A Fool There Was (1914)

Fool There Was (1915)

Toronto Film Society presented A Fool There Was (1914) on Monday, October 28, 1963 as part of the Season 16 Monday Evening Silent Film Series, Programme 1.

In the beginning there were no stars.

In 1909, when the first of the four films listed below was made, all the American movie companies subscribed to the policy of not revealing the names of the players.  (Among other reasons, they feared that the actors would begin to demand higher salaries…and how right they were!)

By January 1915, when the last of these four films were released, the movie companies had done a complete about-face.  It was recognized that the public is basically more interested in players than in plays, and that far from being suppressed, stars were to be exploited,–even created artificially, if necessary.

For our 1963-64 Silent Series, our six programmes will likewise exploit some of the stars (a very few!) that lit up the skies and the movie marquees between 1909 and the end of the Silent Era, some twenty years later.

Program No. 1
(Monday, October 28, 1963)

1909:  A Corner in Wheat
1912:  The New York Hat
c1914:  Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life
1914:  THEDA BARA in A Fool There Was

If the names of the players were unknown, in those far-off days when our earliest film was made, their faces were not.  The public had soon come to recognize the actors and actresses who appeared regularly in the films that were turned out week after week, and to pick their favorites; and because the studios steadfastly refused to answer letters of enquiry, the public identified their favourites by such names as “the Biograph Girl”, “the Vitagraph Girl”, “the Man with the Sad Eyes”, and so on.  But in 1910 Carl Laemmle lured the Biograph Girl to his own company, planted a fake story of her death in the newspapers, instantly denied it, and thereby made everyone in America become aware that the  Biograph Girl was Florence Lawrence and that henceforth she was going to make pictures for his company under her own name.  Little by little the other companies followed suit; and by April 1913 the last of the hold-outs, Biograph, had capitulated to the extent of listing the actors’ names on their posters.

In 1916, (that is, about two years after the period covered in this evening’s porgram,) Motion Picture Magazine conducted a popularity poll among its readers, the results being published in their February 1917 issue.  How reliable their sampling was we have no way of knowing, but here, for what they are worth, are the top ten:

1.  Mary Pickford
2.  Francis X. Bushman
3.  Marguerite Clark
4.  J. Warren Kerrigan
5.  Pearl White
6.  Theda Bara
7.  Anita Stewart
8.  Henry B. Walthall
9.  Edward Earle
10. Wallace Reid

(Of these ten, three will be seen in tonight’s program: Henry B. Walthall, Mary Pickford and Theda Bara.  A 1920 Wallace Reid film will be shown in February.)

The 1909-1914 period which is covered in tonight’s program was also a period of another revolution besides the emergence of the star system,–a revolution almost as devastating as the one caused by the arrival of Talkies in the late 1920’s.  This was the establishment of the Feature Film.

In 1909, a “picture show” consisted of a program of short films, each no more than one reel long (about 15 minutes).  That was the maximum that the public could sit through, according to the producers.  The movie companies, having banded themselves into a Trust wich controlled all the patents on cameras and projectors, had all the movie houses completely sewn up, and were consequently making money hand over fist.  The last thing they wanted was to disturb the status quo.  European movie producers at this time were successfully experimenting with multi-reel pictures, but the occasional such film imported into the U.S. had to be presented in installments. Finally, in 1911, D.W. Griffith, of the Biograph company, defied the standing orders and produced an Enoch Arden that was two reels long.  The distributors insisted on releasing it in two parts; but the exhibitors, in response to public demand, were forced into showing the two parts on the same program; and the great popularity of this film marked the beginning of a new trend to longer pictures–all of two reels long!

