Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not All Vampires Suck Your Blood

I have a drop-dead lawyer-business deadline tomorrow so of course I've been watching movies. I've got two unrelated projects going at the moment: the essay for best supporting actor of 1930-31 (which you know about) and an ongoing project to flesh out my knowledge of Silent Era movies, some of the results of which I hope to share with you around the time I finish writing about the best movies of 1933—which at my current pace might be around the time my six year old niece graduates from college.

In the meantime, in honor of Halloween this weekend, I thought I'd mention an unusual vampire movie I saw yesterday, A Fool There Was, directed by Frank Powell in 1915.

It stars Theda Bara as "The Vampire." You remember Theda Bara, don't you? She was Hollywood's hottest sex symbol for a brief time in the late 1910's, most famously appearing in 1917's Cleopatra wearing, well, not much.

A Fool There Was, based on a Rudyard Kipling poem of all things, begins well enough. Bara, decked out in 1915's version of the nine's, sets her eyes on a wealthy American diplomat, played by Edward José (no, I'd never heard of him either. Primarily a director, he did occasionally step out from behind the camera, starring in, for example, The Perils Of Pauline), rearranging her schedule to travel on the same trans-Atlantic steam ship with him, seducing him in route.

And then the movie turned into the poor man's Pandora's Box, with the young and wild Theda Bara taking full advantage of the diplomat, spending his money, ruining his career, separating him from his family and his self-respect. And it slowly dawned on me that Bara wasn't so much a "vampire" as a "vamp," in Merriam-Webster's description, "a woman who uses her charm or wiles to seduce and exploit men."

The word "vamp" in this sense (it's also part of a shoe) is a shortened form of the word "vampire," and as a metaphor for a woman who sucks a man dry, it largely comes from this movie and Theda Bara.

You probably would have figured that out long before I did. But there you have it.

Theda Bara, by the way, was thirty when she hit it big in Hollywood, and she lived a long time, but her career didn't. The public ate up Bara and then by 1919, spit her back out again, hungry for the next big thing, tired of Bara's broadly-played "vamp" roles.

It didn't help that the public routinely confused the parts Bara played with Bara herself and women in particular took such an intense dislike to her that they were known to call the police if she spoke to their children. In fact, she wasn't much of a vamp in real life if her marriage to Charles Brabin is any indication. They were married in 1921 and stayed married until Bara's death in 1955 did them part.

"I have the face of a vampire," she later said, "but the heart of a feminist."

As for her professional abilities, it's a hard question to assess now. Nearly all of her films were destroyed in a studio fire in 1937, including her greatest triumph, Cleopatra, of which only a forty second fragment remains. I tracked down A Fool There Was simply to see something of Bara's legend for myself, but made as it was before D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking The Birth Of A Nation, which practically invented what we think of as a motion picture, A Fool There Was plays like a well-meaning amateur's home movie and with its static direction and simplistic characterizations, there really was no acting on Bara's part to be done.

You may want to check it out as I did, to satisfy your curiosity.

A Fool There Was is available on DVD.


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

You probably would have figured that out long before I did.

Bless you, but … no.

It’s eerie how a simple twist of fate – a studio fire in 1937 – can nearly erase an entire career. Of course time alone can do the same thing – once we get past my great-grandparents, it’s like none of my ancestors or any of their stories ever existed.

That’s just but one of the cool things about your blog -- and imminent book contract dammit – your eye for rescuing interesting, sometimes tragic, but always vibrant people from the dustbin & telling their story for them or at least giving them the tip of the old hat.

Your lawyer business drop-dead deadline will be met as the reinforcing gods of deadline adrenaline and sheer terror come to your rescue and power you up, have no fear!

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks for the words of encouragement, Who. It was more a case of taking a hammer to it and knocking it senseless than a frenzied adrenaline rush, but the end result is the same.

Now that that's out of the way, I can get back to the serious business of blogging. Tomorrow, best supporting actor of 1930-31. The nominees: Clark Gable (A Free Soul), Peter Lorre (M) and Adolphe Menjou (The Front Page). Unlike every other category this year, this one seems to me like a no-brainer. But we'll see if anyone agrees with me ...