Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: William Fox

A Fool There Was (1915)

A Fool There Was

It’s high time I watched and reviewed this movie, which came out at the very beginning of 1915 (January 20) and was a big hit for the up-and-coming film entrepreneur William Fox. who founded the company that became 20th Century Fox and all of its derivatives. More importantly, it is known as the movie that launched the career of Theda Bara, who was one of the most important female stars of the Silent Classical Era, and also the movie that gave us the concept of the “vamp.” In fact, the film is based upon ( play based on) a poem by Rudyard Kipling, called “The Vampire,” and for some time in contemporary media, women such as Bara played were called “vampires,” without intending any supernatural or life-after-death elements. A “vampire” was a woman who lived off of men, luring them and exploiting them until they were no longer useful, then moving on to another.

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The above is an adequate summary of the plot of the poem and the film (and probably the play as well). A prominent businessman (Edward José, who was a Belgian actor, and also appeared in “The Stain” and “The Perils of Pauline”) is sent to England as a special envoy. Due to an accident, his wife’s sister is laid up and he has to leave his family behind as he sails across the ocean. On the boat, he meets the Vampire, who has just thrown over her drunken fool of a victim, a young lad who shoots himself as the boat begins to sail. Soon, they are together in Italy, where he is lavishing her with attention, and utterly ignoring his diplomatic assignment. He is seen by friends, and soon word gets out that he is neglecting his duties. He can no longer gain admittance to fancy clubs, and he is discharged from his job. His wife debates divorcing him, but chooses to stick it out. He goes back the US and takes up residence in the Vampire’s flat, but he’s drinking heavily now and noticeably aging. The wife makes an attempt to recover him, but the Vampire kisses him, and he’s trapped. His decline continues to its inevitable tragic end.

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Now, I was expecting a lot from this movie. Without getting overly personal, I’ve played the “fool” a few times in my life, and I fully expected to see in Bara the faces of women who’ve torn me up inside (or inspired me to tear myself up, more accurately). Instead, I saw a rather strong facial resemblance to Margaret Dumont. It doesn’t help that her character seems to be angry most of the time, or coldly dismissive. Nor that her wardrobe is generally heavy, unrevealing, and shapeless. I guess one could say that she comes across as dominating, and there are men who like that, I know, but I was surprised at how little sensuality she displays. The one time she seems aroused is when she first sees the “fool” on the boat, and there her heavings looked to me more like an asthmatic attack than an orgasm. Maybe it was that heavy dress that made it hard to breathe.

Seriously, I can't be the only one who sees this?

Seriously, I can’t be the only one who sees this?

Whatever my personal response, however, there is no denying that audiences at the time found Theda Bara exciting, and she shot to fame almost overnight when this film was released. The reviewer in the “New York Daily Mirror” expressed considerable enthusiasm for the movie, and was especially pleased that the producers had not tacked a happy ending on to it (people were already bothered by that 100 years ago). I’ve also seen a good deal of discussion in “Moving Picture World” of the harmful moral effect that the popularity of “Vampire” films had on the industry as a whole, although no one ever called out this picture as a bad example.

Bara’s career, as important as it was at the time, remains something of a mystery to us today, because almost all of her other major films are lost, while what we have a great deal of studio hype, much of which was blatantly phony. Fritzi Kramer, at Movies Silently, discussed this recently, in connection with a recipe Bara ostensibly devised. She did wind up typecast as the “Vampire,” of course, and in reality was apparently a fairly shy, demure woman. Later stills from her turn as “Cleopatra” show that as the Teens continued, she at least got out of those heavy shapeless dresses.

Theda as Cleopatra. A bit less demure.

Theda as Cleopatra. A bit less demure.

Director: Frank Powell

Camera: George Schneiderman

Starring: Theda Bara, Edward José, May Allison

Run Time: 1 hr, 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Regeneration (1915)

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, sponsored by Flicker Alley and hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. As it happens, our sponsor Flicker Alley offers a DVD with this movie and “Young Romance,” which I reviewed last week on it. For those who want to see it for free, here is the Worldcat link for that DVD in libraries throughout the world: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/50865456

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Urban criminals have been part of cinema at least since “The Bold Bank Robbery” and “Capture of the ‘Yegg’ Bank Robbers” – both follow-ups to Edwin S. Porter’s smash hit “The Great Train Robbery.” Many of the tropes now familiar to the genre were established when D.W. Griffith made “The Musketeers of Pig Alley.” Raoul Walsh, who learned filmmaking from working for Griffith, returned to the theme for his first feature, “Regeneration,” and in doing so quite probably made the first feature-length gangster movie. The similarities between “Musketeers” and “Regeneration” are pronounced – both involve the redemption of tough guys who’ve grown up in a harsh environment, and both emphasize the human side of the underworld, drawing on the audience’s desire to sympathize with the criminal.

 Regeneration

This movie may confuse modern fans, however, because rather than spending the bulk of its length depicting its protagonist’s criminal career, it chooses to focus on his efforts to rehabilitate himself (his “regeneration”). This can partly be explained by the source material, a book called My Mamie Rose, by Owen Frawley Kildare. This book is a fairly typical “conversion narrative” from the point of view of a former hoodlum gone straight, who wanted to tell of “the miracle that transformed me.” Unlike most such narratives, it isn’t Jesus Christ or a particular church that Kildare credits with his salvation, but the love of a woman named Marie Deering. The real Marie Deering died of pneumonia in 1903, the same year Kildare wrote his autobiography. It was popular, especially among reform-minded progressives, who held Kildare up as an example of the basic decency inside of every criminal, and gave rise to a stage version by 1908. In 1915, William Fox, a successful Nickelodeon entrepreneur who was breaking into movie production (read up on Fox at Once Upon A Screen’s contribution to the blogathon), bought the movie rights and handed the direction to Raoul Walsh.

