to show her ankles--this should also be cherished as a sign of the times, and as an early lifting of the sexuality's veil. (And those hems seem to have been getting higher ever since.)

Though coming fifteen years before Josef Von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel" (1930), "A Fool There Was" tells a similar story of a successful, respected man turned wayward and ruined by his lust. The object of his obsession is Theda Bara, known only as "The Vampire," a woman whose sole preoccupation is with bringing men to ruin: poverty, death, and suicide meet all of her former lovers. Called to England as an ambassador, John Schuyler (Edward Jose) books passage alone on a boat. On board, he becomes the next victim of "the Vampire," and off they go to Italy. Away from his family, Schuyler misses them terribly, but cannot live without his new mistress. Returning home (with Bara in tow), Schuyler fails to balance both his familial responsibilities and his desire for Bara and ends his life in utter ruin.

Director Frank Powell uses flowers as a symbol of female sexuality in the manner of Georgia O'Keefe. At one point Bara even thwarts a jealous lover's pistol with her long stemmed flower. But in other aspects of the film, Powell's direction isn't so successful. The introduction of the family is confused, with too many persons introduced too quickly with little to distinguish them. He doesn't exhibit the same flair for composition or editing that Thomas Ince or D.W. Griffith concurrently used in their own films: Powell's seem flat and unassured compared to them. The story, too, feels undeveloped beyond the bare bones of the plot. It is Bara's image that receives all the attention of the filmmaker, and her expressionistic glamour must have been a shock to audiences used to the Pickford curls. Bara's rampant seduction is domineering compared to the submissive roles played by Lillian Gish. This is not to sleight either Pickford nor Gish, nor to place Bara on a higher platform than either of them, but merely as context with which to compare Bara's character, for hers was the original vamp, the first femme fatale--but if that is all she represents, then "A Fool There Was" would not be worth much. Bara's value comes in her character, complete in vision and in action, which allows her to rise above a mundane script, and separate her from all its mediocrity.

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