1912, the year of The New York Hat, saw the beginning of the end of the short film.  Adolph Zukor purchased the American rights to the four-reel film that Sarah Bernhardt had made in France of her play Queen Elizabeth, and then boldly talked the noted theatrical manager, Daniel Frohman, into presenting it in a Broadway legitimate theatre with all the eclat of a new stage play.  The enormous success of Queen Elizabeth induced second-thoughts about longer pictures; and the following year an Italian import in eight reels, Quo Vadis, (soon to be followed by a whole series of Italian spectaculars, including the Cabiria which we showed in last year’s Silent Series), gave further impetus to the swing toward “features”.  The companies which stubbornly refused to get on the bandwagon (and this included the famous Biograph company, where Griffith had spent his first five years in pictures and evolved the innumerable technical innovations that laid the groundwork of all future film making) were gradually but inexorably forced out of the running.  By 1914 the feature film was the norm, with five or six reels being the usual length.  A “picture show” in January 1915 no longer meant a program of shorts, but a program consisting of one “feature” plus added shorts, including a comedy and a newsreel.  (The double feature didn’t arrive for another twenty years; but the tradition of including shorts in a program of films still survives to the present day.)

* * *

Thus our programme tonight illustrates two very striking changes that occurred in the American film industry during the short period of 1909-14: the rise of the feature and the establishment of the star system (and the two are not unlinked).  But the four or five years that followed saw another revolution, and our programme tonight must also be understood as a product of pre-revolutionary days.

Up till about 1914, the movies were almost exclusively the entertainment of the working classes. Movies offered enchantment for a nickel, and the poorer people, starved for entertainment, had responded so eagerly that nickelodeons proliferated all across the country, and the makers and exhibitors reaped enormous profits.  But “respectable” people wouldn’t be seen going into a nickelodeon; so it was not for them but for the poor folk that films were made, and it was their naive morality and outlook that was reflected in these films. The tastes of these audiences were still those of the previous generation, full of nice mid-Victorian sentiments; good was good and bad was bad and never was there any confusion, and the noblest hearts beat under homespun shirts.  (Griffith himself, with his obvious sentimentality, was a product of that age.)

But with Sarah Bernhardt’s Queen Elizabeth, which bestowed enormous prestige on the motion picture, and with the growing use of proper and comfortable theatres, movies began to increase in respectability.  The years 1914-1918 saw an unprecedented boom in movie attendance, with audiences drawn more and more from the middle classes, and becoming more and more sophisticated,–years of experienced movie-going likewise contributing to that sophistication.  The times were changing, too.  The War in Europe had brought the old era to an end; the new was to explode in the post-war years with an astonishing and unprecedented revolution in manners and morality.  Both technically and socially, movies after 1918 were considerably different from the movies before 1914,–a point which should be remembered by the young people of today who tend to lump all silent films together, regardless of date.

Our programme tonight comes to us from that happy, pre-War, Age of Innocence.

* * *

A Corner in Wheat  (1 reel; copyright date: December 15, 1909)

Produced by the Biograph Company
Directed by D.W. Griffith.  Photographed by G.W. Bitzer
Adapted from the novel “The Pit” by Frank Norris
Players: Frank Powell, Henry B. Walthall, James Kirkwood, Linda Arvidson
(Among the extra players are Arthur Johnson, Mack Sennett, Robert Harron, Owen Moore, Kate Bruce, Claire MacDowell and Jeanie MacPherson)

Corner in Wheat (1909)

Films at this time were generally didactic,–probably because of the notion still prevailing from Victorian times that mere entertainment was frivolity and pleasure a sin, but that a story which pointed a moral could be enjoyed with a clear conscience.  Movie makers and public alike had been steeped in their childhood in the famous McGuffey’s Readers.  A Corner in Wheat proves conclusively that avarice brings tragedy and that ruin follows ill-gotten spoils.  (Note that Frank Norris was also the author of McTeague, which was to become Von Stroheim’s Greed). Contemporary filmgoers took such moralizing for granted; but they were moved by the eloquence of Griffith’s novel story-telling techniques, which had an impact at the time that is inevitably lost on us today.

