A Fool There Was (a J!-ENT DVD Review)
July 25, 2010 by Dennis Amith
“A Fool There Was” is a film that showcased one of America’s earliest and popular sex symbol Theda Bara, a film which would feature the first female “vampire” and a successful film that gave William Fox the opportunity to create the Fox Film Corporation. If you are a silent film fan, because of the rarity of Theda Bara films, this 1915 silent film is definitely recommended to have in your silent film collection but if you are a casual silent film fan, “A Fool There Was” is an average silent film at best.
Images courtesy of © 2002 Kino Video. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: A Fool There Was
YEAR OF FILM: 1915
DURATION: 67 minutes
DVD INFORMATION: Color Tinted
RATED: Not Rated
COMPANY: Kino Video
Released Dated: 2002
Based on the poem “The Vampire” by Rudyard Kipling
Based on the Play by Porter Emerson Browne
Directed by Frank Powell
Scenario by Frank Powell
Produced by William Fox
Costume Design by George “Neje” Hopkins
Theda Bara as The Vampire (Vamp)
Edward Jose as John Schuler, the Husband (The Fool)
Runa Hodges and The Child
Mabel Frenyear as Kate Schuyler (Fool’s Wife)
Clifford Bruce as Tom (The Friend)
May Allison as The Wife’s Sister
Victor Benoit as Reginal Parmalee (Victim)
Frank Powell as The Doctor
Minna Gale as The Doctor’s Fiancee
Widely regarded as the screen’s first true sex symbol — a leading actress whose charm was built not upon quaint innocence but carnal desire — Theda Bara revolutionized the adolescent art of cinematic sensuality. One of the very few Bara films that exist today, A Fool There Was catapulted the actress to stardom in 1915 and introduced the term “vamp” (both as a noun and as a verb) to the American pop culture vocabulary.
Bara plays the “Vampire,” a cunning woman who uses her irresistible charms to seduce and abandon a series of influential men. When one lover commits suicide on the deck of a luxury liner, she merely turns her gaze to another passenger, John Schuyler (Edward José), and leads him down a path to moral degradation and public scorn. Schuyler’s wife (Mabel Frenyear) never gives up hope for her husband’s redemption but has severely underestimated the hypnotic power the Vampire has upon her victims.
One of the most remarkable aspects of A Fool There Was is its uncompromising ending. Rather than offering a syrupy resolution of eleventh-hour moral enlightenment, the film allows its characters to follow their downward trajectories toward less edifying fates.
Theda Bara, the first onscreen sex symbol and the woman who defined the word “Vamp” in early cinema.
“A Fool There Was”, the 1915 silent film launched Theda Bara’s career and made enough money for William Fox to create the Fox Film Corporation and a film that would popularize the slang term “vamp” as a sexually driven female predator who preys on a man.
“A Fool There Was” is a film that is based on a play by Porter Emerson Brown, in which the play was based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem titled “The Vampire”. The poem was read to the audience before the screening and the intertitles are literally Kipling’s poem. Because the film pays tribute to the poem, the main character played by Theda Bara is known as “The Vampire” and thus the film is cited as the first female “Vampire” movie.
Needless to say, with Theda Bara’s role as “The Vampire” captured the viewer’s attention, many started to pay attention to her name as rumors ran rampant that the Theda’s name was a play on the word “death” and her last name is “Arab” backwards (the truth is that “Theda” is short for Theodosia and Bara is a shortened name for a relative’s family name “Barranger”). But Bara would use the popularity of the film and the rumors to further stoke the mysterious side of her as her earlier photos would feature the sexy actress taking photos with a skeleton.
Unfortunately, because FOX lost nearly 90% of their silent films due to a nitrate fire, many of Theda Bara’s films are lost but fortunately KINO VIDEO released “A Fool There Was” on DVD and giving silent film fans a chance to see Hollywood’s first sex symbols in camera.
“A Fool There Was” is a film about a woman (played by Theda Bara) who uses wealthy men and manipulates them to get what she wants and literally sucks them dry (hence the name “The Vampire”). Having corrupted many men and leaving them with nothing or using them until she feels the need to move on to her next prey, she targets Wall Street lawyer John Schuyler (played by Edward Jose).
Schuyler has everything going for him. A good family, a loving wife and daughter, a great job and home and he was recently appointed by the President of the United States as a special envoy to settle claims with Great Britain.
Although with a wealthy man, the Vampire has decided that she needs a new prey and leaves her current man to go after a more wealthy man in power.
While Schuyler is unable to bring his family along with him, he takes off on the big ship “the Gigantic” and from that moment, The Vampire has her sights targeted on her prey and sure enough, using her sexual charm, she captures his attention.
