From the archives: Kiss me, you fool – the original vamp(ire) to slay ‘em in Niles (2011)

July 16, 2012

She was the first of her kind.

In 1915, an American actress named Theda Bara played the screen’s first vamp. In the almost 100 years which have followed, a succession of similar, often sultry and sometimes deadly vamps, femme fatales, junior vamps (a name given to the more light-hearted flapper), gold diggers, vixens, bad girls and other man-ruining women have appeared on the screen. Before Lulu, and Lola, and Gilda – and before Pola Negri, Lana Turner, Kathleen Turner, and Sharon Stone, there was Theda Bara.

On Saturday, October 22, 2011 the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont will screen A Fool There Was (1915), the taboo-breaking film that introduced the vamp to movie audiences. It is also the film that made Theda Bara a media sensation and international star.

Theda Bara as "the Vamp"

Theda Bara as “the Vamp”

The story line is simple: a happily married Wall Street lawyer is appointed special representative to England. On the boat over is “the Vampire,” a notorious woman who lives off a succession of men she has seduced and ruined. Slighted by the lawyer’s wife, the vamp set her sights on the husband. A few months later, we find the seduced lawyer (known as “the Fool”) languishing with the mistress who has ensnared him in her clutches. All that remains to be seen is into which further depths of degradation will the once respectable husband fall?

Once considered shocking, A Fool There Was may today seem dated and over-the-top, even a bit campy. But in 1915 America, which was still in the clutches of Victorianism, it was a provocation.

A Fool There Was got its start as a now lost painting called “The Vampire” by Philip Burne-Jones, the son of the well known British Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. The painting, a portrait of a woman straddling an unconscious man, was believed to have been a depiction of a woman with whom the younger Burne-Jones had been romantically linked. The painting inspired Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem of the same name. It, in turn, was the basis for a popular 1909 Broadway play by Porter Emerson Browne, A Fool There Was, whose title derives from a line in Kipling’s verse. With the success of the 1915 motion picture came countless other characters in novels, films, and works of art, as well as songs, sheet music and even dances.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra

The 1915 film also helped introduce the term “vamp.” The term refers not to a supernatural creature as one might think – though it does play upon the concept, but rather to the sexual and seductive power of certain women – often exotic and often with dark features – who drain the life force of weak-willed men. As dated as that sounds, it passed for deep understanding at the turn of the 20th century.

Born Theodosia Goodman in suburban Cincinnati, Bara was a minor stage actress renamed and reinvented for publicity purposes. Nearly 30, Theodosia Goodman became Theda Bara, French-Egyptian seductress. Her creation was the first time a performer’s biography had been established by the publicity department of a movie studio, while her studio contract was a list of what she could and could not do in keeping with her newly exotic persona.

For a few years, Bara was one of the most famous women in the world, an icon of dangerous sensuality. Bara might also be considered one of the first anti-stars. She was certainly the first actress who specialized in playing “bad girls.” Bara played Carmen and Salome and Cleopatra. Between 1915 and 1919, she appeared in 40 films – though only a very few survive. Today, Bara is known to us almost exclusively through still images.

Many of Bara’s publicity photos were meant to establish the actress as a sex symbol – though not in those terms. In many of them, it is easy to see what the fuss was all about. In publicity stills forCarmen (1915) and Salome (1918), for example, Bara is sultry and provocative. But in other images, she often appears like a fairly ordinary-looking woman wearing merely outlandish clothes.

Theda Bara Week

If Bara’s sex appeal seems today somewhat unlikely, she was without peers during her four years of stardom. Songs were written about her, and the press followed her every move. Once, at a public appearance to sell bonds during World War I, a near-riot ensued. Few other film stars had generated that kind of mania. Bara clearly projected something other performers did not, or would not.

Bara was popular in Bay Area, where her films often played to packed theaters. Once, when too many turned out for a regular showing of a 1917 movie, a midnight screening was added to accommodate the overflow crowds. Bara’s films were even revived at a time when most films only showed once. In 1916, the local Rialto theater in San Francisco mounted a Theda Bara week by showing a different film each day.

In fact, the story behind A Fool There Was was so well known that in 1916 the San Francisco Chronicle reported the suicide of a local jitney driver (taxi driver) named Rodney. The article headline read, “‘A Fool There Was,’ He Writes, Then Turns on Gas and Ends His Life’.” Rodney’s suicide note to a woman named Hattie, included in the article, referenced the film and pointedly and poignantly added “enough said.”

Historically significant, A Fool There Was remains an interesting and even entertaining period piece. If you haven’t seen it, check it out this Saturday in historic Niles. You’d be a fool not to.

Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara

If you’re looking to find out more about Theda Bara, track down copies of one of either two  worthwhile biographies, Eve Golden’s recommended Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara(Vestal Press, 1998), or Ronald Genini’s Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmography (McFarland, 1996). And if you are really determined, Hugh Munro Neely’s superb, stylish, though unfortunately obscure documentaryTheda Bara: The Woman With the Hungry Eyes (Timeline Films, 2006) will more than reward the lucky viewer.

Also well worth tracking down are two superb works of cultural history by Bram Dijkstra which place the vamp in an historical context, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (Oxford University Press, 1988) and Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood (Knopf, 1996).

A Fool There Was (Fox, 1915) screens on Saturday, October 22, 2011 at 7:30 pm at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont. The feature will be proceed by the short films The Locket(Vitagraph, 1913) with John Bunny and Flora Finch, and A Truthful Liar (Roach, 1924) with Will Rogers. Judy Rosenberg will accompany at the piano. Admission is $5.00.

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