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Theda Bara—-Hollywood’s first Vamp

 

 

by Patricia Nolan Stein

July 3, 2014

 

 

Exactly 100 years ago, a sultry woman with large brown eyes and the unusual name of Theda Bara made her film debut.   Theda was totally unlike other actresses of her era.  No sweetness or innocence for her—-she was the “anti-Mary Pickford”—-dark, mysterious, predatory, seductive and sinister!


 

Theda’s on-screen persona was extremely shocking for that era.   Nudity was her ticket to fame.   With her barely-there costumes, long hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, she was the authentic and original “vamp” of early Hollywood.

 

 

 

 

 

And although most of her silent films are now lost, Theda Bara will never be forgotten.  As the original movie “goth,” she remains a favorite with film historians, mostly for her revealing costumes and vampish, often frightening roles.    On screen, she dabbled in danger, seduced men and portrayed “evil” in now-absurd and humorous ways.  But Theda was always unique, exotic and mysterious. 

 

 

 

Like most silent actresses, Theda’s roots originated far from Hollywood.  She was born in 1885 and grew up as Theodosia Goodman in Avondale, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio—-the child of middle-class Jewish immigrants. Her father was a tailor and her mother was a housewife.

 

She graduated from high school and in 1903,  attended two years of college in Cincinnati—-an unusual endeavor for young women of that era.

 

After leaving college, Theda decided she wanted to become an actress.  Movie “houses” were capturing the interest of Americans, who previously depended on vaudeville or live theater for entertainment.   Hollywood—-the future capital of the entertainment industry—didn’t even exist at the time.  The few films being made and distributed to movie theaters came out of various small studios, mostly located in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

 

 

 

Theda moved to New York in 1905 and rented a flat in Greenwich Village.  She changed her name to Theodosia De Coppett and got tiny roles with the Yiddish Theater of New York.  She also went on the road, co-starring in a variety of musicals including “The Quaker Girl,” earning $25 a week.

 

In 1914, she was hired for a very small role in Pathe Studio’s film, “The Stain.”   A year later, after movie producer William Fox saw her in “The Stain,” he signed her to a film contract, starting at $100 a week.  His studio was also located in Fort Lee.

 

 

 

 

 

By this time, Theda was 30---far older than the blonde nymphs regularly featured in silent films.  But Fox saw great potential in his unusual but captivating protegee.   That’s when she changed her name to the exotic-sounding “Theda Bara.”  

 

In 1915, Theda suddenly became the most famous sex symbol in the world, after William Fox hired her to co-star in “A Fool There Was.”  In this film, Theda played her first role as a “vamp”—-a mysterious woman who lured unsuspecting, weak men into her “den of love” to seduce and destroy them!

 

With her long flowing hair and skimpy wardrobe, Theda was an instant triumph.  Overnight she went from being virtually unknown to a major superstar and sex symbol.   Between 1915 and 1920, she starred in over 40 films.

 

 

 

 

In an era dominated by rigid codes of moral and social behavior, Theda was an irresistible force for the “dark” side of womanhood.  She smoked cigars and drank alcohol on-screen and was practically nude in many of her roles,  defying the image of sweet and innocent actresses who dominated that era.  She seduced men, cavorted with skeletons, gazed into crystal balls and dabbled with the occult.   American film-goers were shocked and amazed—-and they definitely wanted more of Theda!

 

 

She rapidly played the lustful vamp in a number of ensuing films, including “Gold & the Woman,”  Carmen,” “Cleopatra,” “Salome,” “What Men Desire,” “When A Woman Sins,”  “The She-Devil,” “Destruction” and “The Unchastened Woman.”   The titles alone were fitting descriptions of her roles.

 

 

She did indeed become synonymous with the word SIN.  One film critic boldly wrote:  “Never have I gazed into a face portraying such wickedness and evil.  She has characteristics of the vampire and the sorceress.  She appeals to men’s primitive and primal instincts.”

 

                                                Fox Studios labeled her “The most wicked woman in the world!” 

