A Fool There Was (1915)
Director: Frank Powell
Cast: Runa Hodges, Mabel Frenyear, Edward JosÃ©
Synopsis: A married diplomat falls hopelessly under the spell of a predatory woman.
If you’re into old movies then the chances are you’ve heard of the silent movie actress Theda Bara and, if you have heard of her, the image you probably have in your mind is of a mischievous looking minx wearing an ingenious bra, the cups of which are designed to look like an asp, the heads of which is strategically resting over a nipple. Well, forget about that Theda Bara when you watch this creaky old melodrama, because this Theda Bara looks nothing like that Theda Bara. It’s the same woman, right enough, but in A Fool There Was she has about as much sex appeal as a tea cosy. Clearly, society’s idea of what constituted a sexy lady back in 1915 was a lot different to what it is today, and it seems incredible that Bara’s role as the Vamp is the one that launched her career.
In A Fool There Was she’s credited simply as ‘The Vamp’ and described in a newspaper article at one point as ‘a notorious woman of the vampire species.’ She’s certainly a handful, even if she wouldn’t float too many men’s boats these days. As the film opens she’s just in the final stages of using up one luckless admirer and, when he pursues her to the ship on which she plans to snare her next victim, he runs into a previous lover who’s now reduced to begging in the dockyards. The spurned lover actually shoots himself in the head in front of The Vamp, which elicits only a disdainful laugh and the demand of a steward that her deckchair be placed on the exact spot where her deceased lover’s body fell. To be honest, that’s about as subtle as A Fool There Was gets when depicting The Vamp’s wickedness, and she’s such a cow to any man unlucky enough to cross her path that it’s difficult to understand why they fall so badly for her.
Anyway, having seen off her last lover, The Vamp turns her attention to John Schuyler (Edward Jose), an eminent diplomat on his way to London as an envoy of the President. Schuyler’s happily married, with a loving wife and a cute kid, but that presents no obstacle for The Vamp who lures him into her clutches by showing a shapely ankle as he stoops to pick up her strategically dropped handkerchief. Next thing you know, he’s lying at her lap somewhere in Italy — which can’t have gone down well with the President, but there you go: the poor bloke’s besotted. We don’t actually see exactly how The Vamp weaves her spell on him as the film glosses over such trivialities. In fact it’s odd the way that, for a lot of the running time of A Fool There Was, nothing much seems to happen, and yet the film skims over most of the significant details.
A Fool There Was seems to relish the hapless Schuyler’s downfall as much as The Vamp, apparently gloating over each increasingly undignified milestone of his inexorable decline, and it’s these scenes which are undoubtedly the film’s strongest. The Vamp only has to appear when Schuyler is on the point of accepting the loving refuge of his friends and family for all his resistance to instantly crumble, suggesting she is some kind of succubus who is literally feeding upon the poor chap’s life force. If A Fool There Was had been made ten years later, when Victorian fashion and reticence had given way to the hedonistic excesses of the Roaring Twenties, it may have stood the test of time more successfully. But the absence of detail, and the remarkably pedestrian (un-credited) direction by Frank Powell, who seems intent on cluttering the screen with plants and props, dooms the film to the status of a relic.
(Reviewed 20th June 2013)