One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley visited someone who “promises to put the ‘new’ in ‘ingenue’”:
With a high-power comedy bear and comedy curls, Theda Bara has wrapped her misery cloak in mothballs…It was a Spanish interior set out at the Fox studio, and naturally you expected to see Theda Bara glide vampirishly forth, dolled up in a slinky frock, or leap into the scene with a nice shiny dagger held aloft, or drag herself sorrowfully in and drop down on the soggy sofa. Nothing of the sort.
Out through the door with its festoons of dried peppers dances a new Theda Bara. This Theda Bara is a mischievous sprite, who reminds you a bit of Dorothy Gish in her pepfullest moments, with just a dash of Constance Talmadge’s Mountain Girl.
And then Miss Bara was called away for the love scenes between herself and Al Roscoe, the hero. And such a love scene as it was! Though it was hedged in and embroidered with comedy—joyous, sparkling comedy—it was such a love scene as to make to palpitate the hearts of all the matinee girls from 16 to 60. Indeed, it is these touches of genuine drama, embroidering the comedy, as it were, which promise to give the world a new type of comedy drama. In other words, as Miss Bara says “The comedy has tragedy relief.”
In short, I think you’re going to be amazed when you see The Little She-Devil.
Unfortunately, Theda Bara’s attempt to expand her range wasn’t a success. They trimmed both the title (it was released as The She Devil) and the film: it’s lost, but it looks like they cut the comedy scenes. None of the trade magazine plot synopses say that anything was particularly funny, and they didn’t mention a comedy bear. Critics didn’t enjoy what remained. Kingsley wrote that it “is not a particularly good vehicle for her, being a sort of jitney Carmen…For an ordinary star, The She Devil would have been a piquant and acceptable story—but not for Theda Bara.” (January 20, 1919) P.S. Harrison in Motion Picture News agreed, writing “either there is a scarcity of stories, or some one has blundered in selecting this one for Theda Bara. Not only is it illogical, but unfitting her particular talents as well.” (November 9, 1918). That makes something Bara said to Kingsley sad:
But on one point Miss Bara is determined. Never, never again will she play a vampire role, if she can help it. She declared so herself.
That didn’t happen. She-Devil wasn’t a financial success, either, so it was back to the melodramas. According to Bara biographer Eve Golden, the box office failure wasn’t necessarily because of the bad reviews but because it was a victim of bad timing, being released in New York the day before the Armistice was signed, and people weren’t going to the movies that week.
Bara’s next one was The Light (1919), in which she played “the wickedest woman in Paris, quite an accomplishment when one considers the completion” wrote Golden. But the return to her usual stories didn’t help; the popularity of vampire films was passing, and her film career was coming to an end. In 1933, writer Frederick L. Collins interviewed her and found her a “lovely, gracious woman of the world,” who was reconciled to the idea that the average span of a picture star’s career was 5 years, so she sensibly stopped at four and a half. She married director Charles Brabin, traveled, became a gourmet cook, had lots of interesting friends and gave fantastic parties. Furthermore, as Golden points out, unlike most of the stars of 1918 she’s still remembered now.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a more successful comedy:
Well, they’ve done it, praise be! Ruggles of Red Gap, Harry Leon Wilson’s breezy story, unctuously funny, whimsically satirical, drolly human, has really been transferred to the screen.
It’s all there—the naïve horror of Ruggles at being introduced as ‘Col Ruggles of the British army,’ the sly humor of Cousin Egbert in putting Ruggles into Red Gap society when he has had him wished on him as a valet, the gentle satire on Anglomaniacs, the revelation of the genuineness and good-sportsmanship of Ruggles under his veneer of servant snobbery and his naïve misunderstanding of everything not English.
So the classic 1935 version of the story with Charles Laughton wasn’t the first. This version is lost.
Keaton couldn’t resist the challenge
To top it off, the additional feature was Roscoe Arbuckle’s Good Night, Nurse in its second week. Kingsley didn’t review it; Antony Anderson had the week before and he said “when Fatty becomes a lady nurse himself it is certainly up to you—you can’t resist the challenge—to redouble the loudness of your laughter. In short, Good Night Nurse is one of Roscoe’s best.” What a night at the movies!
Kingsley reported an unusual story about how far film can reach:
After having been given up for dead as his name could nowhere be found on the list of survivors of a recent ocean tragedy, Charles Spere, the young actor who is distinguishing himself in motion pictures as a juvenile, was located last week through his screen likeness by his father, an eastern traveling man.
Milton Spere happened to catch a screening of The Desert Wooing, which featured Charles as the heroine’s brother. He sent a telegram, and the two were reunited in Hollywood a few days later. Kingsley continued, “Spere Sr. has announced that he intends to lease a bungalow, give up his travelling and let friend son support him in his old age.”
You might wonder if this is really a happy ending, but Milton didn’t move in and freeload on his son. They lived in separate houses and he opened Spere and Hill, Auto Painters, according to the 1920 City Directory. Charles Spere had a brief career playing young men, then he became a manager in a clothing store.
Kingsley mentioned that dramatic actress Olga Petrova had made an announcement about forsaking the industry:
I don’t think I shall ever do any more pictures,” said the actress. “The stage is much more satisfactory to the artist and for that matter, I have made enough money, so it doesn’t matter to me financially whether I work any more or not. But being full of energy, I suppose I shall work at something, and, as it happens, the things I care most for are uncommercial.
The remarkable thing is that’s exactly what she did! Usually retirement declarations like this are actually vacation notices. She had gotten her start in film in 1914, so her five years were almost up, if Theda Bara’s star longevity theory is accurate. She was getting out when the getting was good. Petrova’s The Secret of Eve was the topic of one of Kingsley’s funnier pans.
Eve Golden. Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Vestal, NY: Emprise Publishing, 1996.
Frederick L. Collins. “The Mystery of the Vanishing Vampire,” New Movie Magazine, March, 1933, p. 40.