The It Girl and The Vamp: Today we tell the tale of two Silent Film Era greats.
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.
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, Valentino, Wallace Reid, Constance Talmadge, are silent forever. Theda 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. Indeed, I am living in obscurity in Portland, Oregon, in a house that is little more than a squatter’s shack, with too many dogs and an unhinged, unglued and unzipped husband.
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.
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”.
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.