 

Theda enjoyed her notoriety as America’s vamp and gave audiences exactly what they craved—a “bad girl” who used powers of mysticism to get what she wanted.  It was falsely rumored that her name was an anagram of “Arab Death.”

 

Adding to her fame, songs were written about Theda and people named their children after her.  She began receiving thousands of letters each month from star-struck fans—-mostly men.   On-screen, she continued to be ruthless.   In one film, her evil yet sultry character led one man to jail.  In another, a love-struck suitor committed suicide over her.  She was cruel and vicious, and always fascinating.

Of course, some movie-goers disapproved of Theda.  One wrote:  “It is such women as you who break up happy homes.”  Wisely and humorously, Theda replied:  “I am working for my living, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to work!”

 

A man even claimed he killed his mother-in-law after watching one of Theda’s films.  And she received over 1,000 marriage proposals from star-struck fans.

 

Theda frequently defended her film roles, saying:  “The vampire I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters.  You see, I have the face of a vampire but the heart of a feministe.   I try to show the world how attractive sin may be, how very beautiful, so that one must be always on the lookout and know evil even in disguise.”

 

But her image was largely smoke and mirrors.   As Theda later admitted, “I was just a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati who knew how to look mysterious!”

 

By then, Theda had moved to Hollywood and was enjoying her world-wide fame.   She said her private life was rather dull and uneventful by show business standards.   “After I get home from work each evening, my maid gives me a glass of warm milk and then I lie on the sofa and read a book to relax,” she insisted.  And throughout her stardom, Theda remained close to her mother and sister, who moved from Ohio to live near her.  They too changed their last name to Bara.

 

Theda’s romantic life went largely unreported in those days.   She remained single at the time, even though she was in her mid-30s. 

 

 

On-screen, she uttered the demand, “Kiss me, you fool,” which was heard and repeated around the world. 

 

 

 

In 1917, at the start of World War I, Theda shed some of her occult-like “mystery” when she made public appearances to raise money for war bonds.  She became more outgoing and comfortable in Hollywood as she socialized with contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin, Colleen Moore and Barbara LaMarr.  But to the public, she remained the evil woman who enjoyed tempting and destroying men.

 

By 1924, Theda’s career took an unexpected but inevitable dive.   Vamps and “sinful” women were suddenly no longer popular on-screen.   Although she quickly scrambled to play “respectable” ladies—the movie-going public simply refused to see her in those roles.   She held out for important films but sadly, her stereotyped and extreme image was too ingrained in Hollywood for her to make a lasting career change.

 

Theda then married film director Charles Brabin.  He encouraged his wife’s retirement from film acting because he never really approved of her nude scenes and evil characterizations.   Nonetheless, they had a happy, although childless marriage, and enjoyed their life together in Beverly Hills.

 

As a retired sex symbol and vamp, Theda traveled around the world, studied art and music, and joined Beverly Hills social circles.   During World War II, she volunteered her services at the Hollywood Canteen, a club where returning servicemen visited for meals and companionship.  As the dignified Mrs. Brabin, many younger people never knew she had been world-famous between 1914 and 1924.

 

In 1954, while negotiating a summer stock theatrical comeback, Theda underwent four surgeries for cancer.  She died the following year, on April 5, 1955, at age 70.

 

Newspaper headlines proclaimed “The vamp is dead.”  One of numerous tributes said: “She was a bad girl and that was her allure.  She was a vicarious thrill of majestic proportions.  She was a gracious and beautiful Hollywood pioneer who made envious housewives hysterical and drove their husbands into a trance.”

 

That, indeed, did sum up the captivating career of Theda Bara.  Buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, she’s still honored by silent film fans who appreciate the risqué persona she brought to early movies. 

 

Theda, although she never realized it while alive, made an impact on subsequent generations of actresses who have also played alluring, “wicked” and mysterious women in films.  She paved the way for Mae West, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, and eventually, modern “vamps” such as Sharon Stone and Madonna

 

Theda Bara was definitely a woman far ahead of her time.

 

 

 

 


The documentary “The Woman with the Hungry Eyes” by Hugh M. Neely was screened in August 2010, there is a review at

http://looking-for-mabel.webs.com/thedabara.htm

 

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