Though a superstar in the 1910s, little of Theda Bara’s work survives today. What does survive is divided between her very early work and her very late work, after she had essentially become a self-parody, like so many iconic actors then and now. The celebrated films that she made in her prime are all gone. East Lynne (1916) is probably the nearest that we, as modern viewers, can get to Theda Bara at the peak of her career.
East Lynne is the only Theda Bara film known to survive that I don’t have a film print of, but I did pick up a video of it some little while ago from eBay or iOffer to some such place. It looks to be a bootleg of a MoMA screener. The transfer probably wasn’t all that good to begin with and my copy is several VHS generations removed from it, so you can imagine that the picture isn’t the greatest. The medium and close shots are okay, but the wides that comprise most of the film are so blurry that telling one character from another is a challenge. I watched it once or twice years ago, but I confess that, between the poor image and the byzantine plot, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.
The film is based on the Ellen Wood novel of the same name. I read it not too long ago. It’s trashy, make no mistake about it, but it was popular trash — it was one of the most widely read books of the Victorian era. Everyone read East Lynne, whether they’d admit to it or not. With the plot fresh in mind, I figured I could better tackle the film.
Speaking of the plot, I’m not going beyond a very rough summary here. There’s just too much of it to go into detail. Read my book summary if you’re interested; it goes into more depth. In brief, Lady Isabel marries Archibald Carlyle but comes to believe he’s unfaithful to her. She leaves him and is thought to have been killed in a train accident, but secretly Isabel assumed a new identity and is hired by Carlyle to be the governess of her own children.
Even knowing the plot — and it’s pretty clear that you’re expected to —the film is incredibly hard to follow. The major issue is pacing. East Lynne isn’t a long movie — five reels, something over an hour — but how it uses its runtime is just insane. It languidly ambles along then switches into high gear and powers through 500 pages of plot in ten minutes.
Levison, the man who instigates both the infidelity plot and the murder plot and whose capture is what resolves the entire story isn’t introduced until the third reel and really isn’t characterized at all, ever. The train wreck that Isabel is believed to have died in is literally the last scene of the fourth reel and it comes so abruptly that I laughed out loud. I don’t think Madame Vine, the governess alter ego Isabel assumes, even has five minutes of screentime — and that’s probably 75% of the book. It’s impossible to read what sort relationship exists between any of the characters. Barbara is just a cypher and Carlyle’s marriage to her comes out of nowhere. Her dislike of the children I assume is just meant to be taken for granted. Corny and Joyce seem to be rolled together, but it doesn’t matter since they don’t do anything. Afy has one line and then drops off the face of the earth. Levison’s undoing is pared down from what it is in the novel, which in itself could be fine, but again, the way the film handles it is just so abrupt and inexplicable that it plays like a farce. And speaking of farces…
It’s just as ridiculous as that.
If this is Theda Bara at her best, then we can only hope that no prints of Cleopatra or Salome ever turn up — I’m sure the disappointment would crush us all.
My rating: I don’t like it.