Friday, October 06, 2017

A Fool There Was, film concert (2017 score by Philip C. Carli)


A Fool There Was (US 1915) with Theda Bara and Edward José. William Fox Vaudeville Company / Box Office Attractions Company. Public domain. Image: Wikipedia. Please click to enlarge the image.

US 1915, D: Frank Powell, scen, adapt: Roy L. McCardell, Frank Powell, from: the play by Porter Emerson Browne (1909), the poem by Rudyard Kipling (1897), painting by Philip Burne-Jones (1897), photog: George Schneiderman, cast: Edward José (The Husband [John Schuyler]), Theda Bara (la donna vampiro / The Vampire), Mabel Frenyear (The Wife [Kate Schuyler]), May Allison (la cognata / The Wife’s Sister), Runa Hodges (The Child), Clifford Bruce (The Friend [Tom]), Victor Benoit (One of Her Victims [Parmalee]), Frank Powell (The Doctor), Minna Gale (The Doctor’s Wife), [Creighton Hale (The Vampire’s new admirer, guest at wild party), Makoto Inokuchi (servant)], prod: William Fox Vaudeville Company; presented by William Fox, dist: Box Office Attraction Co., filmed: 1914 (Fox / Willat Studio, Ft. Lee, New Jersey; St. Augustine, Florida), rel: 12.1.1915, 35 mm, 5284 ft (orig. 6 rl.), 78 min (18 fps); titles: ENG, source: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Preserved with support from The National Film Preservation Foundation / Park Service, The Film Foundation.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone: The Canon Revisited.
    World premiere of a score composed and conducted by Philip C. Carli.
    Played by the Philip C. Carli quintet with David Shermancik, Günter Buchwald, Romano Todesco, and Cristina Nadal.
    Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in Italian, 6 Oct 2017

Leslie Midkiff DeBauche (GCM 2017): "“There has always been a mantle of mystery around me, a consummation partly the result of chance, partly of design, and partly the result of consistent work on the part of the press department,” said Theda Bara in 1916. Born in 1885 or 1890, in the shadow of the Sphinx or in Cincinnati, the daughter of an Italian painter or a Russian Jewish tailor, she played bit parts in several plays beginning in 1908 and acted in the Yiddish theatre. As Theodosia Goodman, her actual name, she appeared in the 1914 feature film The Stain (Pathé) directed by Frank Powell. The following year Powell moved to Fox Film, where he recommended the unknown actress for the role of The Vampire, “the woman who did not care… And never could understand,” in A Fool There Was. William Fox signed her to a five-year contract on the advice of Robert Hilliard, the matinee idol who had played the husband on stage when A Fool There Was ran at New York’s Liberty Theatre in 1909; he predicted that “the part will make her.” It did. Renamed Theda Bara, she became a celebrity."

"The artist Philip Burne-Jones (son of the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones) had prefigured the female vampire, a soulless “rag and a bone and a hank of hair,” in his 1897 painting depicting a satiated woman, her eyelids drooping, her mouth half-opened, leaning over the still body of a man whose chest shows the mark of her teeth. Burne-Jones’s cousin, Rudyard Kipling, wrote a poem called “The Vampire,” which began with the words “A fool there was,” to accompany the painting’s exhibition. In 1909 the American author Porter Emerson Browne used the poem as the basis for a stage play. That same year he also fleshed out her story in a novelization which provided the Vampire’s backstory: she was the illegitimate child of a peasant and a debauched French nobleman."

"A slightly different vampire emerged in the Fox film (there had been two earlier movie adaptations: Selig’s 1910 The Vampire, and Vitagraph’s 1913 The Vampire of the Desert). Via the film’s narrative structure and its style – especially editing and mise-en-scène – Bara’s “hell cat” becomes, ironically, a more conventional but also a more dangerous “other woman,” wielding her sexuality to attain position and wealth. No longer the bad seed of a corrupt line or an embodied libido, she is an angry social climber whose seduction of the Husband is motivated by a snub from his wife. Even before she acts to entrap Schuyler, a father, Wall Street lawyer, and citizen-statesman on a mission to the Court of St. James, contemporary audiences would have recognized that she was ill-bred, if not immoral: her clothes are all “wrong.”"