Of the players: FRANK POWELL, the future director of A Fool There Was, first came into films as an actor, and graduated to directing gor Biograph under Griffith’s supervision.  HENRY B. WALTHALL was already popular at this time, but his real heyday came after his performance as the Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation (1915).  Born in 1878, he had been a fairly prominent stage actor in New York when Griffith talked him into films in 1909.  His popularity gradually diminished after a decade of unimportant  films, but he was still prominent in the late 1920’s, and he was one who profited by the introduction of sound.  He died in 1936.  JAMES KIRKWOOD was another Griffith discovery, and was popular for many years.  He married Lila Lee (we’ll be seeing her in Blood and Sand; she was also the little maidservant in Male and Female, shown last year), and their son is the writer, James Kirkwood, author of a novel about Hollywood: There Must be a Pony (1960).  LINDA ARVIDSON was Griffith’s wife, though this was a well-kept secret at the time. In 1925 she wrote a book, When the Movies Were Young, an account of the old Biograph studios in Griffith’s time, 1908-13,–a very useful source of material for these programme notes.

Of the extra players mentioned, ARTHUR JOHNSON was a very popular leading man at that time, though like everyone else in the Biograph company he took his turn in the crowd scenes (at $3.00 a day, as opposed to $5.00 for leads).  ROBERT HARRON–he was the young husband in the modern sequence of Intolerance.  A fatal shooting accident ended his career a few years afterwards.  OWEN MOORE was soon to become Mary Pickford’s first husband.  JEANIE MACPHERSON later dropped her acting career to become Cecil B. DeMille’s chief scenario writer.

The New York Hat  (1 reel; copyright date: December 5, 1912)

Produced by the Biograph Company
Directed by D.W. Griffith.  Photographed by G.W. Bitzer
Original story by Anita Loos
Players: Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore
(Among the extras: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Mack Sennett, Jack Pickford, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh)

New York Hat (1912)

Studios in those days received many unsolicited scenarios in the mail, and once in a while uncovered something good.  It was thus that Griffith received one called The New York Hat, and liked it so well he accepted it and sent the author the standard $15.00.  And it was thus that little Anita Loos, daughter of a small-time stage producer in California, broke into movies.  Balked of her desire to act in her father’s productions, she decided to try writing instead, and dashed off this scenario and sent it to the address she found on a film can.  The story that when Griffith finally met her he was astonished to discover that the author of The New York Hat and other later scenarios was still only a girl in pigtails is suspect; Anita Loos was all of nineteen when this film was made.  In 1919 she married the film director John Emerson, and the two of them wrote and directed some of Douglas Fairbank’s best pictures (His Picture in the Papers, Wild and Woolly, Till the Clouds Roll by et al.)  In 1925 she wrote the very successful novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

It is a matter of regret that one of the greatest stars of all time, MARY PICKFORD, cannot be represented in this series by anything later than one of her one-reel Biograph films.  But only these are available; her more representative feature pictures that she made for Zukor at the height of her popularity (when she asked for and received a salary of $10,000 a week, not exactly peanuts in 1919) or for her own company at United Artists, are just not to be seen.  Mary herself refuses to let them out; she is afraid the present-day audiences would laugh at them, and she wants to be remembered as a legend. (Those of you who saw her Little Annie Rooney (1925) a few year ago when the AGE Soceity managed to show it here, will surely testify that her fears are groundless.)  Still, it was as an anonymous player in these one-reel Biograph films that she first became popular.

She was born Gladys Marie Smith here in Toronto in 1893, and when her father was accidentally killed on one of the lake boats where he worked as pursar, her mother was left with three small children to look after as best she could.  She took in roomers, and one of them was a local theatrical producer who persuaded Mrs. Smith to let little Gladys play one of the children in the Cummings Sock Company’s production of the play The Silver King.  It wasn’t long before all three Smith children (including baby brother Jack) were supplementing the meagre family income by playing parts in local professional plays.

The move to the United States came about through an event that deserves to be told because of an interesting crossing of paths.  A certain playwright named Hal Reid had been so impressed with little Gladys’s work in a new play of his that was produced in Toronto that he promised to cast all four Smiths in the Broadway production the following winter.  Mrs. Smith sold all her belongings and prepared to move, and it was discovered that Mr. Reid had evidently forgotten all about his promised, and the children’s roles had gone to others.  However, the company presently went out on tour, and when it reached Buffalo, the little girl who was playing Gladys’s old role was obliged for family reasons to return to New York.  Somebody evidently remembered that a little girl in nearby Toronto had once played the part, for the company lost no time in sending for her, meekly accepting a package deal of the whole family in order to get her.  This being such a turning point in the career of the future Mary Pickford, it is interesting to learn that the playwright, Hal Reid, was the father of the future screen idol, Wallace Reid, and that the child actress who defected in Buffalo was Lillian Gish.

