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1885: Prototypical Vamp of Silent Film Is Born

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Theda Bara.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

July 29, 1885, was the birthdate of silent-film star Theda Bara, who became one of the first superstars of the screen, but paid the price of being typecast from her first leading role as the prototypical “vamp,” and had only limited success in her efforts to land a more diverse range of roles.

Born Theodosia Burr Goodman, Theda Bara was the oldest of the three children of Polish-born tailor Bernard Goodman and French-Swiss Pauline Louise de Coppet. She grew up in the well-off Cincinnati suburb of Avondale. After graduating from Walnut Hills High School, Bara attended the University of Cincinnati for two years, before dropping out to pursue an acting career in New York, although she always remained a serious reader.

While she kept at it from 1908 to 1914, Bara’s stage career never really took off. The break that changed her life came when she attended a casting call for a movie, where she caught the eye of novice film director Frank Powell, who offered her a bit part as a nun in “The Stain.” Although she was barely seen on the screen, Powell was impressed enough with her work that he convinced William Fox, producer of his next film, “A Fool There Was,” to allow him to cast her as the star.

Released in 1915 by the Fox Film Company, “A Fool There Was” was based on a Broadway play that was in turn based on Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Vampire.” That was also the name of her character, an evil seductress who lures and then drives to ruin a young New York lawyer whose socially prominent wife has made the mistake of snubbing the Vampire. The final line of the silent film, uttered by Bara to her defeated prey, has become legendary: “Kiss me, my fool.”

Although the name “Theda Bara” was conjured up as a combination of a shortened version of Theodosia and from the middle name of her Swiss grandfather, Francois Barringer de Coppet, the publicity department at Fox decided to introduce their new star as the daughter of a French artist and an Arabian princess, born in the Sahara Desert in the shadow of the Sphinx. Although audiences knew that this was malarkey, they played along with the myth, especially when it became known that the name was also an anagram for the words “Arab death.” As movie writer Christopher DiGrazia wrote in an essay about “A Fool There Was,” “Knowing that the legend was a joke meant that audiences could gasp in horror at the vamp’s heartless seductions while loving and cheering Bara herself.”

Indeed, Theda Bara became an almost instant star with that film, achieving international fame in a matter of months. Over the next four years, Fox had her make 37 movies. In most she played the heartless vamp corrupting decent men, but in some the tables were turned, and she was the chaste innocent who was brought to ruin by a man of no scruples.

Of course, there were those who took offense at the highly suggestive roles she played, just as there were others who were aroused. When one member of the public wrote to Bara that, “It is such women as you who break up happy homes,” the star responded: “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.”

Theda Bara as Cleopatra.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most elaborate of her pictures was the 1917 “Cleopatra,” a two-hour feature that at the time was one of the most expensive films yet made. It was a commercial success, and Bara happily cooperated with a publicity campaign that presented her as the reincarnation of the title character, declaring at a luncheon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “I remember crossing the Nile on barges to Karnak and Luxor as plainly as I recall crossing the Hudson on the ferry.” She also posed in a halter top composed of two intertwined snakes.

In 1930, when the Hays Code of moral standards was adopted, the film was banned, and once the extant prints were destroyed in a fire at the Fox Studios in New York, it was lost to posterity.

By 1919, Bara was making $4,000 a week – and the studio took in more than $9 million that year, largely due to her appeal. But she wanted a vacation, and she wanted a raise, demands that she presented to Fox, the studio boss. Fox saw that tastes were changing in the post-World War I period, and took advantage of the opportunity to drop her contract.

No other studio was interested in picking up the vamp actress, so Bara began to seek a return to the stage. Her starring appearance in a theatrical thriller called “The Blue Flame,” in which her character is transformed into a genuine vampire, made her a lot of money, but it was a critical failure that ultimately subjected her to ridicule.

Her last film, a 1926 comedy produced by Hal Roach and directed by Stan Laurel – with Oliver Hardy as the male lead – demonstrated her ability to play funny, but her new husband, film director Charles Brabin, didn’t like the way the movie presented her. Although it was intended to be the first in a series, Brabin wouldn’t allow her to appear in any future titles, and the Roach studio dropped her, too.

Bara never took another role, and never played in a talkie film. Most of her pictures were destroyed in the 1937 Fox fire, making the fact that she is remembered today further testimony to the power of her screen image.

She had saved her money from the glory years, and was able to continue to live well, residing with her husband in Beverly Hills. The couple never had children.

In 1954, Bara discovered she had colon cancer, too late to have effective treatment. She died on April 7, 1955.

In his essay, DiGrazia quotes from a tribute to Bara that ran in the New York Times two days after her death:

“Her audiences loved her, the men because of her unmixed femininity, the women because they were sympathetically concerned with the technique. . .On the silent screen she appealed to men’s most primitive instincts. On the screen she was, indeed, a bad girl, and this was her allure. Off the screen she was a good woman, happily married for 34 years. . . Many among us who are close to her age, or even younger, will think warm and grateful thoughts of her, now that she is gone. She took other people’s minds off their troubles: is not this a tribute worth having?”

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