"At a resort where most ladies are relaxing wearing white summer dresses and soft, non-tailored suits, the Vampire wears a tight striped skirt, and encases herself in an exotic form-fitting dark jacket with a long tapered back, like tails; the shape of this ensemble resembles a wasp’s carapace. Instead of a conventional wide-brimmed hat, trimmed with lace to keep off the sun, she sports a dark straw hat with a flipped brim on one side, with one tall trailing feather. Cutting-edge perhaps for Europe but outré in the Schuylers’ circles, she stands apart. Making her stand out even further in this milieu, she wears far too much make-up, especially around the eyes."

"The Vampire is contrasted with a range of female types. First, she competes with the long-suffering, ever-loyal Kate Schuyler for her husband’s love. Second, she is contrasted with Kate’s sister, a spunky American girl engaged to Schuyler’s best friend. While the Vamp is deviant in every respect, the sister represents all that is correct and appropriate to the gendered norms of the day. Surprisingly however, the most intriguing female character vis à vis the Vampire is the Schuylers’ young daughter."

"Her hair dressed in ringlets and a doll in her arms, the little girl seems to be as ingenuous as the Vampire is deceptive. And yet, an editing motif established early in the film parallels these two characters. In a series of juxtapositions, the child behaves like a “baby vampire” in the slang this film spawned, a vamp-in-training. Both characters are imperious, literally controlling where men sit and what they do. Both emasculate men. Twice Schuyler kneels before the Vampire, his head slumped on her bosom. Similarly, the child forces the family butler to play with her doll, to hold her kitten while she “reads” the newspaper, and to let her ride him like a horse. While these scenes function as comic relief, their pattern begs the question: would, could this child grow up to be a vampire?"

"The girl and the Vampire also function as rivals for John Schuyler. A striking use of mobile framing illustrates their irreconcilable, and equally impossible, goals: the child wants her father back, her family reunited; the Vampire desires social acceptance. A high-angled shot of a busy New York street centers on two cars driving side by side. One contains Schuyler’s wife and daughter, the other Schuyler with the Vampire. Husband and wife face away from one another, but the child leans towards her father’s vehicle desperately crying, “Papa dear, I want you!” While he cowers, the Vampire responds to her with a wave and a smile."

"At the end of the film, the girl is brought to her father’s apartment. “As a last appeal I will take his child to him,” says Tom, Schuyler’s friend. She takes her father’s hand and tries to pull him out of his chair, towards the door and home. Yet the Vampire has only to enter the frame, and Schuyler turns towards her, never looking back at his daughter, doomed."

"Kipling’s poem is quoted one last time: “So some of him lived, but the most of him died.” The film resolves the poem’s ambiguity: at the end, Schuyler truly is dead. His family is broken, his diplomatic mission to England unrealized. Still, the Vampire’s victory is pyrrhic. Alone again, without money, or sex, or love (at least temporarily), she’s last seen dressed similarly to the figure in the Burne-Jones painting, smiling over Schuyler’s body. That final image reinforces the moral void at her centre, much as Kipling does with his last line, “(Seeing, at last, she could never know why) / And could never understand!
” Leslie Midkiff DeBauche"

The music

Philip C. Carli: "A Fool There Was has always fascinated me – there is so little of Theda Bara left to see, it was a shatteringly popular success upon release, its director (Frank Powell) is barely a footnote in film history, and it has had an unequivocally negative (and often snide) assessment in film histories up to the present. What is it?"

"A damned good film, in my opinion, and one whose emotional impact has made it one of the hardest things to compose for I’ve ever faced."

