Silent Star of May 1996
This month's "Silent Star of the Month" profile on Theda Bara comes
courtesy of Eve Golden, author of the recently published "Vamp: The
Rise and Fall of Theda Bara," Emprise Publishing Company, Vestal,
Theda Bara - one of the most successful and glamorous
stars of the 1910s - is also the most inaccessible and mysterious
today. She stood behind only Mary Pickford and
Charles Chaplin in popularity, yet today it's nearly
impossible to view her work. Of the more than 40 films she made from
late 1914 through 1926, only three and a half remain. The facts of her
life were so jumbled by studio publicity that even her birth date and
place have been obscured. Yet her image remains lodged in the public's
mind some 70 years after her retirement, and she is one of the few
stars responsible for a word - "vamp" - being placed both on the
dictionary and in everyday use.
According to her studio, Theda Bara was born around 1892, in the
shadow of the Pyramids, the daughter of an Italian artist and a French
actress. Everyone knew from the start what nonsense this was; these
stories were never meant to be taken seriously. Film history books
state that Bara was actually born in 1890, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Yet
this also turns out to be a myth: a little research reveals that
Theodosia Goodman was really born in Avondale (a wealthy, largely
Jewish, suburb of Cincinnati) on July 29, 1885.
Unlike so many silent stars, Theda (a childhood nickname) had a
happy childhood. Close to her parents and two siblings, she even went
to college for two years, an unusual accomplishment for a woman of
those times. Aggressively intellectual, Theda remained a voracious
reader for the rest of her life, especially enjoying philosophy and
She was also enamored of the theater, and dropped out of school (to
her father's dismay) in 1905 to pursue an acting career. It's
embarrassing but necessary to admit that Theda Bara did not have
whatever it took to become a stage star. From 1905 through 1914 she
labored mightily in New York and in various travelling stock companies,
but was never able to rise above playing bits on Broadway or supporting
roles on tour. She was already pushing 30 when director
Frank Powell cast her as The Vampire in William Fox's
film version of the Broadway hit A Fool There Was (1915)
(released in January, 1915).
Theda became an instant, overnight star with the release of the
film, and saved the fortunes of the fledgling Fox Studios. She'd been
a rather solemn and pretentious teenager, but happily she recovered
from this, and her cooperative good nature made her career. Fox press
flacks John Goldfrap and Al Selig supplied her with a new family
history (and past life) for each film role, and Theda played along.
Dressed in veils, furs and silks, petting a python and nibbling on raw
beef and lettuce leaves, she deadpanned her way through hundreds of
ludicrous press conferences. Reporters played along and printed the
interviews with a straight face, for the most part.
The only thing that frustrated Theda was her screen roles: most of
them were lifted from dated Victorian novels and stage plays like
The Two Orphans (1915), Lady Audley's Secret,
East Lynne (1916) and La Belle Russe (1919).
Others, hastily written by Fox scenarists, played off the success of
A Fool There Was (1915), and cast Theda as unrepentant
vamps bent on wholesale destruction: Sin (1915),
Destruction (1915), The Vixen (1916) and
The Rose of Blood (1917).
Theda fought for better roles, and she sometimes got them. Her
personal favorites were as an heroic Foreign Legion girl in
Under Two Flags (1916) and as an innocent Irish peasant
girl in Kathleen Mavourneen (1919). She also played the
great heroines of history and literature, such as Cleopatra, Salome,
Carmen, Juliet, Madame DuBarry and Marguerite Gautier. All in all, not
a bad career.
She was smart enough to save her money and enjoy the moment. From
1915-17, Theda's films were made on the East Coast, with occasional
location trips to Florida. When it came time to shoot
Cleopatra (1917) in the summer of 1917, however, Theda was
dragged kicking and screaming to California. She never got used to the
West Coast, with its lack of museums, bookstores, theater and decent
shops, and to the end of her life kept a New York apartment furnished
and ready for vacation trips.
By the time America entered the World War, Theda was the third
biggest star in the nation. She joined the war effort with great
enthusiasm, visiting camps, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in
War Bonds, contributing her salary to charity. Songs were written
about Theda, postcards and magazines featuring her face sold briskly.
Dangling earrings, kohled eyes, languorous glances and the catch line
"Kiss me, my fool!" entered the public consciousness.
Of course, it couldn't last. By 1919, William Fox had lost interest
in Theda, who was actively campaigning for better films and more varied
roles. The straw that broke the camel's back was
Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), the film Theda hoped would be
her ticket to a contract at another studio. Instead, Irish and
Catholic groups protested not only the depiction of Ireland, but of a
Jewish actress in the leading role. The film was yanked after several
movie-theater riots and bomb threats.
But Theda Bara did not end up a bitter, impoverished recluse, as did
several of her fellow sex symbols. In 1921 she married successful
director Charles Brabin, a marriage that lasted till
her death. The Brabins were wealthy globe-trotters, and Theda's skill
as a hostess and gourmet cook made their Beverly Hills home a favorite
stopping place for the film community through the 1950s.
Her one regret was that Brabin did not want her to act (she made two
films in the mid-1920s, while her husband was in Italy directing the
early, shelved version of "Ben-Hur). But in a way, the fact that Theda
Bara never spoke on-screen makes her all the more fascinating and
mysterious. While we can hear Mary Pickford,
Lon Chaney, Charles Chaplin and
Norma Talmadge speak, only a treasured few stars --
Theda, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara LaMarr,
Wallace Reid, Constance Talmadge --
remain forever silent.
Sadly, Theda remains almost invisible as well. Somewhere out there,
undoubtedly, are a few reels of Cleopatra (1917),
Salome (1918) or some other missing Bara film. The
questions remains if they will see the light of day before crumbling
away to dust.
Glen Pringle /
Copyright © 1996-2012
by Glen Pringle and Eve Golden