To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.
Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.
Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.
The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.
Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.
Now all you have to do is run the movie!
Image: Wikimedia Commons