Monthly Archives: March 2011

Theda Bara, the vamp


Theda Bara, the original female vampire or “vamp,” manslayer extraordinaire — well, I finally watched the only movie of hers on Netflix, A Fool There Was, from 1915. (Only a few of her films still exist.) For a brief time in Hollywood there was a run of vamp movies, with the star of that moment being Theda Bara. I found this pretty bad movie to be fascinating in the way it depicts women and in what I found to be a hilarious performance by Theda. She is just the ultimate in evil woman camp. The video clip I’ve inserted (which I didn’t make) shows some great scenes from that film combined with some nice shots of Theda in various costumes.

As a quick critique, the movie is sheer post-Victorian melodrama, with women divided between the perfect, forgiving, somewhat frumpy wife with an adorable angelic blond headed child who always says her prayers (and believe me, in this movie they were so boring!) and the eternally watchable, fun, blackhaired woman playing poker and then lounging on a chaise Theda Bara. She and the script are absolutely over the top, even by early film standards. She causes one man to blow his brains out on the boat that she has taken in order to lure a diplomat away from his mission and into her clutches. Of course, she then leads said wealthy politician to drink and dissipation, and he eventually goes mad. And she laughs — hahaha! She traps them with a flower, then throws the flower on their graves. Theda throws in some interesting nuances, too, that make the character almost (well, not quite) believable — she owns it. The woman is cranky. She’s demanding. She’s bored. She has nothing to do but trap men and lure them to their doom. Even then, she looks annoyed about the whole thing. This makes her more than just a slink-around vampire.

This movie is a hoot. Yet I think at the time it was probably seen as a straight up cautionary tale. — It’s worth watching just to see Theda roll her eyes at the silliness of it all and wear some really cool costumes.

 

figuring out St. Louis, 1909

I’ve moved on to two other chapters (one new, one a revision) since my last post. And I always mean to pop up weekly updates, and then I get busy and don’t. Now, if I could learn some brevity, I’d be able to post efficiently. I fear the Twitter culture and I will never truly have a relationship.

Anyway, I’m now in a new chapter, a transition point between two already written chapters, that is set in St. Louis. Sara Teasdale grew up there, and I have some chapters where she and Zoe Akins and some of her other friends do their version of sedate rabblerousing. Even though St. Louis was the big city point for those who grew up in Central Illinois, I really only made it there a few times. I was struck then on how old the city felt (and how humid)–old and beautiful, old and deteriorating. I do know that the St. Louis of 1909 was quite different from the one that exists now, with most of the buildings having been destroyed long ago.

Although I have some books about St. Louis’ past, I’m surprised at the lack of information on it relative to Chicago or New York. St. Louis, after all, had once hoped to be the capital of the West. Much of the material has the feel of boosterism, an almost defensive sort held by a city that has been in decline for a long time now. I can find plenty of information about the World’s Fair, but far less about the ordinary interior and exteriors of homes then (aside from mansions) and the people who walked the streets.

In another vein, I’ve read some depressing critiques of the city by urban planners that rake the city for making poor planning decisions based on race and class. (The most important of these is the book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.) Basically, entire neighborhoods were wiped out or divided up into nonexistence, particularly when the highways and the arch were built. I’m still reading about this, even though it doesn’t directly affect by own book. Rhe tenor of future troubles does affect the history that I choose to include. To me, my story has to carry some ramifications for what is going on now–otherwise, it’s pointless.

I found a great web site about the ongoing demolition of St. Louis’ old elegant buildings. It’s called Dotage St. Louis; check it out if you have an interest in the debate surrounding St. Louis’ future and past. It has some great photos and commentary. Since similar destructions are happening in every city, I imagine anyone could share in the sense of loss and the need for urban strategy.

Sara Teasdale left St. Louis in her late twenties, as did many of her friends. Having gone to a girls’ prep school, Hosmer Hall, these women were imbued with a sense that there were greater things out there in the world — especially in New York. Her parents remained in St. Louis, living in the selective neighborhood of Kingsbury Place until their deaths. (The picture to the right is of the gates to the houses in Kingsbury Place.) Sara did go back to St. Louis after their deaths to make decisions about the property; though nearly broke by that point, she never seriously considered returning. I can only theorize, really, as to why, by putting together what random pieces of information exist. Some of it was being comfortable in her small apartment in New York; some of it was that her friends had all scattered; some of it was the terrible ambivalence she felt about her mother and about their huge, fancy house in the gated community of Kingsbury Place (they had moved there from the Central West End when she was an adult–she grew up a few blocks from T.S. Eliot); some of it was St. Louis’ awful pollution; and some of it, I think, was her sheer boredom with the Midwest. There is probably not a child in the Midwest who doesn’t sometimes wonder and fantasize what lies beyond. Sara kept looking for that mythical “beyond” even when it was clear that she would never truly find it.

Anyway, from my view, St. Louis is a beautiful French-influenced city that never failed to impress me. If what they say about its decline is true — that’s it’s one of the most dangerous cities in the country with a deteriorating core — then it’s a real tragedy.