I thought I’d also post one of his Cloudland Revisited pieces. They are classic Perelman, wherein he re-reads or reviews a book or film that had deeply impressed him in his youth. The results, as in this one from 1950, while somewhat disheartening for Perelman, are comic ambrosia for the rest of us…
The Wickedest Woman In Larchmont
If you were born anywhere near the beginning of the century and had access at any time during the winter of 1914-15 to thirty-five cents in cash, the chances are that after a legitimate deduction for nonpareils you blew the balance on a movie called A Fool There Was. What gave the picture significance, assuming that it had any, was neither its story, which was paltry, nor its acting, which was aboriginal, but a pyrogenic half pint by the name of Theda Bara, who immortalized the vamp just as Little Egypt, at the World’s Fair in 1893, had the hoochie-coochie.
My own discovery of Miss Bara dates back to the sixth grade at grammar school and was due to a boy named Raymond Bugbee, a detestable bully who sat at the desk behind mine. Bugbee was a fiend incarnate, a hulking, evil-faced youth related on both sides of his family to Torquemada and dedicated to making my life insupportable. He had perfected a technique of catapulting BB shot through his teeth with such force that some of them are still embedded in my poll, causing a sensation like tic douloureux when it rains.
Day after day, under threat of the most ghastly reprisals if I squealed, I was pinched, gouged, and nicked with paper clips, spitballs, and rubber bands. Too wispy to stand up to my oppressor, I took refuge in a subdued blubbering, which soon abraded the teacher’s nerves and earned me the reputation of being refractory. One day, Bugbee finally overreached himself. Attaching a steel pen point to the welt of his shoe, he jabbed it upward into my posterior. I rose into the air caterwauling and, in the attendant ruckus, was condemned to stay after school and clap erasers. Late that afternoon, as I was numbly toiling away in a cloud of chalk dust, I accidentally got my first intimation of Miss Bara from a couple of teachers excitedly discussing her.
“If you rearrange the letters in her name, they spell ‘Arab Death,'” one of them was saying with a delicious shudder. “I’ve never seen an actress kiss the way she does. She just sort of glues herself onto a man and drains the strength out of him.” “I know–isn’t it revolting?” sighed the other rapturously. “Let’s go see her again tonight!”
Needless to add, I was in the theatre before either of them, and my reaction was no less fervent. For a full month afterward, I gave myself up to fantasies in which I lay with my head pillowed in the seductress’s lap, intoxicated by coal-black eyes smoldering with belladonna. At her bidding, I eschewed family, social position, my brilliant career–a rather hazy combination of African explorer and private sleuth–to follow her to the ends of the earth.
I saw myself, oblivious of everything but the nectar of her lips, being cashiered for cheating at cards (I was also a major in the Horse Dragoons), descending to drugs, and ultimately winding up as a beachcomber in the South Seas, with a saintly, ascetic face like H.B. Warner’s. Between Bugbee’s persecutions that winter and the moral quicksands I floundered into as a result of A Fool There Was, it’s a wonder I ever lived through to Arbor Day.
A week or so ago, seeking to ascertain whether my inflammability to Miss Bara had lessened over the years, I had a retrospective look at her early triumph. Unfortunately, I could not duplicate the original conditions under which I had seen her, since the Museum of Modern Art projection room is roach-free and lacks those powerful candy-vending machines that kicked like a Colt .45. Nonetheless, I managed to glean a fairly comprehensive idea of what used to accelerate the juices in 1915, and anyone who’d like a taste is welcome to step up to the tureen and skim off a cupful.
Produced by William Fox and based on the play by Porter Emerson Browne, A Fool There Was maunders through a good sixth of its footage establishing a whole spiral nebula of minor characters before it centers down on its two luminaries, the Vampire and the Fool. As succinctly as I can put it, the supporting players are the latter’s wife Kate, an ambulatory laundry bag played by Mabel Frenyear; their daughter, an implacably arch young hoyden of nine, unidentified; Kate’s sister (May Allison); her beau, a corpulent slob, also anonymous; and a headlong butler seemingly afflicted with locomotor ataxia.
