Monday, 23 January 2012

Theda Bara... A Fool There Was (1915)

Film appreciation is so very subjective and there has to be a certain level of reasoned argument in support of opinion, tempering enthusiasm and explaining yourself - that's the challenge. Sometimes, however, you just don’t have much evidence to go on, and, as stated elsewhere, there is often a huge amount of preconception to over come, much of it the legacy of studio spin-doctors. Good mud sticks, so long as the PR message is simple and powerful enough.

Take Theda Bara for example. She was a ground-breaking actress who brought an aggressive female sexuality to the fore and had a lasting impact on the way that screen actresses could behave and be seen.
But there is so little of her work left to view. There are plenty of still shots that reinforce the legend of the “vamp” and which on occasion, feature her cavorting with skeletons and other morbid signifiers. The whole sex and death thing was very much in vogue (don't ask me why, I'm a Jungian...) and some bright spark at the studios even came up with the fact that her name was an anagram of Arab Death. What is that all about?!

She was the first real sexy symbol in Hollywood and one of the most persistently hyped actresses of all time.
But, was she any good?

Watching A Fool there Was, just about the only surviving full feature and the film that made her a star, you have to conclude that yes, she was a clever actress of some depth and wit. Not at all the histrionic “glowerer “ or under-dressed, over-expressive arm waver I’d expected. She was actually rather charming.

Already aged 29 and looking like one of Siouxsie Sioux's Bromley Contingent in the summer of Punk, Bara carries the whole thing off with a haughty humour and a twinkle in her huge black eyes. She looks very self aware and seems happy making herself the figure of scorn knowing full well that the men in the audience would be sympathetic in so many ways...

The film was based on the play which itself was based on a poem from Rudyard Kipling which forms the basis of the intertitles and is also featured in full in the Kino DVD extras. This literary backbone helps give the film its cutting edge as there are to be no compromises: “fool” they say and fool is what you get.
Bara plays “The Vampire”, a social leach who literally sucks her victims dry, ensnaring them in a world of almost unending and irresistible decadence. They only have to say no but they are all too weak and fall like husks once she has taken all their money and their vitality.

I’d expected this to be a bit overly-melodramatic and less than believable, but Bara’s playful performance convinces you. In once sequence she prevents an ailing suitor from shooting her then shows not a flinch of remorse when he shoots himself. She casually twists men’s minds and moves on, with singular purpose, to her next objective.
There is little characterisation beyond this but The Vampire is clever as well as commanding. She takes aim at the hapless diplomat, John Schuyler (Edward Jose, who puts in a hard-working performance!) who is just waving goodbye to his family on the boat to Europe. She playfully taps him on the shoulder and makes him notice her. Very soon he is draped over her in stultified exhaustion in Italy…some way away from his intended destination of London and far gone from his family.

Schuyler is disgraced and fired from his post. He returns to America but cannot be prised away from The Vampire – rebuffing even the attentions of his daughter. And, every time we see him, he staggers around more desperately with a little more life sucked away. He drinks, makes merry and is robbed of his life force as surely as if The Vampire was a more cinematically-typical one.
It’s uncompromising but Bara performs so intelligently that you believe in the story.

She was more interesting than I expected and more subtle. She seems quite relaxed and occasionally almost looks directly at the viewer with a half smile as her plans roll on the way she expects: she is in control throughout. This is very much “pre-code” in its a-morality apart from The Fool getting the end his foolishness deserves smashed against the iron self-interest of The Vamp.
Bara went on to be one of Hollywood’s major stars for the next four years or so, up there with Chaplin and Pickford. Mostly she played the same kind of “vamp” character but there were some attempts to broaden her pallet to include more traditionally sympathetic roles. Sadly, pretty much all of these films have now been lost.

There are two other early films, The Stain (1914) and East Lynne (1916) as well as some short 20’s comedies and The Unchastened Woman from 1925 when she was past her prime. A tantalising half-minute of her legendary Cleopatra (1917) survives – it looks very saucy indeed – but that’s it so far as is known. No other actor with a star on Hollywood Boulevard has had so many films lost.

Ah well, at least we have this film and I would recommend the Kino version for its clarity – a decent print – although you can also watch/download from the Internet Archive.

There’s also a fascinating 1936 radio interview on YouTube which shows her approach to the movie business. She sounds pretty smart and relaxed about the “pantomime” and you just wish there was more.

She married Liverpool-born film director Charles Brabin in 1921 and they stayed married for the rest of her life. Not quite the behaviour you'd expect from a vamp perhaps but proof of the distance between actress and actuality.


  1. I thought Theda was quite alluring in this film. Her star power is evident through the pounds of makeup. Oh, if only someone somewhere could find "Cleopatra"!

  2. Agreed - some of her still shots don't really do her justice. She seemd pretty smart and a confident, witty performer. "Cleopatra"...oh, you have to hope!

  3. A song about Theda Bara written and recorded in 1985 that readers of this review may enjoy