Category Archives: historical fiction

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.

World’s Fair photos, 1904 – people on display

As promised, here are more photos from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
The woman on the left is an unnamed dancer at the Fair.
The people on the right are a fortune teller and his client from an elaborate display of the City of Jerusalem. (The display included reproductions of David Street, the Mount of Olives, the Mosque of Omar, and plenty of vendors.)

Next are shots from Mysterious Asia and the Streets of Cairo — a contortionist and a snake charmer, an assortment of Egyptians, and a “Nubian Runner.” Orientalism was the vogue at the Fair, and people came away with the impression that Asians and Arabs were geishas, gurus, camel riders, elephant herders, sword swallowers, harem girls, etc….

The Fair celebrated colonialism and literally put conquered people (or to-be-conquered people) on display. These displays were considered to be “educational” and “anthropological,” with an argument running through it all that these people were so “primitive” that their lives were bound to be much improved when the Caucasian Americans, Brits, Dutch, and the like took their land. So there were displays of aboriginal peoples from every continent, set up in recreations of their “real” environments (even though the climate in St. Louis is either too hot or too cold or too muggy, etc., to fit anyone’s ideal climate). So there were “authentic” displays of cliff dwellings, teepees, Japanese tea houses, even the Taj Mahal.

Since this is before good film footage and documentaries, it was a way that white Americans could imagine that they, too, were travelers on the Grand Tour, no matter how broke they might be. As offensive as their may be to us now (and it really is), there was a lack of information available to most people that made even the smartest ones among them incredibly, well, ignorant. — more to come.

Pola Negri in The Wildcat

Veering briefly off my World’s Fair posts, I had to mention that I’m on a silent film kick.   I’d say that I’m watching them for research, but that’s really only how it began.  I genuinely like them.  And for many reasons, but to boil it down simply, it’s because they (obviously) rely on images and a few (usually) written cards to tell the story.  And most of the time, the story does not hold to any single plot line, but veers about.  There seemed to be fewer expectations then that a story follow a particular structure–and here we think we’re the ones who are so experimental.  They did it before and they often did it more inventively.

Most early “classic” films we’ve seen are scripted sound films.  By the time most of these hit the screen, the censors were already clamping down.  So most people think of early films (and their eras) as sentimental and sweet, comparatively unsexual, with little violence.  But really there was a time when far more was done–before movies became a huge commodity.  For a time, when nobody was cashing in, risks could be taken.

Anyway, I’m going to post here a clip from a 1920 German movie by Ernst Lubitsch (who later went on to direct some funny, sad sound  comedies in English).  This is The Wildcat, starring Pola Negri.  Pola, as seen in this clip, had some men-whipping abilities, and she later went on to play mysterious sighing characters.  In this movie, she’s funny.  She was apparently in real life the ultimate drama queen who slept with as many men as possible; the most well known stories revolve around Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin.   The humor is the movie is incredibly goofball, poking fun at the men who become completely dominated by the women.  It’s  a *snicker, snicker* kind of humor, and there’s something kind of perverse and, well, Germanic about it.  The “whipping the elf guys” scene is particularly off the wall, especially since the guys have skulls on their snow hats.   What? I suggest just skipping around in the clip if you get bored; the pacing of these movies is slower than we’re accustomed to.

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To me, the oddest thing about this film is how nearly every shot is surrounded by a decorative cutout.  I’ve seen other silent movies using this effect, but this one uses it to an unusual extent.  I actually got a little bored with the effect after awhile, but I think it’s cool that they were trying to do something different with the camera.  And not to get to analytical, but Pola’s character here is very similar to Mountain Girl in DW Griffith’s film Intolerance, completed  four years prior to this one.  And Mary Pickford sometimes played this type, though she had more of an obvious heart o’ gold.  I’m a sucker for these sexy wild woman characters from the mountains.

Pola’s career basically ended with the invention of sound film (such was also the fate of the great German actor Emil Jannings–we Americans just didn’t like those accents, especially in the World War eras) and because of her own melodramatic tendencies — she just wasn’t in style anymore.   I’ve read that even though Pola ran with royalty, she died of a brain tumor in San Antonio.  Pola slunk away into the desert.

1904 World’s Fair dancers

Today I finished (I hope) my revisions on my World’s Fair chapter, wherein Sara, her friend Zoe Akins (who eventually becomes a famous playwright–a real person), and others go off to see the 1904 World’s Fair.  While this is the World’s Fair that appears in Meet Me In St. Louis, the Fair is WAY weirder than anything shown in that sweet sentimental film.

(Sara Teasdale on left; Zoe Akins on right)

Before I started this book, I had this idea that in America the 1960’s hit and suddenly everyone got sexual.  Or maybe the Twenties had a little of the leg showing, but just from flappers — but before that, it all seems like this haze of Victorian repression.  I have learned not to underestimate the submerged spiciness that was really going on.

I have a few photos of dancers that I need to scan and post.  For now I’ll just post a fairly chaste film clip and then a photo.  (Film was new then, remember, so they’d pretty much stick a camera on a tripod and shoot.  And much film disintegrated and is lost).   Most existing film of the fair is just crowd shots, so after this dancer, I’ll go back to posting photos.YouTube Preview Image

This is Princess Rajah, so they say.  She is overly dressed, compared to some photos I’ve seen, so I think this must have been an official video shot for the Fair people and then distributed on a newsreel.  She does an interesting balancing act with a chair.

This next photo can be found from the Library of Congress.  It is of a dancer named Fritzi and is apparently taken a little later than the World’s Fair, 1910.  She’s dressed here as Salome, which was quite the obsession in this era, especially (surprisingly?) among young women.  References to Salome come up many times in letters between educated, artistic women of the day, particularly as several plays feature her as a character.  Anyway, the mysterious belly dancer Fritzi:

welcome to the strange past

Here it is, the start of my blog on turn of the century oddness.  This blog is actually an accompaniment to my book-in-progress, Into the Beautiful New, which tells the stories of poets Vachel Lindsay and Sara Teasdale, zeroing in on the years from 1900-1930.  The "About" section of this site will tell you more about the book, and I'll explain more in later postings, too.  Suffice to say now that this site will have snippets of some of the odd information I ran across while working on the book.

Rather than blither about my own intents and purposes, let me just jump in.  Right now, I'm editing a chapter I wrote about Sara Teasdale going to the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. There's considerable strangeness to that Fair--it was considered to be an anthropological, "educational" Fair that used recently conquered humans as subjects for its displays. That is, these people were the displays, as I'll show you as we go along. Besides this, this Fair marked the end of a type of post-Victorian sensibility, as it glorified all kinds of "modern" inventions and celebrated then relatively new, but hardly common, conveniences--like electricity.

Since this is a book that uses Sara Teasdale's point of view and constructs the situation in scenes, I used much of the kind of basic info above as a way to put together the setting and feel of the piece. What I actually worked on today was a section on the dancers, sword throwers, acrobats, restaurants, and such located on the Fair's "Streets of Cairo" display.