Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Fool There Was (1915)

Director: Frank Powell                                  Writer: Porter Emerson Browne
Producer: William Fox                                  Cinematography: Roy L. McCardell
Starring: Theda Bara, Edward José, Mabel Frenyear and May Allison

The history of the silent cinema is replete with tragedy, primary among them the loss of nearly eighty percent of all the films created during that period. But this overarching tragedy is also comprised of those on a smaller scale, and one of the most heartbreaking is the loss of nearly all the works of silent film star Theda Bara. Of course, her most famous film role was that of “the vamp” an abbreviation of the word vampire, but not the supernatural kind. No, she would latch on to a man and bleed him dry of cash and emotion, and then move on to her next victim. Fortunately we have the film that started it all, A Fool There Was, and though the story is pedestrian, the surviving print restored by Kino is very good and it’s easy to see why she was a star. She commands the screen--as well as her men--every time she appears, making the rest of the cast look like amateurs next to her.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around one of Bara’s victims, Edward José. He’s a rich diplomat with a wife and a child who is set to leave on a trip to England with them. But when his wife’s sister accidentally is thrown out of a car, the wife stays home to be with her sister while she’s in bed recuperating. Bara, meanwhile, has set her sights on José. She dumps her current victim, Victor Benoit, and heads to the docks to make the trip with José, but Benoit follows her and, distraught, kills himself right in front of her. The film then jumps two months later. The sister is up and out of bed at home, while Bara has José completely in her clutches as they vacation in Italy. Unfortunately, friends of José see him and soon the news gets back to his wife and threatens to tear the family apart.

The story was inspired by the poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled, “The Vampire.” And like Cecil B. DeMille’s would do over a decade later in King of Kings, many of the title cards are lines from the poem that the players act out on the screen. It’s a standard quality film for the time and there is some decent production design, but two things really hamper the overall enjoyment of the film. The first is Frank Powell’s static camera. There is absolutely no movement at all. And while there are a few interesting set ups on the exteriors, most of the camerawork is simply stationary long shots of the interiors which gives the proceedings a proscenium staginess that the film never recovers from. The second problem is in the editing. The cuts between the two stories, José and Bara’s initially but then the new couple and his family back home for the rest of the film, are poorly done, giving the viewer too little to hang onto in each story before cutting back to the next, and it has the unintended effect of destroying much of the narrative flow.

That said, it’s easy to see why Theda Bara caused such a stir in her day. She is magnetic on the screen and utterly ruthless in leading men to their doom and casting them aside. Just like pre-code sound films dealing with the same subject, Babyface comes to mind, there is an undercurrent of sexual control that she exerts over these men, the implication being that she is free with her body in a way that the man’s wife never has been or hasn’t been since the birth of her children. In the early sound era that concept would be more overt, but here it’s merely suggested in the way that Bara causes José to forget about his wife and child with just a kiss. She’s not a pleasant person to her victims, but I suppose that was one of the moral imperatives in making a film like this. Still, despite it’s technical flaws, A Fool There Was is almost all we have of Theda Bara and while not a good film in its own right, it is something that we cherish all the more because of the loss of the rest of her work.

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