I read Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by the always knowledgeable and enjoyable author, Eve Golden. I had originally begun reading the book William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation: A Biography and a Chronicle by an author I have met on a few occasions, Merill McCord, but when Bara was mentioned as Fox’s first full-fledged star, I became side-tracked, remembering that a friend had given me her bio, and went off on that tangent.
Most film buffs know that next to almost none of Theda’s films have survived, and the most available of what’s been found is A Fool There Was (1915). This is also the film that made Bara a star, so although it may not be an example of her best work, it certainly is an example of her earliest and most popular character in films.
As a young person, I think the image of Theda Bara was the epitome of silent glamour, later morphing into goth glamour due to her makeup, jet black hair and lacy clothing being so appealing. The made-up stories of her mysterious lives were fodder for the imagination, while her real-life was the opposite, the most ordinary of existences.
Starting way back in the teens, no studio publicists came up with more outrageous promotional ideas than Fox’s John Goldfrap and Al Selig to sell Miss Bara: she was an exotic Egyptian, a reincarnation of Cleopatra (to help promote her film of that name), was photographed with skulls and bones, was a true vampire (destroyer of men) in her everyday life and more.
The audience of the day caught on to the fact that this was all fiction but they didn’t care and loved their Theda best when she played the vamp. Theda became tired of this role but was at the mercy of her studio who wanted to cash in on what they knew worked. Every once in a while, Theda was given the role of a good girl but her audience didn’t come to see her in the droves they did when she was bad.
Theda’s weight fluctuated throughout her four consecutive years in film. She was far from athletic, her main interest was reading, spending time with her family and acting. She was a homebody with intellectual pursuits.
A Cincinnati girl, she was born Theodosia Burr Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor and his wife, with two younger siblings, Marque and Lori. When she married director Charles Brabin in 1921, she was just shy of her 36th birthday. The marriage lasted until her death on April 7, 1955, at the age of 69.
When you watch A Fool There Was, you get a glimpse of the Theda that she was to become in the remaining 38 films she made in her four years of fame. She made only one film in 1914, prior to A Fool There Was, and after her career ended in 1919, she made one film in 1925 and a short in 1926. Her only other surviving film is East Lynn, made in 1916–unless someone finds one hidden in their attic or some such place somewhere in the world.
In this, A Fool There Was, Theda plays the woman all men cannot resist. We have to assume it’s all to do with sex because if most of us acted the way she did, basically bratty, I don’t think that would work as the behaviour that would keep women’s lovers on a close-linked chain–or train to their wreck and ruin.
Regardless, if you haven’t seen the film in many years, or ever, it’s one of the earliest examples you will find of the making of an icon whose name still lives in our memories.
I got together with a few friends for a birthday celebration and we ended the evening by watching the Canadian film Level 16 (2018). It’s the story of orphaned teenage girls who are living in a sparsely furnished, claustrophobic building that acts as a boarding school. As they advance scholastically and as well as in age, they move up a floor in this building they are housed in. But the mystery is, what motivates the owners of this little academy to keep these girls on such a short tether? And when our heroine Vivien (Katie Douglas) begins to unravel the mystery, she and her fellow roommates have to make some impromptu decisions. A slow-moving, but still suspenseful little film directed by Danishka Esterhazy and filmed in my hometown of Toronto.
Over the weekend, I watched Secret and Lies (1996), something I saw when it first came out. I remember liking it, especially enjoying Brenda Blethyn’s over-the-top performance. What I didn’t remember was that Timothy Spall had a major role, as her sensitive younger brother and who’s probably most well-known for playing Wormtail in the Harry Potter film series. I still liked the film this second time around but had to say that Blethyn’s character, Cynthia, could sometime have me rolling my eyes with her constant feeling sorry for herself. Claire Rushbook, as Cynthia’s 21-year-old daughter Roxanne, was so darn nasty, that it made it quite fun and sometimes jolting to listen to the rude and button-pushing dialogue the two shared. Probably one of the best of the nastier lines was when Cynthia said she could still turn a few heads, with Roxanne mumbling, “and a few stomachs”.
