Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Vampire (1913) & A Fool There Was (1915)

Ever vigilant for new cinematic taste thrills, I noticed that there was a season of femme fatale flicks at the BFI and hastened there forthwith. However it was something of a disappointment and just goes to show how one's potential enjoyment can be mitigated by unknown factors. I hadn't realised that the films were part of some obscure festival celebrating female filmmakers, and for a start the showing was delayed (the kiss of death at a repertory cinema) while the organisers faffed about. However the biggest disruption was saved for the second and longer film when the movie was stopped halfway through for a scantily-clad and not overly talented tap-dancer doing her thing for what seemed like an interminable time. In addition both films "boasted" newly-commissioned scores: the lady pianist for The Vampire was adequate in a tinkly sort of way, but the Broken Heart DJ Collective ruined the second film by their unsuitable choice of music for the period, foremost of which was their playing of 'Aloha Hawaii' music during the principals' sordid sojourn in Italy, and they also ripped off Joplin, Gershwin, and Benny Goodman. I think they were trying to be too clever by half.

But what of the films themselves? Vampire in this context refers back to the scandalous 1897 Burne-Jones painting and the term refers not to a bloodsucker, but to a sex-wielding wealthsucker. The second movie takes its title from a minor Kipling poem which was normally recited before the showing of the film (as it was here by some more would-be talents) and stars Theda Bara, who is widely considered the screen's first vamp. The rather doggy female from the first film, Alice Hollister, came first, but it is Bara who wears the crown. All this is rather a dubious distinction for a nice Jewish girl from Ohio whose stage name was NOT chosen as an anagram for Arab Death! Although she made some 40-odd movies, most of these are now lost, and I think this is the first time I actually saw her in a full feature -- however I was not overwhelmed by her presence. Both films were remarkably pedestrian with a static camera in telling their tales of the good man who loses his way when he is enticed by a grasping woman. In the first a simple farm-boy comes to the Big City to make his fortune so that he can marry the lovely lass back home and loses everything, until he views a "famous" vaudeville stage dance portraying a Vampire's evil and mends his ways. In the second, a respected diplomat leaves the comfort of his loving family and sacrifices his reputation when he is ensnared by the irresistible Miss Bara. Nothing now can stand between him and total ruin as with other unfortunates before him. It was not easy to imagine what the vamp's actual appeal was here as tastes of female pulchritude have changed, but at least she got to whisper the immortal line (as rendered by the intertitle, this being a silent movie) "Kiss me, Fool!"
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