The Smith family continued in show business, making New York their headquarters.  Eventually, when Gladys was fourteen, she managed to land a part in David Belasco’s latest production, The Warrens of Virginia; but not caring for “Gladys Smith” as a name, Belasco renamed her Mary Pickford,–the Mary from her middle name, and the Pickford form her great-grandmother.  The Warrens of Virginia (written by William DeMille, whose brother Cecil was in the cast) was a success, both in New York and out on the road.  But the time came when the Pickford were “between engagements”, and at her mother’s suggestion, Mary swallowed her pride and sought work at the Biograph motion picture studios at 11 West 14th Street.  (Legitimate actors wouldn’t stoop to movie acting in those days unless they were desperately hard up; to admit you worked in movies was the dangerous admission that you could not get anything else.)  Griffith liked her looks and hired her for a bit part in Pippa Passes (1909), asked her to come back the next day,–and from then on was one of Biograh’s most valuable players.  She broke away temporarily to work for one of the Independent companies, but soon returned to the fold.  But toward the end of 1912 she had a hankering for the stage again, and went to see Belasco, who promptly cast her for the leading role in his new play A Good Little Devil.  Mary went down to the studios and broke the news to Griffith.  As she didn’t have to start rehearsals for another three days yet, Griffith reminded her that there was time for her to make one last film for him.  (Three days was the usual time for turning out a one-reel film.)  So everyone pitched in to make that last film a good one, and that’s how The New York Hat was produced.  When A Good Little Devil opened in Philadelphia in January, 1913, the entire Biograph company were there in the front row.

As it happens, it was A Good Little Devil that brought Mary to the films.  The imported Queen Elizabeth had been only the opening gun of Adolph Zukor’s new company for the presentation of Famous Players in Famous Plays, for which he induced celebrated theatre actors to recreate their greatest roles for the movie cameras (e.g.: James O’Neill in The Count of Monte Cristo).  A Good Little Devil and its entire Broadway cast was one of the productions that Zukor brought to the screen, where Mary Pickford remained as his most valuable (and expensive) star.

Few if any other actresses of the screen have been so universally beloved as Mary Pickford, over the whole twenty-year length of her starring career (her last picture was Secrets, 1933).  She was good-looking, and photogenic frome very angle; she was a good actress; and what was probably even more important, she was a hard worker and she was shrewd and intelligent.  The public adored her in little girl roles, and because she was short and slight of build, she was able to play them successfully even in her mid-30s.  In The New York Hat, however, we see her at the age of nineteen.

LIONEL BARRYMORE was born in Philadelphia in 1878, and was already a successful stage actor when, in 1912, feeling the pinch of “between engagements”, he first tried his luck at the Biograph studios, and didn’t return to the stage till 1917.  Thereafter he made the odd fim from time to time, but it was not until 1925 that he returned to the screen to stay.  He died in 1954.

Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life  (1 reel; c1914)

A Keystone production.  Directed by Mack Sennett
Players: Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Barney Oldfield

Barney Oldfield's Race for Life (1914)

BARNEY OLDFIELD was the Stirling Moss of his day, a big name auto racer who, in 1904, had broken the world’s speed record in his Green Dragon, and ushered in a new era of Auto Racing–in the United States at any rate.  It was a not uncommon practice for movie producers to lure celebrities in other fields into movies, hoping that their names would attract the public.

MACK SENNETT we have already seen as an extra in A Corner in Wheat.  Linda Griffith has described him in his acting days at Biograph as a very sour and disgruntled individual.  Later he directed films for Biograph, and in January 1912 he set up his own company, Keystone, in California, where he specialized in those one- and two-reel comedies which have immortalized his name.  He appeared in many of them himself at first, but gradually he devoted more and more of his time to directing, or just supervising and editing; which is just as well.  Comedians are born, and Sennett himself was no comedian, try as he would.  His genius lay in his ability to make films that were funny.  Incidentally, like Mary Pickford he was a Canadian by birth,–born in Danville, Quebec, in 1880.  He died on November 5, 1960.