All these inhabit a depressing chalet in Larchmont, where, as far as I could discover, they do nothing but shake hands effusively. A tremendous amount of handshaking, by the way, distinguished the flicks in their infancy; no director worth his whipcord breeches would have dreamed of beginning his plot before everyone had exchanged greetings like a French wedding party entering a café. In any case, the orgy of salutation has just begun to die down when John Schuyler, the Fool, arrives by yacht to join his kin, and the handshaking starts all over again. Schuyler (Edward José), a florid, beefy lawyer in a high Belmont collar, is hardly what you would envision as passion’s plaything, but I imagine it took stamina to be a leading man for Theda Bara–someone she could get her teeth into, so to speak.
We now ricochet to the Vampire and her current victim, Parmalee (Victor Benoit), strolling on a grassy sward nearby. The siren, in billowing draperies and a period hat, carries as almost much sail as The Golden Hind, making it a bit difficult to assess her charms; however, they seemed to have unmanned the young ne’er-do-well with her to the point where he is unable to light the Zira he is fumbling with.
Their affair, it appears, has burned itself out, and Parmalee, wallowing in self-pity, is being given the mitten. Midway through his reproaches, a chauffeur-driven Simplex, sparkling with brass, pulls alongside, Miss Bara shoves him impatiently into it, and the pair whisk offscreen. These turgid formalities completed, the picture settles down to business, and high time too.
In a telegram from the President (Woodrow Wilson presumably chose his envoys in an extremely haphazard manner), Schuyler is ordered to England on some delicate mission, such as fixing the impost on crumpets, and makes ready to leave. He expects to be accompanied by Kate and his daughter, but just prior to sailing, his sister-in-law clumsily falls out of the tonneau of her speedster, and Kate remains behind to nurse her. The Vampire reads of Schuyler’s appointment, and decides to cross on the same vessel and enmesh him in her toils. As she enters the pier, an aged derelict accosts her, observing mournfully, “See what you have made of me–and still you prosper, you hellcat.”
Meanwhile, Parmalee, learning of her desertion from a Japanese servant whose eyelids are taped back with two pieces of court plaster, smashes all the bric-a-brac and ferns in their love nest, tears down the portieres, and hastens to intercept her. The derelict waylays him at the gang-plank. “I might have known you’d follow her, Parmalee,” he croaks. “Our predecessor, Van Diemen, rots in prison for her.” The plea to desist from his folly falls on deaf ears; Parmalee sequesters his Circe on the promenade deck and, clapping a pistol to his temple, declares his intention of destroying himself if she abandons hin. She smilingly flicks it aside with a rose and a line of dialogue that is unquestionably one of the most hallowed in dramaturgy: “Kiss me, my fool.” Willful boy that he is, however, Parmalee must have his own way and shoots himself dead.
The gesture, sad to say, is wasted, exciting only desultory interest. The body is hustled off the ship, a steward briskly mops up the deck, and by the time the Gigantic has cleared Sandy Hook, Theda and her new conquest are making googly eyes and preparing to fracture the Seventh Commandment by sending their laundry to the same blanchisseuse in Paris.
A time lapse of two months, and in a hideaway on the Italian Riviera choked with rubber plants and jardinieres, the lovers play amorous tag like Dido and Aeneas, and nibble languidly on each other’s ears. Although everything seems to be leeches and cream, a distinct undercurrent of tension is discernible between them; Schuyler dreams betimes of Suburbia, his dusky cook who used to make such good flapjacks, and when Theda jealously tears up a letter from his wife, acrimony ensues. Soon after, while registering at a hotel, Schuyler is recognised by acquaintances, who, much to his anguish, recoil as from an adder.
