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
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
She graduated from high school and in 1903, attended two years of college in
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.
Theda moved to
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
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
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
By then, Theda had moved to
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
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
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
As a retired sex symbol and vamp, Theda traveled around the world, studied art and music, and joined
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
That, indeed, did sum up the captivating career of Theda Bara. Buried at
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