MABEL NORMAN (born Boston, 1894) likewise started at Biograph, and when Sennett left she went with him and became his chief comedienne.  He later starred her in a feature, Mickey.  She was also the great love of his life; that she would never marry him was his life-long sorrow.  She was adored by the public, too, but implication in a couple of scandals blighted her career in the 1920’s, and her own reckless mode of living undermined her health, and she died in a sanatorium in 1930.

FORD STERLING (the Villain) was a Keystone stalwart.  Born in Wisconsin in 1880, he played in circus, repertory, vaudeville and musical comedy, and eventually went to work for Biograph.  He was in the first Keystone film in 1912, and though he broke away in 1914 to form his own company, he was soon back.  In later years he appeared in features.  He died in 1939.

* * *

A Fool There Was  (6 reel; released either Dec. 1914 or Jan. 1915)

Produced by William Fox (Fox Films Corporation)
Directed by Frank Powell
Screenplay by Powell, adapted from the poem by Kipling
Players: Theda Bara, Edward Jose, Victor Benoit, Mabel Frenyear, Runa Hodges, May Allison, Clifford Price, Frank Powell, Minna Gale

(As suggested by the Painting by Philip Burne-Jones)

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)……

(Rudyard Kipling)

Fool There Was (1915)

A “vampire” had always meant a Dracula-type creature until Sir Philip Burne-Jones (son of the much better known Edward Burne-Jones) made the painting that inspired Kipling’s poem, which in turn inspired one Porter Emerson Browne to write a play called A Fool There Was, which had some success on the boards.  William Fox bought the rights for the screen, and it was scheduled for production in late 1914.  Frank Powell was to direct and Edward Jose was to star as the “Fool”, but the casting of the “vampire” presented problems.  Several prominent stage actresses were considered for it, including Virginia Pearson and Valeska Suratt, but for various reasons they couldn’t or wouldn’t take it.  “Does it have to be a name actress?” asked Powell.  “No, we’ll make that”, replied Fox, more prophetic than he knew.  So Powell told him of a girl he had noticed among the extras in a recent film they had done, who seemed to have possibilities for the role,–an actress named Theodosia de Coppet, who had been doing minor things around New York, and had even done some work in England, though her home was originally Cincinnati.  Fox sent for her, tested her, and gave her the part.  But “Theodosia de Coppet” was rather cumbersome; he decided to change it something shorter, and asked Miss de Coppet for suggestions.  Her real name was Goodman; de coppet was her mother’s name, borrowed for stage purposes.  Another family name on her mother’s side was Bara; and at home she always went under the nickname “Theda”; so she proposed “Theda Bara”.  (Compare the origin of “Mary Pickford”.)

The star of the picture was to have been the leading man, Edward Jose; but by the time the picture was finished, Jose had quarrelled with Fox and walked out.  Since there was no pint in exploiting an actor who would make no further pictures for them, it was decided to build up Theda Bara as the star.  Fox’s two publicity boys, Johnny Goldfrap and Al Selig, got to work and supplied the press with the information that Theda Bara was a star of the Théātre Antoine in Paris, who had been persuaded by Mr. Powell to come to America to take part in Mr. Fox’s latest photoplay; that she was the daughter of a French painter and an Arab mistress, that she was born in the Sahara desert, in the shadow of the pyramids.  It was even hinted that her name must be a pseudonym, for obviously “Bara” was only “Arab” spelled backward, while “Theda” was simply a rearrangement of the letters of “Death”; and it was further hinted that Mme. Bara was fully as wicked in real life as she was on the screen.

(Or so Terry Ramsaye reported many years later (1926) in his much-cited book, A Million and One Nights.  The official biography given out in 1915 had it simply that she was the daughter of Theda de Coppet, French actress, and Giuseppe Bara, “illustrious Italian sculptor-painter”, and that she was born in 1890 on an oasis in the Sahara where her father was engaged in painting desert pictures.)

