Monday, February 15, 2016

A Fool There Was

Kiss me, my fool! Well, I forgot one important aspect of watching silent films - check to find which one has music. I ended up putting on a mixed Classical playlist, which is probably not too different from what was played during screenings. However, a weird trend in silent films being released now is having some sort of weird electronica music over the action. I hate when they do that - King Lear should not have scraping saw noises and bleeps. Anyway, silent films are always interesting to watch, in large part because the action is simply so different. The people make wide gestures and do an awful lot of mugging for the camera. I sometimes get the feeling we're supposed to read their lips, but the contrast is usually so poor as to make it completely impossible. They also have a very different concept of scene changes and cinematography. Citizen Kane famously was the first film to use two cameras running simultaneously, and Singin' in the Rain did a great job of re-creating the old soundstages, where a slice of action could happen while the director told the actors how to react. A Fool There Was is pretty shocking from the perspective of presentism. We tend to think of early cinema in terms of the Hayes Code, even though it wasn't enforced until 1934. The idea that the wicked could never prosper was a popular trope, but it is not evident in this movie. Theda Bara originated the Vamp character she later became fully type-cast as. She stalks around the set as much as her hobble skirt will allow, with a dead white face, black-rimmed eyes, and black lips, occasionally with her dark hair down her back as she is seen in various negligees. The story is concerned with her first causing the suicide of a man she has ruined, then seducing a married man (John Schuyler), and driving him to drink himself to death in despair. However, interestingly, while Bara's character is treated as a catalyst, and called things like "she-devil", this film does not try to excuse the men who are taken in by her. When she has abandoned John and his discarded wife comes to take him back, the Vamp comes back to prove her dominance - and the man isn't treated as being anything other than pathetic. Mrs. Schuyler's sister suspects the affair and accuses his business friends of covering it up out of male solidarity. And in the end, the Vamp moves on to Vamp another day. Theda Bara said she didn't overly like playing such characters, but she would continue to make these "cautionary tales" as long as "people continued to sin". If you're one of the types who can't stand silent movies one way or another, then probably skip this one, as it's an hour long (most silent films are much shorter). But this is definitely a very interesting period piece, full of lavish Edwardian costumes, and some rather surprising gender politics. Though there is a Chinese servant who gets a title card in "Me speakee Engreesh", but it did come out in 1915. And, unlike Birth of a Nation, the two actual black actors who appear on screen are allowed to appear with the white women. And one was a man. That was highly unusual at the time. I won't claim this as any kind of progressive film, but it is surprisingly so for 1915.

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