A Fool There Was (1915)

Lady and the vamp

I watched this early silent on my phone while waiting in the Sunoco lobby for my car inspection and service to finish. (Sorry, David Lynch.)

You can count on one hand the number of pre-1920 features I’ve seen that I’d ever consider watching again for my own entertainment and enlightenment, as opposed to historical context and curiosity. My expectation with anything in the 1910s is that it’s not going to feel properly like a “film.”

Indeed, A Fool There Was is barely functional as cinematic storytelling, with swaths of indistinguishable side characters and haphazard editing that sometimes lingers on boring stillness for 30+ seconds for no obvious reason.

That said, there is a lot of really interesting stuff going on here. First, we have one of the only surviving features starring Theda Bara, one of cinema’s great early sex icons. Here she is the textbook definition of a “vamp” (related to, but distinct from, our modern usage of the term “vampire”): an exotic femme fatale of such ravishing sex appeal that her ability to seduce men is depicted as borderline supernatural.

Bara is by far the most appealing part of this movie, her allure popping off the screen in an era where film was often expected to be frigid with chastity (or maybe that’s just D.W Griffith’s hangups I’m projecting). It’s a joy to see filmmakers figuring out the visual language of sensuality to tell a story.

There’s also some pretty interesting (if still primitive) shots and set pieces, including a real-ass huge cruise ship set on which the seduction first occurs. I also dug a very late sequence in which the “victim” of Theda Bara reminisces on the life he lost due to his infidelity via flashbacks. It’s almost hallucinatory and radically non-linear for the era.

It must be said that the sexual politics of this film are remarkably sexist, even with some minor stabs at female empowerment. Bara is glorious, but she’s unambiguously villainous, preying upon a “good man.” This dimension is a bit of a bummer, but par for the course of early cinema, to which “feminism” was a foreign concept that wouldn’t pop up for another few decades except in experimental works.

So A Fool There Was alternates between compelling and nearly unwatchable depending on how much boundary-pushing it’s doing at the moment — and how much Theda Bara is onscreen. And, even with its strengths, the balance shifts too much towards “unwatchable” for these 65 quick minutes.

Is It Good?

Not Very Good (3/8)

A few words on "Is It Good?" ratings for early cinema.

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