In the meantime A Fool There Was ha been released and had unexpectedly proved a smash hit. We quote from the review in the New York Dramatic Mirror (Jan. 20, 1915) for a contemporary impression:

“(the film) is bold and relentless; it is filled with passion and tragedy; it is right in harmony with the poem…  The Vampire is a neurotic woman gone mad.  She has enough sex attraction to supply a town full of normally pleasing women, and she uses it with prodigal freedom.  To come in contact with her is like touching the third rail, and all along the track we see or hear about her victims…  The real acting in the picture, the kind of acting that is interesting every moment, is supplied by Edward Jose as the Fool and Theda Bara as the Vampire…  Miss Bara misses no chance for sensuous appeal (as)…a horribly fascinating woman, vicious to the core and cruel….”

It was a critical success, and an even bigger one at the box-office, and Miss Bara was quickly signed to a five-year contract that obliged her to maintain the pose of mystery, travel only a veiled limousine, and never appear at such public functions as parties or the theatre.  From time to time she would give carefully staged interviews; stories would appear with fascinating claims that her coming had been predicted by the ancient Egyptians, in hieroglyphic inscriptions recently come to light which referred to a woman who is a deadly serpent–who else but Theda Bara?  Bizarre publicity photographs (preferably posed with skeletons) were further contribution to the image.

How much of this outrageous press-agentry was believed at the time?  One gathers that the press wasn’t really fooled, but passed the stories along because they made good copy.  “Little shop girls read it and swallowed their gum in their excitement” is Terry Ramsaye’s picturesque report; and the less sophisticated members of the public in those days may well have been taken in.  After all, as one writer (in Photoplay Magazine, Sept. 1915) said in effect, her exotic personality was such that if she wasn’t born in the shadow of the pyramids, she ought to have been!  “For that reason I prefer to disbelieve those stupid people who insist that Theda Bara’s right name is Theodosia Goodman, and that she is by, of and from Cincinnati.  To those persons I put my fingers in my eyes and wink my ears.  I wish to believe, I am going to believe, I do believe that Allah is Allah, and that Theda Bara…”etc.  (Note that within little more than half a year of her screen debut the true facts were obviously getting around.  After all, no actress is so “unknown” that she doesn’t have a circle of friends and acquaintances who are bound to talk.)  In February 1918 Photoplay reporteed that Theda’s name had just been legally and officially changed from Theodosia Goodman to Theda Bara, (the rest of her family changing theirs along with hers).  “Her father, according to the petition, was born in Poland, her mother in Switzerland, and her herself in Cincinnati.  Nothing was said about Egypt, the Sahara or the Pyramids.  Bara, it was further explained, was an old family name, the mother of the actress having been a daughter of François Bara de Coppet”.

Fool There Was (1915)

With the popularity of A Fool There Was came a great vogue for “vampires”.  Every good little girl, reports Terry Ramsaye, went eagerly to watch Theda Bara doing on the screen the things she “secretly long to do herself, now and then, if she dared”.  That the vogue didn’t make theda but was made by her, is suggested by the fact that in 1913 a film called The Vampire starring Alice Hollister had gone the rounds without starting any trends.  But following A Fool There Was in 1915 there was aprofitable spate of films about femmes fatales luring helpless males to their destruction, with such actresses as Virginia Pearson and Valeska Suratt (the ones who had originally turned down Fox’s offer) and Louise Glaum climbing on the vampire bandwagon.  The word “vampire” was soon familiarly abbreviated to “vamp”, and as both noun and verb it remained in current use forn early twenty years thereafter, and is still occasionally to be heard.

