A Fool There Was (1915)

Director: Frank Powell

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon
DONATE TODAY!

Fool%204.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are a lot of legendary eyes in the history of film: the impossibly beautiful lines of Greta Garbo’s, the bedroom eyes that won Rudolph Valentino millions of adoring fans, the fathomless blue of Paul Newman’s, and Elizabeth Taylor’s musgravite eyes.

CIFF%20logo.jpegChicago has only one set of famous movie eyes: the kohl-rimmed orbs of Theda Bara, the cinematic world’s first break-out femme fatale. Her eyes have been the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival since its inception, looking back at the audiences that view the latest Ken Nordine CIFF trailer before each screening. The logo, in fact, is ubiquitous, appearing on programs, posters, street banners, and souvenir tee shirts. Would that we had as many frames of the rest of Theda Bara as we do of her eyes. Bara made 44 films, but only six have survived in full or in part, one of the lowest survival rates of any major star. Were it not for the fortunate survival of the film that launched her persona of The Vampire, A Fool There Was—with a crisp DVD transfer from the Killiam Collection print by Kino—we might never have truly understood what she meant to an entire generation of women, or why.

3923744076_09f60c2bff.jpgThe turn of the 20th century was the vampire’s first crucible moment. Bram Stoker had just published his Dracula, the template for vampire films largely centered on a male vampire for most of the 20th century. Yet, it was a painting Philip Burne-Jones exhibited in 1897 that actually created a rage for female vampires. The painting, The Vampire, shows a rapacious woman in a flowing nightgown leaning over a handsome man sleeping in bed. The raw sexuality of the painting stirred the primal current running beneath Victorian propriety. A play about a vampirish woman called A Fool There Was hit the stage in 1909 and was adapted for the screen. Unknown actress Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati—soon to be redubbed Theda Bara—was chosen to play The Vampire.

Burne-Jones’ painting inspired Rudyard Kipling to write a poem, “The Vampire,” that is recited episodically in title cards throughout the film:

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand.

A fool there was and his goods he spent
(Even as you and I!)
Honor and faith and a sure intent
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
(Even as you and I!)

Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned,
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know she never knew why)
And did not understand.

The fool we stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
(Even as you and I!)

And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand.

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And never could understand.

Fool%207.jpg

The film illustrates this poem by presenting us with the downfall of one John Schuyler (Edward José), a prominent diplomat shown at the beginning of the film literally enjoying the dawn of a new day with his good wife Kate (Mabel Frenyear) and young daughter (Runa Hodges). Their paths cross briefly with The Vampire (Bara) and her current amour, Reginal Parmalee (Victor Benoit), whom she has just about used up. A fleeting glance passes between John and The Vampire. When we see the sun set on the day, a title card tells us it is also the end of happiness. Reading in the paper that John is about to set sail for Europe on the “Gigantic,” The Vampire decides to sink her fangs into him, a task made all the easier because Kate will be tending to her injured sister (May Allison) instead of sailing with him.

Fool%205.jpg

The historical details in this film are fascinating. For example, in one scene, Kate is seen being driven through the streets to John, automobiles intermingling with horse-drawn vehicles. In another, The Vampire begins her seduction by arranging to have John’s deck chair positioned next to hers. Yes, the deck chairs actually had name tags on them, something I did not know before seeing this film. When she flirts with him on deck, she drops a flower that he is obliged to retrieve for her. As he bends down, she raises her skirt just enough for him to see her ankle!

Fool%208.jpg

Despite this outward timidity, the film reeks of sex. John, having abandoned his work and family to live with The Vampire in Italy, considers returning. Powell juxtaposes scenes of John’s daughter being tucked into bed after saying her prayers with The Vampire, her long hair reminiscent of the ubiquitous long hair of ghost women in Japanese horror films, sliding down John’s body to lay prone at his feet, her whole body beckoning him to pounce. The longer their affair continues—he returns with her to New York and moves her into his townhouse with him—the more dissipated he becomes. He drinks heavily, his eyes become as kohl-black as hers, and his form becomes stooped and feeble; he really seems to be losing his life essence to her as though she were draining his blood like a proper vampire. Men are powerless to resist her, even when they receive warnings, as Parmalee did from a beggar whom The Vampire had ruined financially, or when offered the comforting arms of wife and child.

Fool%202.jpg

The wanton cruelty of The Vampire, shown in the very first image of her picking up two roses and laughingly crushing one blossom in her hand, must have thrilled the Victorian-trained women who first saw it. To be so bad, so sexual, so assertive and domineering over men must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to these disenfranchised, proper ladies. We are meant to sympathize, of course, with the destroyed family and heed the message that Kate readily consented to when contemplating divorce, “Stick, Kate, stick.” But for a whole generation of women confined to domesticity, The Vampire’s parties, lavish wardrobe, and power over men proved irresistible as well. Bara became a star overnight, fetishized by women who wanted to wear what she wore, say what she said, and do what she did. Her run of fame lasted 10 years, until a more modern version of the emancipated woman—the flapper—supplanted the vamp.

Fool%203.jpg

Although the vamp seems hopelessly outdated, young women seem to have retreated from the sexual hunger Bara so effectively portrayed. Although clothing styles seem to be hooker-lite these days, the most popular vampire myth for girls today is Twilight, with its utterly chaste and good heroine and her chivalrous vampire lover. Women are consumed, not consuming, on the big screen. Yet, the vamp endures. Turn on a daytime soap opera and feast your eyes on the scheming females through which today’s domestic women fantasize a more exciting, free life.