Fast forward two months later and the two are now a couple. Schuyler’s family does not know the true reason why he hasn’t return back home but when family friends visiting Italy spot Schuyler together with the Vamp, they realize that the man that many looked up to is having an affair. To make things worse, the paparazzi has reported the affair in a newspaper and Mrs. Schuyler learns for her friends that the newspaper gossip was true.
While Mrs. Schuyler and a family friend do what they can to get close to Schuyler and bring him home, we start to see the change in the lawyer as the man that was full of energy has changed to a man whose hair has turned white, has been ostracized by his friends and his colleagues, lost his job, turned him to an alcoholic and for the most part, the Vampire is succeeding in sucking him dry.
But Mrs. Schuyler and a family friend are determined in saving Mr. Schuyler…but will it be too late?
“A Fool There Was” is color tinted and presented in 1:33:1. Amazingly, for a 95-year-old film, “A Fool There Was” looks very good on DVD. I was expecting some major damage to the original negative but interestingly, aside from occasional scratches and dust, the film looks very good for its age. Granted, it’s not super clear with a high amount of detail but compared to many other silents I have seen, the fact that there is no major nitrate warping or degradation.
AUDIO & INTERTITLES:
“A Fool There Was” features a piano score by Phil Carli which is a very well-done score that was appropriate for this silent film.
Intertitles were easy to read (Note: These were not the original intertitles from 1915 but utilizing a much easier to read intertitles which were probably based on the original version with the dust and scratches added afterward). It is important to note that the intertitles are from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire” and there are no dialogue-based intertitles. So, one will not be reading as much throughout this film.
“A Fool There Was” comes with the following special features:
- Complete Text of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Vampire” – The complete text presentation of Kipling’s “The Vampire” which the film is based on and read before the film was screened.
- Excerpt from Terry Ramsaye’s “A Million and One Nights” – An excerpt of the popularity of Theda Bara and how she was hired as the lead actress for the film and the popularity that ensued right after and what people thought her name was about.
- 1915 Review – A review for “A Fool There Was”.
- Photo Gallery – Featuring a few of the surviving photos of actress Theda Bara.
An insert with the chapter listings and a Fox Film Corporation image (on the insert) of Theda Bara lying with a skeleton is included.
When “A Fool There Was” was screened in theaters, people were read the original poetry of “The Vampire” and knew immediately that if the film followed the poem closely, one was prepared for a film that may not have a happy ending.
The film was straight-forward to tell a story of a vamp and how she has hurt many men in the process by leaving them, taking their money and in some cases, leading these men to self-destruction. This is a woman who is literally amoral and all she cares about is dominating the man, getting her way with him, having him do what she says and even if it destroy his career or his life (making them an alcoholic), she could care less. If she gets bored, she can move on to another man (leaving them in a bad state) and destroy the next man she comes in contact with.
Because this is during the time when filmmakers were trying to find ways to tell a feature-length story, you’re going to have some unusual pacing issues. But for “A Fool There Was”, the pacing wasn’t bad at all. If anything, what I found quite interesting is how they utilized Schuyler’s young daughter as a way to make the film lighthearted (during her scenes) and happy, while the storyline is literally about a vamp destroying the man.
The storytelling is quite simplistic and were common for silent films during this period in time but the story is easy to follow and understand. But with that beings said, you’re not going to see how far the vamp goes to seduce a man, there are no sexual scenes aside from a couple kissing and there is no “Fatal Attraction” style of storyline where you will see Mrs. Schuyler doing all she can to save her marriage away from the Vampire. Granted, that would have made a fantastic storyline but if anything, what viewers get is a direct adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire” for a feature length silent film.
But “A Fool There Was” is an important film for silent film fans. From what it did for Theda Bara and William Fox’s career but the fact that there are not many Theda Bara films that have survived, this 1915 film is probably one of the earliest full-length silent films that looks good on DVD and its contribution to American pop culture by popularizing the slang word “Vamp” for that era and the film is the first depiction of a female vampire in film.
The DVD from Kino Video is worth it if you are a hardcore silent film fan but storywise, it’s not the greatest nor is it the worst. It’s just an average film at best. The fact that this surviving Theda Bara film looks good on DVD and we are provided with a few text-based special features is a plus. Personally, the fact that there aren’t many Theda Bara films available, I’m just happy that Kino Video did release this on DVD for silent film fans and we can say that we have a Theda Bara film in our silent film collection.
Overall, “A Fool There Was” is a film that showcased one of America’s earliest and popular sex symbol Theda Bara, a film which would feature the first female “vampire” and a successful film that gave William Fox the opportunity to create the Fox Film Corporation. If you are a silent film fan, because of the rarity of Theda Bara films, this 1915 silent film is definitely recommended to have in your silent film collection but if you are a casual silent film fan, “A Fool There Was” is an average silent film at best.
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