Born Theodosia Burr Goodman, she became Theda Bara (1885-1955), 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 in the 1910 and 1920s.
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 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 film fans 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 fans 90 years after her retirement. 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.
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.