For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday, I have decided to write about Theda Bara. Bara was the original Vamp of the silent film era! She was born in Cincinnati Ohio as Theodosia Goodman in 1885. But, this would not be the name or backstory that the public would get once she rose to fame after her appearance in the film A Fool There Was in 1915, which is indecently the only complete film that remains of this icon.
Theda would make up a backstory of being born in Egypt, in the shadow of the Sphinx. There would be many myths created surrounding her birth and her childhood to add to the mystique of her Vamp persona. She would be told by the studio not to go out in the daylight and to wear shawls and other eerie accouterments. Even her publicity photos were staged to play up her image. She was photographed with ravens, and skeletons, reading Tarot, and looking into crystal balls!
Her real history of being a nice Jewish girl growing up in the Midwest and struggling to make her break with stage acting makes her success in the decade of the 1910’s so inspiring! She enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, after graduating high school in 1903, which was an unusual move for a woman of the day. When she was there she had taken classes and sang in the glee club but dropped out after two years in order to pursue her dream of acting on stage. Of course, she would go on to find her true niche by starring in silent films!
A Fool There Was is a film that is considered to be a “picturization” of Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire according to the publicity poster for the film. This is the role that would really cement Theda Bara as a household name as well as make people think she may be an actual vampiress! This film debut made her a superstar, alongside the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. She became the first sex symbol of Old Hollywood, but her sex symbol was a fearful one who could weaponize sexuality to prey on men! After this film, she would go on to play roles such as Cleopatra and Salome which helped to further scandalize the public who could not get enough of this dark temptress!
In 1926, Bara would retire from acting after marrying film director Charles Brabin five years earlier in 1921. So, she would never act in a talking film. She did plan a film comeback in 1936, which was announced on a radio show, but it never materialized for her, unfortunately. Bara would die in 1955 after a long battle with stomach cancer. While we do not have any of her complete films surviving today, except her first film, she has become immortalized for this film, brief clips of other films, and her photographs! Her legacy for lovers of classic films will never be forgotten. I personally hope that someone will one day find a complete copy of her Cleopatra or Salome hidden away in an attic so that we can see even more of her talents!
I hope that you have enjoyed learning a bit about the talented and enigmatic silent screen Vamp Theda Bara. Have you seen A Fool There Was? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Theda and a raven. I found the image on http://www.classicmoviehub.com/blog/silents-are-golden-silent-superstars-the-unique-career-of-theda-bara/.
- Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden
- A Fool There Was (1915) (For those interested it is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and is only 57 minutes long, so if you have a bit of time I highly recommend it!)