Back in Westchester, Kate has learned of his pecadilloes through a gossip sheet. She confronts Schuyler’s law partner and, with typical feminine chauvinism, lambastes the innocent fellow: “You men shield each other’s sins, but if the woman were at fault, how quick you’d be to condemn her!” Mrs. Schuyler’s behaviour, in fact, does little to ingratiate her. Not content with barging into a busy law office and disrupting its routine, she then runs home and poisons a child’s mind against its father. “Mama,” inquires her daughter, looking up from one of Schuyler’s letters, “is a cross a sign for love?” “Yes,” Kate retorts spitefully, “and love often means a cross.” The fair sex (God bless them) can be really extraordinary at times.
In our next glimpse of the lotus-eaters, in London, Schuyler has already begun paying the piper; his eyes are berimmed with kohl, his step is palsied, and his hair is covered with flour. Theda, contrariwise, is thriving like the green bay tree, still tearing up his correspondence and wrestling him into embraces that char the woodwork. Their idyl is abruptly cut short by a waspish cable from the Secretary of State, which reads, in a code easily decipherable to the audience, “ON ACCOUNT OF YOUR DISGRACEFUL CONDUCT, YOU ARE HEREBY DISMISSED.”
Remorse and Heimweh, those twin powerful antibiotics, temporarily dispel the kissing-bug that has laid Schuyler low. He returns to the States determined to rid himself of his incubus, but she clings and forces him to install her in a Fifth Avenue mansion. Humiliations multiply as she insists on attending the opera with him in a blaze of aigrettes, and there is an affecting scene when their phaeton is overtaken by his wife’s auto near the Public Library and his daughter entreats him, “Papa, dear, I want you.”
But the call of the wild is too potent, and despite pressure from in-laws and colleagues alike, Schuyler sinks deeper into debauchery. Kate, meanwhile, is keening away amid a houseful of relatives, all of them shaking hands as dementedly as ever and proffering unsound advice. There is such a hollering and a rending of garments and a tohubohu in the joint that you can’t really blame Schuyler for staying away. When a man has worn himself down to the rubber struggling in a vampire’s toils, he wants to come home to a place where he can read his paper in peace, not a loony bin.
Six months of revelry and an over-zealous makeup man have left their stamp on the Fool when we see him again; the poor chap is shipping water fast. He reels around the mansion squirting seltzer at the help and boxing with double-exposure phantoms, and Theda, whose interest in her admirers wanes at the drop of a security, is already stalking a new meatball. Apprised of the situation, Kate goes to her husband bearing an olive branch, but their reunion is thwarted by his mistress, who unexpectedly checks in and kisses him back into submission. The action now grows staccato: Schuyler stages a monumental jamboree, at which his guests drink carboys of champagne and dance the bunny hug very fast, and then, overcome by delerium tremens, he violently expels them into the night.
Kate, in the meantime, has decided to take his daughter to him as a last appeal. Preceded by her sister’s beau (the Slob), the pair arrive at the mansion to find Schuyler in parlous shape. The child throws herself on him–a dubious service to anyone suffering from the horrors–and the adults beseech the wastrel to come home and, one infers, be committed to a nice, quiet milieu where his expenditures can be regulated. His dilemma is resolved by the reappearance of Theda; Schuyler grovels before her, eradicating any doubt as to his fealty, and the folks exit checkmated.
The last few seconds of the picture, in a sombre key umatched outside the tragedies of D’Annunzio, depict the Fool, obsessed by a montage of his sins, squirming on his belly through an openwork balustrade and collapsing in a vestibule. “So, some of him lived,” comments a final sepulchral tile, “but the soul of him died.” And over what remains, there appears a grinning presentment of Miss Bara, impenitent and sleek in black velvet and pearls, strewing rose petals as we fade out.
For all its bathos and musty histrionics, A Fool There Was, I am convinced, still retains some mysterious moral cachet. It sounds like I’ve invented the whole thing and maybe I have. Still, who could have invented Theda Bara?