Saturday, March 11, 2017

Vamp or Not? A Fool There Was

I have internally debated whether to look at this as a ‘Vamp or Not?’ on and off through the years, indeed I have vacillated with regards the answer also.

Whilst this Frank Powell directed 1915 film popularised the term vamp to mean a femme fatale and, indeed, leading actress Theda Bara is classed as cinema’s first vamp*, it is not normally classed as a vampire film. To explore the question, I believe we must look back before we look at the film itself. (*As an aside Musidora, who played the femme fatale Irma Vep in the serial Les Vampires later in 1915 is often classed as the first vamp of European cinema.)

Philip Burne-Jones' the Vampire
The film itself was based on the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name published in 1897 (the same year that Dracula was published) and, in its turn, the poem was based on a painting by Philip Burne-Jones, titled The Vampire, itself unveiled in 1897. However the idea of an energy vampire that might be called a prototype for the female vamp featured in an 1868 volume by G. J. Whyte Melville entitled Bones and I; or, the Skeleton at Home. I actually got the urge to look at the film whilst I was reading another novel, C W Webber’s 1853 volume Spiritual Vampirism: The History of Etherial Softdown.

destroying the roses
All of which serves as a pre-amble to the film itself. The filmmakers were intensely proud of the film’s connection to Kipling’s poem and apparently had it read in its entirety before showings. Intertitles offer quotes from the poem during the film’s length. It should be noted that by the standard of some silent films this is rather short coming in at just 67 minutes (compare that to the 1921 Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, which is some 4 and a half hours (Murnau Foundation restoration)). As the film starts we see a man, John Schuyler (Edward José), with roses and then the vampire (Theda Bara) take the roses from a vase and rips the petals off.

The vampire and her victim
The film proper starts with a sunrise over the sea and then introduces the players. None are named, so Schuyler is credited as the husband and his spouse (Mabel Frenyear), called Kate in film, is credited as the wife. Theda Bara’s character is referred to as the vampire and is not named in the film. She is with one of her victims, Reginal Parmalee (Victor Benoit) and he seems to be drunk. The vampire sees Kate and her sister (May Allison) playing with Kate’s daughter, Baby (Runa Hodges). She tries to speak to them but is ignored by Kate and so says, as they walk away, that she’ll pay for that. John is piloting a boat and comes ashore to his family and friends and as the sun sets an intertitle suggests that it is the “sunset of happiness”. Already the film has suggested that the vampire is evil and we have stepped into the realm of the night.

Edward José as John Schuyler
But perhaps I am being unfair calling the vampire evil? After all this is very much a morality play built on Edwardian values and a strong woman would be a threat to the patriarchy. This is all true but she is depicted as thoroughly evil, as we will see. John is a lawyer and is appointed, by the Secretary of State, as a special envoy to Britain. His family are set to travel with him to the UK until his sister-in-law swoons and falls out of a slow-moving vehicle and Kate decides she must nurse her sister. Meanwhile the vampire has read about the appointment in the newspaper and decides to travel overseas in order that she might ensnare him. She is a gold-digger (John is later described as a millionaire) but we mustn’t forget that she has sworn vengeance on Kate for the slight she has perceived.

the previous victim
Reginal realises she is leaving and confronts her, saying that she has ruined him and is discarding him, but she lies and suggests her travel plans are only a ruse to test his love. Satisfied, he leaves the room but she has his wallet and continues to pack. In a moment of superstition, if not a decidedly supernatural moment, Kate notices that the skies have darkened and a storm gathered and wonders if it is an omen. The film then cuts to the dock and the ship the Gigantic and we see more of the vampire’s character. There is a destitute man opening car doors for a tip, which Kate gives him. When the vampire arrives, he reveals himself to be a previous victim and it is she who has left him destitute. She has the cops remove him. When Reginal subsequently arrives, the man reveals himself to be Reginal’s immediate predecessor and the victim before both of them, Van Dam, rots in a jail.

