Kiss me, my fool.

ThedaBarawikimedia

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

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Knize Ten

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The end of the Great War saw a frenzied creative activity in the creation of scent: without Caron’s Tabac Blond there would have been no Knize Ten; without Knize Ten there might have been no Habanita. We have all three pillars of perfumery holding up the roof of Les Senteurs: the most remarkable and oddest of the trio is Knize Ten. Extraordinarily difficult to find, its reputation is enormous but in no way belied by its reality, once found. It is surrounded by an almost sinister aura.

When I was young and warnings came via whispers rather than the internet, certain things were held to be arcane and dangerous, to infallibly bring bad luck: such as possession of tarot cards, writing cheques on a Sunday, sticking a postage stamp upside down and reading The Golden Bough. Knize Ten is a bit like this: it has such an accumulation of myth about it and such a powerful presence that the challenge of wearing with it without being overpowered by its legend is too much for some.

Knize Ten is one of the final legacies of old Imperial Europe – the Kaiserzeit in full decadence with all the glamour, gloom and grotesquerie that children of that era – Von Stroheim, Pabst, Von Sternberg, Zweig, Mann – brought to their films and books. The tailoring firm of Knize was founded in 1858 by the Czech Josef Knize but had been bought out by the Wolff family long before the Emperor Franz Josef gave the House its Royal and Imperial Warrant in 1888, the year Queen Victoria’s daughter became Empress of Prussia for just 99 days. In its heyday there were Knize showrooms in Prague, Berlin, Paris, Karlsbad and even New York dressing not only royalty but the German military; gentlemen of both sexes; Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich. Today Knize Ten, always a star since 1921 (though the exact date is debated) is a murky canary diamond gleaming in the shadows of its own past.

Knize’s Teutonic darkness closes in oppressively and hotly after a brilliant hesperidic burst of rosemary, lemon and orange like sun burning through Berlin fogs over the swamps of the Spree. Knize draws across heavy baize-lined velvet curtains, shutting you in with a padded heart of rose, jasmine and clove carnation whose animalic notes come panting after, echoed in accords of castoreum, civet, amber, cedar and patchouli. The full expression is immense, bursting out of its confines – heady, heavy, swollen; and faintly sweaty, like fine wool heated by vigorous exercise – the feverish walkers of “The Magic Mountain”, or Luis Trenker in one of those unhinged mountaineering Silent pictures of the late 20’s. A wholesome unwholesomeness – or maybe vice versa.

One is confronted with a huge physicality and a sense of a faint (or rather more?) soiling. Speaking for myself, Knize Ten’s attraction never fails, but one application leaves me feeling coated, sealed, painted like that girl in Goldfinger. There’s hardly room left to breathe: Knize Ten is a total experience, it possesses you wholly, crushes you in its fatal ursine embrace. The final kicker is that oily black work-out of Prussian leather and what some people swear is the odour of rubber. And of course for many this is the money-shot, the clincher that makes the fragrance irresistible. It doesn’t play- pretend fetishism like some modern scents: it is itself a fetish, in same way as Narcisse Noir or Bandit. We keep it in a cage.