Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Unique Career of Theda Bara
With her pale makeup, thick black hair, and large eyes rimmed heavily with black makeup, she was – and is – one of the most iconic actresses of the silent era. Her image as a screen “vamp” is still fairly well known, although people tend to recognize her from a few well-circulated stills (an album cover by The Lumineers is a recent example). Which is all mighty remarkable, considering that only a small handful of her films survive.
So why is Theda Bara remembered today, when other actresses with far more existing films have fallen into obscurity? It’s more than a little due to that dramatic makeup, a look both very dated yet intriguingly Gothic. She remains a striking sight amid her many fellow actresses with soft curls and flower-like features. And with her unusual, “exotic” costumes and more than a few peculiar headdresses, she has a distinct theatricality that makes her stand out today–just as much as it did back in the 1910s, in fact.
Today, one of the biggest misconceptions about Theda is that her fanciful backstory–she was said to be a daughter of an Italian sculptor and a French actress, born and raised “in the shadow of the Sphinx” before moving to glorious Paris – was swallowed hook, line, and sinker by a credulous public. In reality, her rise to fame was due to a smart marketing campaign by newspapermen Al Selig and John Goldfrap, who were tasked by producer William Fox with selling his new “Arabian” type of actress. “And how!” they could’ve added.
Practically rubbing their hands together with glee, Selig and Goldfrap went to work. They concocted Theda’s bizarre origin tale, dubbed her “the Wickedest Woman in the World,” and had her dress up in luxurious furs and give interviews in Middle Eastern-bedecked apartments full of incense and exotic trinkets. The piece de resistance was a press conference she gave in a Chicago hotel room. It had been liberally perfumed and filled with flowers, the heat turned up high because the actress was ostensibly “used to desert heat.” When the reporters finally shuffled out of the sweltering room, one was allowed to remain–a young Louella Parsons. She witnessed Theda rush to open a window, gasping: “Give me air!”
The press conference was, of course, an elaborate hoax by Selig and Goldfrap that was designed to be leaked to the public. A quasi-mystical, romantic temptress of Egyptian origin was a hard sell even in that more innocent age–but letting people know it was an act would certainly create buzz. And of course, it would also give a lot of publicity to Theda’s upcoming film A Fool There Was (1915)–her first starring role.
In reality, Theda’s past included neither Sphinxes nor an upbringing in Paris. She was born Theodosia Burr Goodman on July 29, 1885, and her upper-middle-class family lived in Cincinnati. Her background was Swiss and Jewish, and both parents owned businesses. As a child, Theda loved to perform for family and friends, so after graduating high school she decided to try her luck in the theater. For a few years, she only nabbed small roles, and by the 1910s she started seeking opportunities in moving pictures. After getting a small role in The Stain (1914) she was recommended to Fox, who decided she was a perfect candidate to be his first wholly manufactured star. (“Theda Bara” was a shortened version of “Theodosia” and an old family name.)
All the publicity helped make A Fool There Was a hit. Theda’s role as a “vampire” or “vamp” – in the 1910s, this was a seductive woman with a quasi-supernatural power over men –was considered extraordinary. Combined with her theatrical image, it made her a star almost overnight. While she wasn’t the only actress who played vamps, she quickly became the most identified with them.
Over the next two years, Theda would make 15 films for Fox Studios, playing an assortment of vamps and even an innocent maiden or two (such as Juliet in the 1916 Romeo and Juliet). Now one of the biggest stars in films, she moved to Hollywood to film her biggest picture yet, Cleopatra. No expense was spared on this ambitious epic, one of the sensations of the year. However, a lot of the material making up Theda’s bizarre costumes was spared. Even today they’re surprisingly skimpy, with gauze, strips of fabric, and even a brassiere shaped like coiled snakes exposing as much skin as possible.
In the meantime, Selig and Goldfrap kept churning out ludicrous stories to the press, such as a supposed “contract” stipulating that Ms. Bara “must not appear in public without veils” and “must have curtains put over her car windows so as not to be seen.” They also spread the story that a 2500-year-old prophecy “found in a tomb near Thebes” foretold the coming of Theda Bara. All in good fun, of course. In reality, the star “whose kiss is destruction” enjoyed quiet nights at home after long days of filming, and her sole marriage to director Charles Brabin would last her whole life.
By 1919, after several years of superstardom, Theda’s contract with Fox Studios was up. After taking a holiday in Europe, she returned to Hollywood to find that her iconic vamp image was backfiring. Mystical, dangerous Edwardian vamps were going out of style, soon to be replaced by flappers and the more stylish, 1920s versions of vamps. A stint in the 1920 play The Blue Flame, where Theda’s performance was panned, didn’t help matters. Her final films would be The Unchastened Woman (1924) and the comedy short Madame Mystery (1926). The latter gave her a chance to use a big of her natural comic timing but to little avail.
After retiring from the screen Theda would live comfortably with Charles, often entertaining friends at their elegant Beverly Hills home. She occasionally went on the radio or gave interviews, showing pride in her past career while also having a sense of humor about it: “…The wickedest thing I ever did on the screen would seem tame now.”
Theda Bara would pass away from colon cancer in 1955. Although much of her filmography has vanished, possibly forever, the mysterious figure with the thickly-lined eyes and pale makeup still has the power to lure in curious viewers. And with any luck, we’ll hopefully rediscover a few more of this unique performer’s films in the future.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.