Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Fool There Was (Frank Powell, 1915)

A melodrama featuring a Fool, wealthy diplomat John Schuyler (Edward José) who falls under the spell of a “woman of the vampire species” (Theda Bara), abandons his wife and yellow-ringleted daughter, sojourns dissolutely in Italy, stumbles back to New York, and dies a mere husk of a man. It is never clear just how the Vampire attracts and holds men—it must be sex and drink and perhaps some other unspecified unauthorized pleasures, because her victims seem both drunk and hypnotized and, in the end, suffering from something like alcoholic dementia.

Theda Bara is not especially glamorous here, at least not by our standards 90 years later, but the signals are right: she assumes the generally accepted body language of a harlot: hipshot, head thrust forward, and she moves aggressively on some occasions and sinuously at others. In the opening scene she stands draped in silk in a dark room, shredding a bouquet of roses and laughing. Moreover, throughout the film her costume is always powerfully different from the dress worn by other women. In an early scene she appears at a summer resort, where all the other women wear seasonally appropriate white or light-coloured clothing, loose-fitting, with soft lines. She wears a black and white vertically striped satin sheath skirt and a fitted black jacket, and a dark hat with a big feather, and her eyes are heavily shadowed. Schuyler’s wife “cuts” her, standing right next to her but not acknowledging her existence, and the Vampire swears revenge. Obviously her costume represents darkness contrasting with innocence, but the contrast hasn’t aged well, so she appears overdressed rather than exotic.

The concept of the movie comes from a Kipling poem, “The Vampire,” which appears in fragments in the intertitles. She is first and foremost the woman “who does not care,” and who attracts fools, uses them up, and discards them, laughing. Things do not end any better for Mr. Schuyler then they did for her previous victims.

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