The Vamp

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The Vamp

(pop culture)

The vamp, a popular stereotypical figure of the silent film, developed from extension of the vampire myth into an analogy of the male/female relationships. Both psychological and feminist interpretations of the myth emphasized the maleness of the vampire legend. It was a projection of male fears, goals, and attitudes toward the world. The role of the vamp was established in large part by “The Vampire”, a short poem by Rudyard Kipling:

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 call her the woman who did not care) But the fool he called her his lady fair—(Even as you or I!)

Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste and the work of our head and hand Belong to the woman who did not know Belong to the woman who did not know (And now we know that she never could know) And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent (Even as you and I) Honour and faith and a sure intent (And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant) But a fool must follow his natural bent (Even as you and I!)

The poem, inspired by a famous painting by Philip Burne-Jones, in turn inspired a play by Porter Emerson Brown, A Fool There Was, which in turn was made into a movie by the Fox Film Corporation. The story involved a triangle composed of a husband, his wife, and a vampire. The husband, John Schulyer, was a lawyer who had been sent on a diplomatic mission for the president of the United States. Off in a scenic land, he encountered a vampiress, who injected herself into his life. His wife reasserted herself at various points, first with a letter, which the vampiress tore up. Later, Schulyer tried to cable his wife, but was blocked. So tight did the vampiress’ hold become that, upon Schulyer’s return to the States, he provided a townhouse for her. Meanwhile, he was degenerating into a hopeless alcoholic. The wife made one last attempt to reclaim her husband, but as she was leading him away, the vampiress appeared, and the man lost all desire to leave. Because he had abandoned his wife for the temptress, his will had left him and he was destroyed.

A Fool There Was became an important film in many respects. It was the film through which Fox, then a small company, successfully fought the monopoly of General Film. It also introduced Theda Bara to the screen as the vamp. Theda Bara would become the embodiment of the vamp in a series of pictures for Fox. She provided a powerful image for the public to place beside that of the virtuous woman under attack by evil cultural forces that had been so powerfully cultivated by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) at General.

The vamp was the dark shadow of the Victorian virtuous woman. She was immoral, tainted with powerful, dark sexuality. Her power derived from her ability to release in males similar strong but latent sexual energies, strictly contained by modern cultural restrictions. She attached herself to men and sapped their vitality. Her image was carefully constructed. She wore tight revealing black clothes, sometimes decorated with either spiders or snakes. Her nails were long and cut to a point. In a day when women rarely used tobacco in public, she frequently smoked cigarettes from a long holder. Her demeanor suggested that she was foreign, either from continental Europe or the Middle East.

Theda Bara (1885–1955), born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio, largely defined the vamp for the American public. In cooperation with Fox, through the second decade of this century she carefully created a public persona. Fox’s role marked the first attempt by a studio to manufacture a star’s image in such depth. The name Theda Bara was an anagram for Arab Death. Various stories were circulated about her suggesting a mysterious origin in the Middle East, the product of an affair between exotic mates. Supposedly, she had been weaned on snake’s blood, and tribesmen had fought over her. Studio publicity compared her to Elizabeth Bathory, the seventeenth-century blood countess. When Theda Bara appeared in public, she often pretended not to speak English and traveled with her African footmen in a white limousine. Once developed, the vamp persona proved a continuing interest. Theda Bara’s image passed to the likes of Nita Naldi (1899–1961), who starred in the 1922 Rudolph Valentino film Blood and Sand, and Greta Garbo (1905–1990), who became a star with her 1927 film Flesh and the Devil. Garbo’s vampish role was spelled out for those in the audience who could not pick it up otherwise by a minister who told the hero that the devil created women with beautiful bodies so that they could tempt men in a fleshly manner when they failed to reach them through more spiritual means. Garbo was credited with humanizing the vamp’s role and thus contributing to the destruction of the image, at least as it had previously existed. The vamp evolved into the femme fatale, the temptress who still appears in a wide variety of settings in motion pictures.

Sources:

Genini, Ronald. Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, With a Filmography. Jeffersonville, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. 168 pp.
Golden, Eve. Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Vestal, NY: Empire Publishing, 1996. 274 pp.
Higashi, Sumiko. Virgins, Vamps, and Flappers: The American Silent Movie Heroine. Montreal: Eden Press Women’s Publications, 1978. 276 pp.
Keesey, Pam. Vamps: An Illustrated History of the Femme Fatale. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press, 1997. 171 pp.
Kuhn, Annette. The Women’s Companion to International Films. London: Virago, 1990. 464 pp. Rept. Women in Film: An International Guide. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991. 500 pp.
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