Posted on: December 29, 2015

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Theda Bara is one of the more colourful and fascinating people from the early days of cinema.  She was one of the first movie diva’s, and coined a whole new cinematic character, The Vamp.  Her story is remarkable because she was one of the first actors to have her public persona almost entirely created by the studio system.  Although the peak of her fame only lasted a few short years, and she’s probably only familiar to ardent movie buffs now, she left an indelible legacy in the history of film.

The Vamp was really cinema’s first type of sex symbol.  Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire, the Vamp was the ultimate femme fatale.  A vampire in human form who preyed on luckless men, and destroyed them.  I’ve seen earnest analysis of Kipling’s poem, which puts it firmly in the misogyny of his era, blaming the age-old fear men have of the predatory woman.  The Vamp became a hugely popular figure during the years of the First World War.  With her raven black hair, intense, brooding eyes, heavy goth make-up, and voluptuous figure, Theda became the big screen exemplar of the character.  For me, she sums up the splendid diva’s of that era, reclining on leopard skins, smoking cigarettes in a long holder, and wafting around in feathers and pearls.

Fox Studio’s put it about that Theda was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, in the Egyptian desert, that her father had been an Arab Sheik, and her mother  some kind of roaming French woman.   Theda’s name was promoted as an anagram of “Arab death”.  It was also revealed that she had studied on the French stage.  The truth – as always – was rather more mundane.  Theda had never been anywhere near Egypt (or France for that matter).  She was born Theodosia Burr Goodman, in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1890 (though I’ve also seen it listed as 1885, and that Theda, in true diva style, shaved 5 years off her age).  Far from being an Arab sheik, her father was a Polish-born Jewish tailor, and her mother hailed from Switzerland.   Her fame name, Theda Bara, was a contraction of her real name.

Theda began her acting career on the stage, but she had her sights firmly set on breaking into the fledgeling movie industry.  In her first couple of roles she got herself a good reputation for being able to follow direction (which probably wasn’t a small thing in those days), and in 1915 finally got her big break when she appeared as “the vampire woman” in A Fool There Was (the title taken from Kipling’s poem).  This sizzling concoction, where Theda urged her hapless male co-star to “kiss me, my fool!” went down a storm with the viewing public.  Theda’s fame was set.

Over the next 4 years she was to appear in nearly 40 films.  Although she played characters ranging from Shakespeare’s Juliet, to a sweet Irish girl in Kathleen Mavourneen (which led to some Irish picketing cinema’s, because they objected to a Jewish girl playing the role), it was her role as various legendary bad girls that ensured her popularity.  Her films bear such heady titles as When Men Desire, The Vixen, When A Woman Sins, and the admirably economical Sin.   No one had ever seen a woman like this on the movie screen before.  It was a far cry from the more wholesome All-American girls that the movie-going public was used to seeing, and ushered in a whole new era of mysterious women with exotic (non-American) backgrounds.  In Kreutzer Sonata she appeared alongside Nance O’Neil, a stage actress sometimes known as the American Bernhardt, who is more famous these days for having once been close friends with alleged axe-murderer Lizzie Borden.

One of Theda’s most famous roles undoubtedly was in the first big-budget version of Cleopatra (1917).  Decades before Elizabeth Taylor was diva-ing up as the Queen of the Nile, Theda was paving the way for her.  Sadly, very little of this film remains.  I could only find a tantalising few seconds of it on YouTube.  The bulk of it was destroyed in a fire in 1937, after the draconian Hays Office had branded it as being “too obscene” to be shown.  The censors simply couldn’t cope with the amount of Theda that was on display here.   I suspect most particularly some miniscule serpent-shaped breast-plates desperately trying to cover her nipples.

This was the era when stars were expected to be stars 24 hours a day.  No clandestine shots of them in grunge gear doing the weekly shop, or taking the kids to school, all that sort of thing which we get now.  Theda was expected to live and breath her exotic mystique.  In one legendary press conference, she had to greet journalists at a hotel, where the heating had been turned up to the max, and Theda was swathed in furs … because of course being from a hot country, she felt the cold easily.  As soon as the press had departed, Theda shed the furs, and flung the windows open, gasping for air.

The Occult played a big part in Theda’s life.  The studio machine put it out that she had been reincarnated several times.  Her films often came choc-full of Occult symbolism, such as snakes, crystal balls and skulls.  Theda’s interest in Spiritualism was entirely genuine though.  She was a passionate advocate of it (like so many of that era), and believed it helped people.

Theda knew she was helping to peddle a fantasy, and this is what her fans expected.  As such, she began to succumb to diva-ish behaviour.  Turning up in her Rolls Royce, and demanding hefty pay-rises.  Unfortunately, her brief, busy stint in the limelight was coming to an end.  With the end of the War in 1918, the world had changed dramatically.  A new modern era had been ushered in.  Women were raising their hemlines, and cutting their hair.  The Jazz Age would see the new liberated, independent girl, who worked, was fiercely ambitious, and partied hard, drinking cocktails and dancing the Charleston on table-tops.  The sultry Vamp, with her long hair and long dresses, must now have seemed practically pre-historic.  Also, now nudging 30 (or 35), Theda was considered positively ancient by Hollywood’s rules.  Although Theda had proclaimed that “I will continue playing vampires as long as people sin”, it seemed the mature sultry vampire had out-stayed her welcome.

Her film career largely dried up in 1919.  Her last screen appearance was as a sad parody of her Vamp persona in the Hal Roach slapstick comedy Madame Mystery.  What a difference 10 years can make in Hollywood!  Theda wisely knew the score.  She married a film director, Charles Brabin, in 1921, and devoted the rest of her life to hosting society dinners, buying property, and charity work.  She occasionally made a half-hearted attempt to break back into showbusiness, but very little came of it.  Unlike some of her contemporaries, who ended up in tragic, poverty-stricken circumstances, Theda at least lived out the rest of her life in comfort.  Queenly to the end, she liked to sport an upper-class British accent.  When a theatrical agent queried her about this, during an interview in the early 1950s, Theda grandly brushed it off as due to her husband having been born English, and she must have picked it up off him!

Theda died of stomach cancer in April 1955.  Although very little of her film catalogue remains – I think only A Fool There Was still exists – the role of The Vamp is a part of cultural history.




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