A Fool There Was. This creaky old relic introduced the earliest screen image of a Vamp – that dangerous viper-of-a-femme fatale who could lead any respectable man astray just by dropping her handkerchief and revealing a glimpse of her ankle.
In the first few scenes, Theda Bara has already lured at least three different men into her web of destruction and has her eyes set on another victim. Thus, she arranges to meet a rich married man onboard a luxury liner to Europe. He has a wife back home and a precocious child who likes to use the servants as her play toys. (Perhaps that symbolizes how Theda treats her victims by using them, then discarding them when she is through.)
But what mystifies me the most is that this plain, dowdy, chubby creature could have any kind of power over anybody. I mean, she’s no Greta Garbo. One scene I particularly like has Bara supposedly seducing one of her lovers: the slip she is wearing is so big, the straps keep falling off her shoulders. She looks really annoyed at having to keep pulling them back up. Ah, and those lips, those eyes…
I’ve seen older movies than A Fool There Was, but this one somehow seems more dated. The pre-World War I costumes and setting never seem to suggest anything the least bit sexual, even though that is what the whole story is about. The film feels totally out of its element, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun to watch. The hammy performances, for instance, are captivating in their attempt to show how one woman can wreck the lives of so many men. One guy even shoots himself in the head while Bara laughs.
Too bad there are only two or three surviving Theda Bara vehicles. She was a big, big star in the early days of cinema, and it would be fascinating to see how the others compared to this one.
But for pure Victorian debauchery – when skirts were long and one come-hither look could turn a married man into an alcoholic wreck, demolish his whole family, and drive him to self-destruction – A Fool There Was probably is the best.
Don’t miss the last scene when La Bara crumbles dead flowers all over the body of her victim, and goes on to ruin the next man.
© Danny Fortune
A Fool There Was (1915). Dir.: Frank Powell. Scr.: Roy L. McCardell, adaptation by Frank Powell; from Porter Emerson Browne’s 1909 play and inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem “The Vampire.” Cast: Theda Bara, Edward José, May Allison, Mabel Fremyear, Frank Powell, Victor Benoit, Clifford Bruce.