It doesn’t give anything away to say that the main plot of the film centres around an educated young black woman, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who begins looking for her birth mother shortly after the death of her beloved adopted parents. Skipping to the final big scene, I’m not sure I would have stuck around at that birthday dinner party although I’m glad Hortense did, giving the film a more upbeat ending, not always found in films directed by Mike Leigh.
But back to Blethyn. I’ve not seen her in too many roles, but one of my favourites is the blowsy character she played as another mother in Little Voice, made two years later opposite Michael Caine. As for Secret and Lies, it’s still timely since most people want to know their biological roots especially with access to records being more available these days.
On Sunday, I went to Toronto Film Society’s screening of Kiss Me Kate (1953). If you have already heard me say this, then sorry to repeat myself, but I just don’t care all that much for musicals. Why? Because there’s never that much of a story, or for certain, interesting dialogue. And if the song and/or dance isn’t entertaining enough, I just want them to get on with whatever story they keep interrupting. Kiss Me Kate wasn’t the greatest story, but it did have some entertaining songs and superb dance sequences.
To begin with, this gorgeous Technicolor movie was filmed both flat and in 3-D. Unfortunately, the theatre it was screened at didn’t have access to projecting it in 3-D (and a friend of mine would have lent me his 3-D copy if they did!) but the colour and scope still made everything and, especially, everybody look luscious.
The main plot revolves around the backstage lives of the actors playing a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, which more or less mirrors the relationship of the two leads in this comedy, Katherine and Petruchio.
Howard Keel as Fred Graham playing Petruchio is a beautiful man. Keel was good looking, had a great body (as pretty much everyone in the film did since the majority were dancers) and he had a wonderful baritone singing voice. Keel fought to be cast in this role since the studio had planned for Laurence Olivier to play the part. Luckily, director George Sidney was able to promote Keel strongly enough to influence the powers that be to give him the part.
We’re never quite sure of the exact reason why this couple decided to divorce in the first place, but Fred has arranged it so that he’s playing against his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi as Katherine (Kathryn Grayson). She’s petite and delicate looking, surprising you that she’s able to smack this giant man around with gusto. She’s physically absolutely lovely but shows her disdain for her ex by acting churlish, which detracts from her charms.
Meanwhile, there’s Ann Miller playing the “Shrew’s” Bianca who steals the show! Even if she’s not classically beautiful, she’s still stunning in glorious Technicolor and an exceptional dancer. She’s also nuanced and funny and just plain delightful. Her opening dance sequence is worth the watch of the film. Later, when she performs the dance number “Tom, Dick or Harry”, I couldn’t keep the smirk off my face.
We studied “The Taming of the Shrew” back in high school and I always remembered that Bianca meant “pure” and “white”, which were the traits this character reflected. Because of this, I further understood that Bianca should be blonde, so “hmmed” when Miller didn’t come out sporting a blonde wig. But, heck, it was just a thought, nothing important.
Among the dancers, you’ll get to see exciting performances by Tommy Rall, Bobby Van, Bob Fosse, and Carol Haney, including an uncredited cameo by choreographer Hermes Pan as a sailor during one number with Rall and Miller.
I’d like to mention that Ron Randell who I recently saw in The Mating of Millie had the small role of playing Cole Porter; and last, but not least, James Whitmore was particularly impressive as one of the two big-hearted gangsters, Slug. I never, ever imagined Whitmore as a song and dance man, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes off of him in his duet with his partner-in-crime, Keenan Wynn, who incidentally, actually looked like he knew how to dance when I bothered to glance at him. Keenan, by the way, was the son of that great clown, Ed Wynn, best known to me as the giggling Uncle Albert in 1964s Mary Poppins.
So, another four films that may pique your interest–or not. Thanks for reading. I hope to be back next week because I have one film that I definitely hope, if you haven’t seen it already, you’ll be interested in once you read about it.