Daniel Barnes: My main reason for putting together this festival, beyond exploring a few actresses whose films I had never seen, was to examine cinematic sexuality in the silent era. As I said in my festival intro, movies don’t create trends, but they do mythologize them. All three of the films covered in the festival are about sex, and as such they are scrapbooks filled with the fears and desires of their times. Beyond that, all three actresses spotlighted in this festival were in many ways defined by their allure, and by the way their characters wielded sex appeal like a weapon. Men are not just tittilated or turned-on by these women – they are positively transfixed! Theda Bara’s Vamp wraps the souls of men around her finger; Clara Bow’s It girl manipulates millionaire playboys into behaving like classless buffoons; and in Pandora’s Box, Louise Brooks’ sex appeal is practically airborne. There is a recurring sequence of Brooks reducing a man to a simpering half-drunk by her mere presence, followed by them quizzically shaking their head once she departs, as though awakening from a trance. Dub, I assume you were about as unfamiliar with these three actresses as I was before this festival…which of them made the biggest impression on you?
Mike Dub: The biggest impression left on me was Clara Bow in It, a film and performance whose quality really surprised me. I knew what to expect, basically, from the other two films, having known more about their reputation, but I had no real expectations for It. Bow’s sexuality was not only front and center in the picture, but her presence remained light and charming throughout. She manipulates her man, but we are totally on her side as she is doing it, and she is bright and fun, rather than dark and corrupting. The positivity of her sexuality is one of the most appealing aspects of both her and the movie. Bow rose to stardom during the height of the roaring ’20s, eventually becoming the icon of the short-haired, liberated flapper. In fact, each of these three silent stars created a persona that far outreached any of the individual roles in these films. Given that each of the stars had such different forms of sex appeal, how much do you think the “personality” of these women impacts their sex appeal on-screen?
DB: The two are almost indivisible, and a big part of the enduring appeal of these actresses is that they walked the walk and, figuratively speaking, talked the talk. Bow’s scheming good girl is sexy in a way that is the complete polar opposite of Bara’s domineering vamp, with Brooks meeting somewhere in the morally ambiguous middle. In It, Bow’s character is virginal, and yet she is willing to sacrifice her own reputation to protect her pal. One of my favorite scenes in It comes when Bow slaps the amorous millionaire she’s been pursuing for the entire film, then races inside and sighs with lovestruck ecstasy, as though he had actually kissed her. She is “decent” enough to do the right thing, even if she doesn’t really mean it. For all of the time that Bow spends manipulating men and shedding her outer garments in It, she is really set up as the film’s moral hero – we don’t even mind that she plays the millionaire’s friend for a chump. That’s a major contrast to the Bara character in A Fool There Was, who only takes pleasure in reducing powerful men to drunken piles of dust, and is quite clearly the villain of the piece. Brooks’ Lulu also reduces every male in her vicinity to a shambles, but it springs less from a calculating and cruel nature than from raw carnality and survivor’s instinct. The men in her life destroy themselves, and if anything, Lulu is far too accepting of their weakness. Brooks is the actress who intrigued me the most from this festival, not just with her sexuality but with her ability to simultaneously project clarity and mystery. I’m really looking forward to watching Diary of the Lost Girl, her other collaboration with director G.W. Pabst. Dub, we’ve spent so much time during this festival talking about the lead actresses in these three films, but did any of their male co-stars stand out for you?
MW: What stood out to me in terms of the male characters is how secondary they are. Even Edward Jose’s “the husband” in A Fool There Was, ostensibly the main character of the film, is really just a slate on which to showcase Bara, who despite having far less screen time is the clear focus of the film. In addition to their being overshadowed by the women, the men in these films also suffer from an inherent vulnerability to these sexy sirens. These women use their sexuality as a form of power otherwise unattainable to them, but for the most part the men’s surrender to it is seen as a product of their faulty character. One thing we haven’t talked a lot about during this festival is the visual style of these films. They span about fifteen years during the nascent stage of cinema, ending just as the movies were converting wholesale to sound. What role do you think the advancing technology had on the markedly different styles of these three films?
DB: I don’t think that you can separate artistic advances in film from technological advances, and we certainly saw a major advance between the first film in the festival and the other two pictures. Although made in 1915, A Fool There Was displays little of the technical and narrative strides that D.W. Griffith was making at the same time with Birth of a Nation. Fast forward a dozen years to It, a movie made right on the cusp of the sound era, and you have an opening shot that combines a zoom and a special effect. Like most conventional dogma about old Hollywood, the argument that movies experienced a visual regression during the awkward conversion to sound is overstated and specious, but you can feel like the cinematic freedom of late silent film even in a fluffy star vehicle like It.
OK, that’s enough blather – let’s put a (Clara) bow on this festival by ranking and grading all three films:
2) It (B+)
1) Pandora’s Box (B+)
2) It (B)
3) A Fool There Was (C+)
If you agree or disagree with us, would like to offer thoughts on any of the actresses covered in this festival, or just want to mount a passionate defense of Edward Jose, please leave us a comment here or on our Facebook page. Our Psychotherapy on Film festival continues on Monday with Daniel Barnes’ review of the 1977 film Equus.