The vamp – she who decades later would become the femme fatale – was born on the very early silver screen and, like her descendent, revealed the anxiety of a society unprepared to see their women acquiring independence and self-determination.
In 1897, painter Philip Burne-Jones created a painting where a young man lay on a bed, and a young woman sat beside him with an air of defiance. He entitled the painting The Vampire, and it stirred some anxiety as the viewers wondered, is the young man drained of blood? Or…left exhausted?
When asked, Barn-Jones would only give a poem by his relative Rudyard Kipling as an explanation. These are the first verses:
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool, he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I.)
A few years later, Alice Eis and Bert French created a vaudeville act featuring a “Vampire Dance” clearly based on Burne-Jones’ painting. That act was turned into a play in 1909, entitled A Fool There Was.
In 1914, a film was produced with the same title, A Fool There Was. It was the story of a devoted family man who meets a beautiful stranger only known as ‘The Vampire Woman’ on a ship headed to England. This mysterious creature corrupts his soul, destroys his family, drains him of all of his money and dignity, and eventually causes his demise.
The actress who interpreted the Vampire was at her film debut. Her mane was Theda Bara.
The film was so successful that Bara kept playing the same kind of character for basically the rest of her short carrier.
Her pale face, long messy black hair and mysterious countenance set the standard for many other characters and actresses that came after her. For a short time, the vamp was extremely popular both on and off the silver screen.
The allure of the vamp
How could the vampire image become so popular at the apex of the New Woman historical arc?
The show business itself certainly pushed the image. It was a time when theatre offered shows with very scantily dressed women, as was the case of the enormously popular Ziegfeld Follies. The vamp was part of a larger, sensual trend.
But also, women were gaining independence and visibility and would soon gain the right to vote. Western society didn’t seem to know how to handle this novelty, and this created anxiety.
Theda Bara’s generation were the children of those newly empowered ‘New Women’. Past the first tentative stages, these women were capitalising on what the Gibson Girl had gained in terms of freedom and self-determination. In the 1910s, women became more visible, more mobile, more vocal. Suffragists manifested in the streets. The number of educated women was rising, as was the number of women who started a profession. In the middle of the decade, the outbreak of WWI offered more opportunities for women to show that they were not the fragile flowers in need of protection that the Victorians had depicted.
Indeed, it took some coping from their society.
After the war, those women turned into flippers, who danced the night away, drank and smoked, and went after men. To some commentators, they were indeed vamps.
The vamp always had a certain foreign hair around her. Her dark hair, eyes heavily rimmed with kohl, the mystery and the boldness to show her body were all characteristics that could in some way refer to the flapper too.
It is quite interesting that these women were identified with a vampire, someone who sucks the vital energy from another. As if women could not gain what they were after in everyday life with their own strength and wit, but they needed to take their energy – and therefore their victories – somewhere else, namely by sucking it away from men. In the 1940s, during and after another war, the femme fatale – who again was born on the screen – had quite the same fate.
Silent-Ology – Vamps! Your Great-Grandfather’s Femme Fatales
Bowery Boys – Before the flapper, the naughty ‘vamp’ scandalized New York
Open Culture – Meet Theda Bara, the First “Vamp” of Cinema, Who Revealed the Erotic Power of the Movies