 Raoul Walsh

Walsh was just starting out his career at this time, and no doubt jumped at the chance to direct the movie version of a popular book. He had worked with Griffith on a number of short films, and was also familiar to movie audiences as an actor. He had played the role of John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s runaway hit “The Birth of a Nation” (in what I consider to be one of the most palatable scenes in that movie). Now he would take on the challenge of a feature length film with a guaranteed audience among the book’s fans. Fox was a holdout for making movies on the East Coast at a time when much production was moving West, but no doubt the gritty locations of New York strengthened this movie’s impact.

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Regeneration opens in the Bowery area of New York city, with a casket being loaded onto a hearse. This is the body of the mother of our hero, called Owen Conway in this version, and played by Rockliffe Fellows (later in “Rusty Rides Alone” and “Monkey Business” with the Marx Brothers). Or, at least he will be, once he’s done growing out of a series of child actors. He’s taken in by the neighbors, who use him as child labor and an occasional punching bag. Owen and his “family” wear some of the rattiest clothes you’ll ever see on film, and the surroundings are consistently grimy, and random extras in the area are deformed or ugly. This is not a nice childhood. By the time he’s twenty five, and has transformed into Fellowes, he’s the leader of a gang, by virtue of his strength and cunning, and his adherence to the codes of the street.

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Now into the story comes an ambitious young District Attorney, played by Carl Harbaugh (also in Walsh’s lost version of “Carmen” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” with Buster Keaton), who has vowed to clean up crime in the city. His dinner party includes young social butterfly Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson, a Swedish actress, who went on to “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and “Sunset Boulevard“), who, at this stage in her development, thinks that seeing some real live gangsters would be exciting, so he takes them all out to a low-class nightclub/beer hall/vaudeville, where he is rapidly recognized and assaulted by the patrons. Owen watches this all, at first with disinterest, but, after he notices the girl, he steps in and breaks up the fight, saving the slumming socialites from the consequences of their actions. Deering is now convinced that the people living in the tenements need someone to show them the way out of poverty and hardship, and volunteers to work at a local mission, where (of course) she runs into Owen again. Owen starts coming around to the mission more, and disassociates himself from his old gang.

A thrilling scene takes place about midway through the film when Deering takes her charges on an outing on the ferry (where are they going, Staten Island? Not that uplifting, if you ask me, but maybe things were different then). Skinny, one of Owen’s old gang, comes along for the ride and carelessly starts a fire when he throws his cigarette into some rope. The burning ferry becomes a smaller version of the Titanic, with panicked passengers hurling themselves into the drink. Owen manages to save some kids, and the intertitles tell us that no children were killed during the disaster. Years later, Walsh told a humorous anecdote about this scene – that several of the women actors who lept from the ferry had no underwear on, and he and the editor had to draw them onto the film in post-production, due to the way their skirts flew up when jumping into the water. It’s a cute story, but not likely, since the long shot he uses here doesn’t allow the eye to catch that level of detail.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they're wearing.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they’re wearing.

Of course, Owen’s old life catches up with him, first, because the D.A. (who is not at all a likeable character, even if he does represent the forces of law and order) is still hoping to get Deering off the charity kick so she’ll marry him, and starts to snoop around to find out about this young punk who shows such an interest in her, and partly because his old colleague Skinny knifes a cop and comes running to him for hiding. It’s the last portion of the movie in which we get all the violence and excitement we expect in a gangster movie, with cops raiding the gangsters’ hangout, nightsticks thrown, guns blazing, and Skinny threatening to do goodness-knows-what after he’s kidnapped Marie. There’s also a marvelous stunt when Skinny tries to escape his fate by hand-over-handing his way across a laundry line tied between two towering tenement buildings. I don’t usually worry overmuch about “spoilers,” but in this case I think the ending is worth preserving – it has elements of redemption but also tragedy.

Regeneration4

Sorry, hipsters, this is what a beer growler really looks like.

Narratively, this movie has a lot in common with the Western genre. It’s very easy to imagine the same story told in California or Arizona: A man is redeemed from his savage, masculine life by the love of a more civilized woman, but has to return to his natural skills when her life and honor are threatened by the forces of his former world. Stylistically, it is very much of the more “advanced” kind of feature we’re getting used to here at the second half of 1915. There is good use of close-ups, lots of different camera angles, cross-cutting, iris shots, zooms, and a generally “freer” camera, that doesn’t feel as locked down as most of the movies of a year or more before. I also noticed a very sophisticated approach to intertitles: where they used to come before the action they described, now they often interrupt and action or explain it right after the fact. There’s also some great depictions of New York’s Bowery district nearly six decades before CBGB and the Ramones made it a playground for kids like me. Note especially the “growlers” (actually dented metal pails) of beer the residents prefer to drink from. The movie has wonderful style and is emotional evocative, even 100 years later. Reviews at the time emphasized its realism and humanity, and John McCarty, writing in Bullets over Hollywood, noted the debt that Marlon Brando’s character and performance in “On the Waterfront” owed to this movie and its spirit of redemption within a world of crime. Folks who enjoy gangster films will find it more than a curiosity.

Director: Raoul Walsh

Camera: Georges Benoît

Written by: Owen Frawley Kildare (book), Carl Harbaugh & Raoul Walsh (screenplay)

Starring: Rockliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, Carl Harbaugh, James A. Marcus, William Sheer

Run Time: 72 Min

I have not found it for free to watch on the Internet. If you do, please post a link in the comments.