What is frequently overlooked today is that Theda Bara by no means confined herself to vamp roles, though that was what her public apparently liked best.  If she played Carmen, Cleopatra, Salome, DuBarry and Camille, and in films luridly entitled The Serpent, The Tiger Woman, Destruction, she also appeared in Romeo and Juliet, The Two Orphans, Kathleen Mavourneen, and in many another “good woman” and even ingenue parts.  As a sample of contemporary opinion, we quote from a review of her performance in the sympathetic role of Cigarette in Under Two Flags (Photoplay, October 1916):

“…No more of the snake in the parlour, the scorpion among the roses, the tarantula in the bananas.  Instead, we have with us today…a being shy, birdlike in movement, somewhat childish in appeal, rather tigrishly merry, sincere in her sorrows and believable in her manifestations of affection.  I beheld the Ouida story in the midst of an audience who knew Bara only as hell’s hired girl, yet her timid lovemaking, her shallow little sorrows and her ultimate sacrifice carried as much conviction as though performed by Marguerite Clark.”

We have noted that in 1916 Theda Bara was well up in the top ten of the public’s favourite movie stars, as polled by Motion Picture Magazine.  A similar poll two years later revealed that her name was a good deal further down in the list.  And when her starring contract expired in 1919, it was just not renewed.  She waited for offers, but none came.  She turned to the stage, and in 1920 toured (Toronto among other places) in a play that eventually opened in New York: The Blue Flame, which was so unabashedly bad, like a parody of all her worst films, that the critics greeted it with delight, and quoted with relish the play’s opening line: “Have you brought the cocaine?”  But it was no shot in the arm for Miss Bara’s career.

In 1921 she married the film director, Charles Brabin, and reluctantly retired to an active private life in Los Angeles.  In 1925 she returned to the screen in The Unchastened Woman, but by all contemporary reports it was unbelievably bad, and its instant death at the box-office was deserved.  Hal Roach starred her in one or two two-reel comedies, in which she burlesqued her old ways; and that was her last screen appearance.  But she obviously continued to hope; almost until her death she advertised in the Hollywood Casting Directory that she was “at liberty”.

Fool There Was (1915)

Why did her popularity die?  No one has ever come up with a final answer; there could have been any number of reasons, singly or combined.  Perhaps the public resented having been hoodwinked by her early publicity.  Perhaps she simply made too many pictures,–they were ground out at the rate of nearly one a month.  But undoubtedly she was the victim of the growing sophistication of the movie public during that 1914-18 period; even as early as January 1916, Motion Picture World, reviewing her film Destruction, reported that the New York audience laughed at it.  She seems to have been a good actress, if not the great actress she thought she was; contemporary reviews generally speak well of her performances.  She certainly seems to have taken her art seriously; perhaps too seriously,–one gets the impression that she was devoid of a sense of humour, and it was very likely this failure to see the funny side that caused her to be left behind.  Indeed, a glint of humour in her personality and she might not have been left behind at all.  But having received her stardom on a gilded platter without ever having had to fight for it, and having become accustomed to receiving the full treatment, she had no idea what to do when she lost it, other than to sit at home in dignity and wait.

Theda Bara is far from being the only film star to have suffered from public fickleness.  Look over that list of the top ten for 1916; how many of them have you even heard of?  But you’ve always heard about Theda Bara.  Brief and long ago as her career was, her name is still remembered. She may have become a joke, but at least she is remembered, she is still a fascination even for persons born two generations after she left the screen.

Furthermore, she is still a mystery woman.  Her film career was launched on a lie, and to this day the truth has never fully emerged.  Contradictory stories have been perpetuated in print since the very beginning.  Faced with these, I have chosen what seemed the most likely accounts; but a full-time trained hstorian is need to sift out the truth.  (For instance, was her ancestral name Barringer rather than Bara?)

It would be interesting to study her old films and find out how good she really was, especially in her later films after she’d had more screen experience.  Alas, a disastrous fire in the vaults of the Fox Studios in the 1940’s wiped out their film archives.  Of the forty-odd films that Theda Bara made for Fox, only A Fool There Was survives, the Museum of Modern Art having fortunately acquired a print of it several years earlier.  Here is all that’s left of Theda Bara.

Notes written by Fraser Macdonald

P.S. Miss Bara’s co-star in this film, EDWARD JOSE, is another of history’s forgotten actors. Who he was before or after this film is undoubtedly known to someone; but film historians don’t seem even to have enquired, let alone reported.

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