#342) A Fool There Was (1915)

MPW-106952

#342) A Fool There Was (1915)

OR “Interlude with the Vampire”

Directed by Frank Powell

Written by Powell and Roy L. McCardell. Based on the play by Porter Emerson Browne and the poem “The Vampire” by Rudyard Kipling.

Class of 2015

The Plot: John Schuyler (Edward José) has everything you could want from life: a loving wife (Mabel Frenyear), an adorable daughter (Runa Hodges), and a successful career as a lawyer and diplomat. While on a ship bound for England, he meets a seductive young woman (Theda Bara) known only in the film as “The Vampire”. Known for seducing men, making them sacrifice everything to be with her, and then abandoning them, The Vampire zeroes in on John, and within two months they are living a sinful life in Italy. Upon his return home, John tries to ingratiate The Vampire into his home life, with the expected disastrous results. Can John salvage his marriage? Or will The Vampire claim another victim?

Why It Matters: Despite a lengthy write-up from the NFR, “A Fool There Was” receives no superlatives, just a quick rundown of Theda Bara’s screen persona and career, as well as information on her surviving filmography.

But Does It, Really?: Having endured my share of silent movies that are on this list for their historical merit rather than entertainment value, I am happy to say that “A Fool There Was” still holds up over 100 years later. Theda Bara has that “it” quality you need for the role of The Vampire, and overall the film is expertly directed. Ms. Bara is not well known today (that’s not entirely her fault, see “Legacy”) but the NFR should have at least one of her films on the list, and “A Fool There Was” is the natural (and pretty much only) choice.

Everybody Gets One: Despite the countless puff pieces of the day that claimed Theda Bara was the daughter of an Arab sheik or an Italian sculptor, Theodosia Burr Goodman was born in Cincinnati to a Polish tailor and a Swiss housewife. Theda attended the University of Cincinnati, acted in local productions, and moved to New York to pursue acting (the major studios hadn’t moved to Hollywood yet). Fun Fact: Theda’s birth name is a tribute to Aaron Burr’s daughter (like the song!).

Wow, That’s Dated: Ships as a major mode of transportation, and receiving important news via telegram or newspaper.

Other notes

  • Many have cited “A Fool There Was” as one of the early vampire movies, and they are wrong. While the film is based on the poem “The Vampire”, Kipling is using the term in a metaphorical sense.
  • We’re only five minutes in and this movie is throwing a lot of characters at me. It doesn’t help that almost no one has a name and are referenced in the intertitles instead by profession or relation (The Friend, The Doctor, The Skipper, The Millionaire and His Wife, The Scientist, The Magician…).
  • I was today years old when I realized that vamp is short for vampire.
  • “A Fool There Was” is a prime example of “We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces.” There are not a lot of intertitles in this film, and Bara and José successfully carry the bulk of the movie with their emoting.
  • Interestingly, the frames in which The Vampire actually kisses One Of Her Victims are missing. I suspect either the footage was excised for being too scandalous, or that piece of film was removed from the original negative by a fan/perv.
  • I don’t care if we were born 102 years apart; Theda Bara is cute. This is why time travelling should be avoided. Otherwise I’d be donning my seersucker and pitching the woo to Theda or the Gish sisters.
  • John is setting sail for England on an ocean liner called the “Gigantic”. Get it?
  • A movie about an extra-marital affair in 1915? This must have been downright revolutionary. Obviously this film is staunchly anti-affair, but this is some risqué subject matter regardless. “Faces” would cover much of the same territory 53 years later.
  • The director is clearly just letting The Child do whatever she wants, and if it works, print it! One wonders how many takes they had to do.
  • The Doctor’s Wife correctly points out the double standard of a husband cheating on his wife vs. a wife cheating on her husband. Right on, woman!
  • I was expecting a large readout from the Michael Douglas scale, but it turns out Edward José is only five years older than Theda Bara. That being said, Jesus is that a rough 35.
  • And she smokes too? There aren’t enough scarlet letters for this woman!
  • I assume that even though The Wife decides not to go through with the divorce, her Sister’s Lawyer still billed her for the full hour.
  • This movie had me until the very end. I have no problem with its put-upon morals, but I do take issue with Edward José’s overacting.

Legacy

  • “A Fool There Was” was a major hit for Fox, and Theda Bara became an overnight star. She eventually grew tired of the vamp persona, but Fox would not cast her in any other role. When her contract with Fox expired in 1919, she did not renew. Bara’s film career and stardom never again reached her apex at Fox, so she retired from film, marrying director Charles Brabin in the process.
  • Sadly, most of Theda Bara’s filmography was destroyed in the 1937 Fox fire. All that survives is this film, two others from the era, and one from her attempted comeback in the mid-1920s. Of her other films, only a few seconds survive from a handful of titles. Among them: her 1917 turn as “Cleopatra”.
  • Although Theda Bara is largely forgotten today, she is still occasionally referenced as a shorthand for early Hollywood sex symbols and vamps. I first heard her name as a throwaway line in “The Happiest Millionaire”.
  • Allegedly this is the movie that gave us “Kiss me, you fool!”, even though The Vampire actually says “Kiss me, my fool!” This may be filmdom’s first oft-misquoted line.

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