Review: A Fool There Was (1915)
A Fool There Was (1915) wasn’t Theda Bara’s first film (The Stain (1914) holds that special honor), but it was her first lead role. It also, I think, sets the template for every other role she played and her entire persona. I say that I think, because while I am familiar with Theda Bara the legend, A Fool There Was is the first and only Theda Bara movie I’ve watched. Will it be my last?
A Fool There Was, directed by Frank Powell and produced by William Fox, centers around The Vampire (Theda Bara) and wealthy lawyer John Schuyler (Edward José) who falls under her seductive spell. In pursuit of this (apparently) irresistible piece of tail, he leaves his loving wife and cherubic child, ruins his successful career, and destroys his health. I believe there’s a moral in this story, but it’s hard to sympathize with any of these characters. As the wronged wife, Mrs. Schuyler (Mabel Frenyer) just comes off as a self-righteous, judgmental martyr and Schuyler seems too easily swayed by another woman to be as devoted to his wife as the title cards might lead us to believe.
Of course, none of that matters. The real attraction in A Fool There Was is Theda Bara herself. I was prepared to be disappointed by her, mostly because of the disappointment of others. Despite being the designated first sex symbol of the silver screen, the original Vamp as it were, and one of the highest paid actresses of her day, very few of Theda Bara’s films exist. Out of more than 40 films, complete prints of only six of her movies remain. While silent film fans will wring hands over the lost Cleopatra, based almost solely on the astounding still photos of Bara in character, the quality of her surviving works suggests it may be no tragic loss.
In A Fool There Was, Theda Bara is confusing to me. She is certainly magnetic, much more so than any of her screen mates. But is she the soul stealing Vampire that the script calls for? I don’t think so. Theda Bara was no beauty. She is sensual, with the soulful eyes, fleshy physique, and full lips of a sex pot, but there’s a certain vulnerability about her that makes the role an ill fit. In one scene, The Vampire dances about the deck of a steam ship after having driven one man to suicide and just before seducing her next chosen victim. As she swans about, Theda Bara actually makes eye contact with the camera once or twice, and generally looks uncomfortable with all the shimmying. As any good Vamp can tell you, you got to own that shit and Theda Bara looks like she left the tags on so she could return it if it didn’t work out.
Of course, Theda the Vamp is a construct, perhaps one of the earliest examples of a complete movie marketing package. Born Theodosia Burr Goodman, she was really just a good girl from Cincinnati, Ohio. Producer William Fox saw something there, however, and set about constructing an exotic, mysterious persona. She was rechristened Theda Bara, she grew up in the shadows of the Great Pyramid, and came to Hollywood via the French stage, and she was encouraged to discuss the occult and mysticism. Flip through a few publicity shots of her and you’ll find snakes, skulls, skeletons, and all manner of occult paraphernalia. She was also costumed in very revealing – keep in mind this is the silent era – get ups. It all added up to sensation.
[sws_yellow_box box_size="450"]To see more pictures of Theda Bara, visit my Facebook Photo Album. [/sws_yellow_box]
For me, in looking at publicity photos of Theda Bara, I still see someone who isn’t quite sure about what she’s doing there in a snake bra, holding a skull. Theda Bara has large, lovely eyes that even an excess of kohl can hide, and more often than not she’s confronting the camera head on. But it’s not the mystery of the seductress I see there, but rather a certain confused innocence. There’s something tragic in those eyes, and that tragedy is born out by the typecasting that began with A Fool There Was. The Vampire became the Vamp, synonymous with Theda Bara herself.
She did try to branch out of that mold and work on more serious roles. But Theda Bara was worth too much as a wanton woman, and she never really launched that dramatic version of herself. After marrying film director Charles Brabin in 1921, Theda Bara retreated from the spotlight. Hers was a popularity that probably wouldn’t not have survived the harsh trials of the late 20′s and early 30′s, but she got out while the getting was good. What we’re left with is A Fool There Was and a handful of other vamp roles to judge her by. This movie is worth checking out to see the wicked woman in action. Then you can tease the hype from the reality for yourself.
I watched the Kino Vido edition of A Fool There Was. You can buy it here.