We see the Vampire on deck and her mere presence causes one man, with (we assume) his wife, to have his head turned – such seems to be her pervasive aura. Reginal confronts her with a gun, turns it on himself and commits suicide in front of her. A steward, witness to the event, tells John that she (who has left the scene) was “standing there and laughing like a devil”. The body is taken away, Kate and Baby disembark having said their farewells, and the ship sets sail. It might seem odd that an on-deck suicide does not see the ship held whilst the police investigate, with our modern eyes, but we must remember that this is a morality play. Whilst the ship is pulling away from dockside the vampire manufactures an excuse to meet John, flash some ankle and have his reserved deckchair placed next to her.

in thrall
The film cuts forward two months and John is clearly in her thrall. She lies on a chaise longue and he lies on the floor before her. Strangely there are palms but it is revealed that they are in Italy (presumably holidaying) not England. She is angered when he receives a letter from Kate and he grabs her throat, a gesture that amuses her and his demeanour immediately changes to one of longing. I read this as her being able to direct and transform her victims’ anger into passion. Unfortunately for him, the family doctor (Frank Powell) and his new wife (Minna Gale) are honeymooning and see them (she is so scandalised by his actions that she won’t stay in the hotel). There is some degree of attacking the patriarchal/misogynist status quo within the film, not only in the scandalised bride's reaction but later Kate says “You men shield each other’s shameful sins. But were it a woman at fault, how quick you’d be to expose and condemn her.” These moments are drowned by the idea that Kate will not divorce him (she speaks to a lawyer but is reminded of her vow “till death do us part”) and tries to redeem him by staying dutiful even when he installs the vampire as the new mistress of their town house.

in his cups
So we see his descent, his standing lost by the scandal. He even makes the gossip columns back home and the language in the newspaper article should interest us. It suggests that John (not referred to by name) “has fatuously fallen under the spell of a certain notorious woman of the vampire species”. Not only is it suggested to be a spell but they actually make the suggestion that the vampire a different species. John is fired from his position as special envoy because of the scandal and we see him become a drunkard. However, whilst the vampire has been said to cast a spell I have not mentioned anything that would specifically draw vampirism to mind… yet.

a brazen kiss
John becomes a drunkard but he also ages. Now, alcohol can have an ageing effect but this is marked and over a relatively short number of months, In fact I read his alcoholism as symptomatic rather than the source of his symptoms. He walks in a more stooped way, his hair becomes white and his eyes become sunken amongst dark circles. It is as though all the vitality has been sapped from him. Eventually the vampire is thought to have left him and Kate goes to him, but on hearing this the vampire returns and kisses John in front of Kate who leaves as the vampire offers an evil smile (remember she is getting revenge on Kate). This scene suggests that John has no will of his own and the vampire’s presence draws him. Desperate Kate actually takes Baby to the town house but even that cannot separate John from the vampire.

 the most of him died
John has some self-loathing it would appear and smashes a mirror, which might be a deliberate play with the idea of vampires and mirrors introduced by Stoker 18 years before, whilst twisting it so it is the victim who doesn’t want to see their own reflection. He then seems to fall and die though, like the victim of a traditional vampire, the poem (in intertitle) tells us “some of him lived, but the most of him died”. This is a curious quote and does sound like the victim who dies but then rises undead. The vampire scatters rose petals on his corpse as the film ends.

Theda Bara is the vampire
There are elements within this – the almost supernatural ability of the vampire to ensnare a man, the power of fascination she seems to wield and the description of a spell (and references to omens) – which draw me to the idea that as well as a femme fatale type of vamp she really is a vampire. However it is the marked impact on his health and vitality that utterly draws me to my conclusion that she is an energy vampire, though I am not sure as to whether that is what the filmmakers were aiming for. Of course, in terms of a morality play, this is purely metaphorical but isn’t the vampire, as we have come to know him and her within a media sense, often a metaphor; it is the strength of the archetype. My verdict on A Fool There Was is that this is Vamp.

The film is available black and white and tinted on YouTube, with and without sound, and is also available at The Archive. The imdb page is here.

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