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. She’s easily the most appealing part of this movie, her allure popping off the screen in an era where film was expected to be frigid with chastity. It’s a joy to see filmmakers figuring out the visual language of sensuality on the fly.
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. Theda Bara is glorious, but she’s unambiguously villainous, preying upon a “good man.” This angle a bit of a bummer, but par for the course of early cinema.
So, in short, 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 that’s honestly a pretty high ratio in 65 quick minutes.
Not Very Good (3/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.