  • Joe Thompson spoke:
    19th/02/2010 to 9:18 pm

    Marilyn: Thanks for the well-thought-out piece on the way our perceptions of vampires have changed. I did not know her eyes were the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival. It hurts that almost everything else of hers burned up in the great Fox conflagration. Send me an email if you’d like a couple of her newspaper ads I’ve come across.

  • Ryan Kelly spoke:
    19th/02/2010 to 9:28 pm

    Beautiful piece! I particularly love the way you discuss the link between Vampirism and sexuality – a link that has been lost after the silent era, by and large (Coppola’s Dracula is one of the few exceptions I can think of). The genre is largely confined to the vampire as a literal bloodsucking monster and, truthfully, the concept of a vampire is just too silly for me to be legitimately scared by them. Drop the allegory and I honestly don’t think it’s a rich enough concept to substain itself.
    There is a street in my town named after Theda Bara (which may give you a hint as to what my subject for the blogathon is), though I have never seen her in a movie. Anything else of hers you would recommend Marilyn?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/02/2010 to 10:18 pm

    Thanks, Joe. I will.
    Ryan – There’s not much left. I’m not sure what’s still available, but Silent Era might have them listed.
    As for the link between vampirism and sexuality, I don’t think that has been lost at all. Yes, you can get some action vehicles like Underworld that takes the vampire outside of human interaction, but TV shows like True Blood are filled with sex. The movies may have abandoned that angle to some degree, but Hammer horror is all about vampires and sex. As for humans who act like vampires, I think we’ve seen a lot of soul-sucking humans, though they’re more likely to be drug addicts, loonies, and alcoholics these days, like Bug.

  • Tinky Weisblat spoke:
    20th/02/2010 to 10:00 am

    Thanks for revisiting this film, which I saw only once many years ago. I feel for Bara, deposed by the flapper in such a short time, and wish like you that we could see more of her.
    In the meantime, I enjoyed your discussion of consumption and being consumed. “Kiss me, my fool!” is my motto….

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/02/2010 to 10:06 am

    Bara took her career decline in stride, and had an active life in LA society. I always thought the quote was “Kiss me, you fool,” so that was another revelation for me. The film is rather static due to the shooting style, but boy does Bara pop off the screen. She really was swoonworthy.

  • Tinky Weisblat spoke:
    20th/02/2010 to 7:59 pm

    I think “Kiss me, you fool,” is like “Play It Again Sam” or any of those other incorrectly remembered lines. They go way back. I’m currently working on a cherry-pudding post for GW’s birthday. I always thought the story had him saying, “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” But NO! It’s “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie.”…….
    I love the word swoonworthy, by the way; I’ll have to use it soon. Thanks, Marilyn.

  • Marissa spoke:
    20th/02/2010 to 10:12 pm

    Wow. Thanks for this interesting post. It’s nice to see where this sudden vampire craze originally started. But I do not agree about the link being lost between vampires and sexuality. It’s found in books like the Anita Blake Series and I dare not say, Twilight. Vampires are almost always depicted as beings with flawless features and undeniable beauty that gives off the feeling of pure sex. It’s their main weapon to allure their prey.

  • DeeDee spoke:
    21st/02/2010 to 9:09 am

    Marilyn said,”There’s not much left. I’m not sure what’s still available, but Silent Era might have them listed.”
    Marilyn,
    Here goes the link and list of presumed lost films from over there at Silent Era.
    Silent era
    DeeDee ;-D

  • DeeDee spoke:
    21st/02/2010 to 9:57 am

    Hi! Marilyn,
    I have to second the other readers, notion that you have written a very interesting review of a film and actress that I’am not familiar with yet…(With “yet” being the operative word.)
    For instance,I wasn’t aware of the following facts…

    • Bara made 44 films, but only six have survived in full or in part, one of the lowest survival rates of any major star. Were it not for the fortunate survival of the film that launched her persona of The Vampire, A Fool There Was…
    • Unknown actress Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati—soon to be redubbed Theda Bara—was chosen to play The Vampire.
    • What a nice poem by Rudyard Kipling, but a fact, that I wasn’t aware of until now…
    • The Vampire, her long hair reminiscent of the ubiquitous long hair of ghost women in Japanese horror films, sliding down John’s body to lay prone at his feet, her whole body beckoning him to We are meant to sympathize, of course, with the destroyed family and heed the message that Kate readily consented to when contemplating divorce, “Stick, Kate, stick.”

    I must agree with you, I have viewed several posters and trailers were Asian women hair is flowing in a similar manner.

    • But for a whole generation of women confined to domesticity, The Vampire’s parties, lavish wardrobe, and power over men proved irresistible as well.
    • Bara became a star overnight, fetishized by women who wanted to wear what she wore, say what she said, and do what she did. Her run of fame lasted 10 years, until a more modern version of the emancipated woman—the flapper—supplanted the vamp.

    All I can really say is..fascinating.
    Thanks, for sharing!
    DeeDee ;-D

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/02/2010 to 10:58 am

    You’re welcome, DeeDee.

  • Donna spoke:
    22nd/02/2010 to 1:18 pm

    Marilyn, what an excellent piece on Theda and A Fool There Was and the effect this had to the women (and men) of the day. You’re totally correct, the survival rate of Theda’s films are pathetically small.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/02/2010 to 2:21 pm

    Thank you, Donna. It was a treat to finally see this film.

Leave your comment






(*)mandatory fields.

What others say about us

"You put a lot of love into your blog." – Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Journal
"Marilyn and Roderick … always raising the tone." – Farran Smith Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren
"Honestly, you both have made me aware of films I've never seen, from every era. Mega enriching." – Donna Hill, Strictly Vintage Hollywood
"You have my highest praise!" – Andreas, Pussy Goes Grrr




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Blogs

Chicago Resources

General Film Resources

Categories

Archives