"Such a progressively degrading and bleak narrative, so well depicted by its stars, writers, director, and cameraman (George Schneiderman was a genius, I must say) has impacted me very hard. I don’t know if that will come through in the music I’ve composed, but I have viewed this not so much as a morality tale but as a story of severely flawed human beings who all have the capacity of free will, but choose their paths according to their class, personalities, and predilections. No one is simple or simplistically portrayed; there are moral and ethical choices everywhere, and most of them are misdirected. Though it would be a stretch beyond belief to equate director Frank Powell and scenarist Roy McCardell’s effort with, say, the films of Evgeni Bauer, there are corollaries here and there with elements of Bauer’s intricate fatalistic outlook. There is a control in Theda Bara’s performance throughout the film which makes Edward José’s dissolution all the more painful to watch – if you accept the premise. I stress this because I think of Bara’s character as a succubus – succubi are accepted psychological personae, and Theda Bara’s part is not a male fantasy, but a female entirely in charge of herself in a specific mental and emotional way, obtaining strength and independence through methodically using others to her own ends. She is, in a way, almost admirable; she is certainly compelling to watch and assess in every respect. And the focus is on her and her psyche from the opening credit: “a psychological drama by Porter Emerson Brown”."

"Musically, it has been difficult to fully complement this film. Its bleakness has been a challenge to partner, as much as I desire to embrace it. I try to make colors emerge from the progressive despair and not have it be simply melodramatically monochrome; glints of tension, corruption, and attractive evil coming through the harmony and melody are what I believe highlight the emotion and pain that seeps through the film to its final moments. Musically I am a craftsman first and an artist second; A Fool There Was is a film that must be viewed as craft that became art, almost in an unconscious way, and I hope to link with it sympathetically and evocatively, however it may be viewed by modern audiences.
" Philip C. Carli

AA: I saw for the first time A Fool There Was. It was screened in Pordenone in The Canon Revisited series, one of whose intentions is to screen films which everyone is aware of but few have seen.

I was impressed by the blunt and bold approach to the tragedy. Theda Bara as the vamp is a force of nature, a pheromone powerhouse whose mere presence derails men and sends them onto a path to destruction. One rots in jail, another is an alcoholic wreck in the gutter, and her latest conquest puts a bullet through his brain when Theda abandons him, but not before ordering: "Kiss me, my fool!"

Theda is usually rude and sulky. Her animal magnetism is so irresistible that she does not even need to smile.

We start at the sunset of the happiness of the Schuyler family. John Schuyler receives a letter from the State Department: he has been appointed U.S. Ambassador in England. This being 1915, a fatally important mission.

His wife Kate's sister is injured when she falls from a car, and Kate stays home to take care of her.

On board of the ocean liner Gigantic the languorous Theda immediately starts to spin her web around John. Two months later they are on a love holiday in Italy. But "why are your thoughts in America when you say your heart is in Italy?"

Because of John's conduct nobody wants to meet the U.S. Ambassador. Schuler is a disgrace to his country, and he is dismissed. His staff resigns, too.

Kate knows everything but stands by her man. "A cross means love, and love often means a cross", she explains to their little daughter. Reading John's mail Theda adds to the signature: "The Fool".

In one of the most memorable images of the movie two cars meet: John with Theda, and Kate with the daughter. The daughter misses her daddy most.

Kate tries to rescue John from Theda's spell, to no avail. Kate's confrontation with Theda is electrifying. "As a last appeal I will take his child to him". John is now a drunken ruin, a shadow of his former self, but his daughter's visit moves him to return to his family. Then the mere appearance of Theda makes him turn around for good. He crawls on the stairs, struts and frets and falls.

"So some of him lived, but the most of him died (even as you and I)" is the final text: Rudyard Kipling's poem The Vampire is used liberally in the intertitles.

A Fool There Was is an essential work in the screen history of divas, femmes fatales and love goddesses, interesting to watch during the same week with Pola Negri vehicles. Theda Bara is a truly fatal woman, dressed in black, intelligent and clever, incarnating sexual desire only. When Marlene Dietrich played fatal women there was always a tender and maternal side. None of that with Theda Bara.

An inspired score by Philip C. Carli played with feeling by Carli, David Shermancik, Günter Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Cristina Nadal perfectly in tune with a film which is highly stylized and exaggerated but in an energetic and sophisticated way.

A watchable print from sources with sometimes a soft, shaky and duped look.

No comments: