Two iconic women of the early silent film era share a birthday today: Theda Bara and Clara Bow. Bow became the screen’s leading 1920s flapper archetype, but Bara’s exotic, controversial antics set the stage one decade earlier.
July 29,1885– Theodosia Burr Goodman:
To be good is to be forgotten. I’m going to be so bad I’ll always be remembered.
Theda Bara was one of the most popular screen actors of her era and one of filmdom’s original sex symbols. She earned the nickname “The Vamp”, short for vampire, figuratively meaning that she sucked the life out of every male. Soon the term “vamp” became the lingo for any sexually forward woman.
A most glamorous star of the 1910s, Bara continues to be mysterious and inaccessible even today. Only Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin were more popular. But, in the 21st century it’s nearly impossible to view her work. Of the more than 40 films she made between 1914 -1926, only three remain.
Of the 42 films she made in her four-year career at Fox, cranking out about one film per month, she was typecast as a heartless man-eating succubus in nearly all of them. Without access to the films for which she was most celebrated, such as Cleopatra (1917) and Salomé (1918), it’s difficult for viewers today to understand why she was such a hot ticket back then. The films that remain most likely don’t do her justice. A Fool There Was (1915) was her very first starring role, made when she was just learning how to act on screen. The Unchastened Woman (1925) and Madame Mystery (1926) were poorly received; both were made long after her studio dropped her in 1919.
For moviegoers of the late 1910s, Bara’s vampy screen performances in those now-lost films apparently served as the celluloid embodiment of the dangers and pleasures of sex, and it is still possible to grasp some of her primal appeal; the memorable publicity shots from A Fool There Was ooze with unwholesomeness. In these images, the nearly naked raven-haired starlet strikes a variety of poses while lounging alongside a man’s skeleton.
The images seem to suggest that modern women on the cusp of sexual emancipation might be up for just about anything. In the over-the-top publicity shots from Cleopatra made two years later, Bara let herself be photographed topless, save for a skimpy coiled-snake bra that looks like it was made for Madonna.
Her startling image looms large with film fans 90 years after her retirement, and she is the only film star I can think of who is responsible for a word being placed in the dictionary. Songs were written about Theda Bara, postcards and magazines featured her face. Dangling earrings, kohled eyes, languorous looks are still hot today and the catch phrase “Kiss me, you fool!” became part of our public lexicon.
Bara did not end up as a disillusioned, destitute recluse like Clara Bow, with whom she shares a birthday today. In 1921, she married successful director Charles Brabin, a marriage that lasted until her final credits rolled in 1955. The Brabins were wealthy world travelers and Bara’s talents as hostess and gourmet made their Beverly Hills home a favorite of the film community.
Theda Bara was taken by that damn cancer when she was just 69 years old.
The fact that Bara never spoke on screen makes her especially fascinating and one of the most mysterious figures from the early part of film history. The voices of Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Charles Chaplin and Norma Talmadge are available for us to hear, but some stars: Bara, Rudolph Valentino, Wallace Reid, Constance Talmadge, are silent forever. Bara remains almost invisible as well. It makes me impossibly melancholy that her legacy is crumbling away to dust. Her story would make for a great biopic.
July 29, 1905– Clara Bow:
They yell at me to be dignified. But what are the dignified people like? The people who are held up as examples of me? They are snobs. Frightful snobs I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak, because I’m myself!
I really do understand. I know firsthand the pain and shame of a brilliant acting career cut down by sex scandals, men, drugs, drink and mental problems. My flame also burned out all too soon. I was known briefly, and in a select circle, as the “It Guy”. I was forgotten all too soon, but you can still re-live the magic with my work on Beta, VHS, and DVDs. Sometimes the world is not ready for the heat that we sex symbols produce. Still, I have not yet been buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
In the 1920s, Clara Bow’s spirit and sex appeal defined a new kind of liberated woman for the flapper era. Bow was Hollywood’s brightest light during this decade. She was known as the “It Girl”, and Clara Bow had “It”. The people she worked with in films wrote that she was full of charm and wit, and a consummate professional.
Bow was an actor of range and depth, but she mostly played manicurists, waitresses and store clerks. Yet, her films helped emancipate young American women from the restrictive morals of their parents. Bow’s characters were unabashed about being attracted to men. Her shop-girl in It (1927) spots her boss’s son and says:
Oh Santa, get me him!
Her characters wore their skirts short, bobbed their hair, drank and smoked in public, danced and stayed out all night long. At the apex of her career, Bow received 45,000 fan letters a week. She was the idol of working gals and the dream girl of blue-collar guys.
Despite her image, Bow was something of an innocent. She took people as she found them, treated them well and expected them to do likewise. Naturally, this was abused, first by the studio that stuck her on a treadmill of inappropriate roles in crappy films for short-term profit, and then, more shockingly, by her friends.
Her one-time confidant Daisy DeVoe knew all about the star’s active private life, spilling the beans about her affairs with Gary Copper and Roland Gilbert,and then tried to blackmail her. It went to court, and the scandal sheets published the juicy gossip. Even though she won the case, Bow’s career certainly did suffer.
The “It Girl” was so hot and bright that it seems inevitable she would burn out personally and professionally. It is shocking to think that her career was over in 1933 when she was just 26-years-old, after she had made millions for her studio, Paramount, and was one of the most recognized stars in the world. But, Bow was condemned by Conservative Christian America and the Hollywood old guard for her questionable morality.
Producer Budd Schulberg in his terrific book Moving Pictures: Memories Of A Hollywood Prince (1981), writes:
Hollywood was a cultural schizophrene: The anti-movie Old Guard with their chamber music & their religious pageants fighting a losing battle against the more dynamic culture who flaunted the bohemianism of Edna St. Vincent Millay and the socialism of Upton Sinclair. But, there was one subject on which staid old Hollywood establishment and the members of the new culture circle would agree: Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low-life and a disgrace to the community.
Asked to define the maddeningly elusive quality of “It” itself, Bow reportedly confessed, in her notoriously Brooklyn accent: “I ain’t real sure”.
I am a madcap, the spirit of the jazz age, the premier flapper, as they call me.
This was what the public wanted to hear and Bow accommodated them by adapting that screen persona. But fame is fickle and Bow’s film career was relatively short. Bow made her screen debut in 1922 and her final film was made in 1933, at the young age of 28.
Scandal and talking pictures ruined Bow. She had a breakdown, mostly owed to her inability to conquer her fear of speaking on film, and she had to recover in a sanatorium.
She left films and Hollywood, moving to Nevada with her new husband, cowboy actor Rex Bell. They had two sons, but Clara Bow was battling mental illness. She was a doting mother to her sons, but haunted by her weight gain and cursed with profound depression. Bow was eventually confined to a psychiatric hospital and not allowed to see her children again.
She died of a heart attack in her small bungalow in West L.A. on an early autumn night in 1965 while watching a Gary Cooper film on television. She was only 60-years-old, living in poverty and obscurity.
Most of Bow’s films have been lost. Of her 56 films, silent and sound, only 27 exist in their entirety or in pieces. Only 16 are available on DVD. The remaining films that survive are in the Library Of Congress Film Archive. Her most famous work is in the classic Wings (1929) winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, the only fully silent film to win. Wings also has the distinction of being the first film to show two men kissing, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen during the deathbed finale.
Bara and Bow are both buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. I have visited them there. You can too. It is one of my favorite spots in L.A.