Bara, Theda

Bara, Theda (b. Theodosia Goodman)

(1890–1955) movie actress; born in Cincinnati, Ohio. The daughter of a tailor, she acted briefly in stock companies and then showed up in Hollywood as an extra. The creation of the Hollywood studio machine, she was assigned her new name, billed as the daughter of an Eastern potentate, and turned into an overnight star in A Fool There Was (1915). Known as "the Vamp" becamse of her screen portrayals of exotic "man-hungry" women, her famous line, "Kiss me, my fool!" and the offscreen image she cultivated (such as giving interviews while stroking a snake), she made some 40 movies, most by 1919. That year she went to New York to become a Broadway actress, but her reputation did her no good so she returned to Hollywood. By this time, though, changing tastes made her seem absurd, and after a few more unsuccessful movies, she retired in 1926 and effectively vanished.

Bara, Theda (1889–1955)

(pop culture)

Theda Bara is best known as the silent movie star who brought the character of the vamp—the woman who used her allure to attach herself to a man and seduce and destroy him—to the silver screen. Bara was born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was an immigrant from Eastern Europe and her mother a wigmaker of French/German descent. She grew up in the prosperous Jewish community in the Avondale section of the city. She was drawn to acting at an early age and was a member of the drama club in high school. After two years at the University of Cincinnati, she dropped out, moved to New York, and became a stage actress.

In 1914, with her career stagnant, she met movie director Frank Powell. Through him, she obtained her first part as an extra in a now lost film, The Stain. But by the end of the year she had been cast as the villainess in the Fox Company’s new film, A Fool There Was. It was shot at the Fox Studio in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, while Theda lived in New York. The play from which the film had been adapted was inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem, “The Vampire,” and was written by Porter Emerson Browne. It opened in New York in 1909 to critical and popular acclaim. The film version made Goodman, reborn as Theda Bara, a star. She played the vampire who destroyed the life of an American diplomat. William Fox may have decided to bank his future on the film because of the success of another recent film with a similar theme, The Vampire, released by the Kalem Film Company.

The uniqueness of A Fool There Was rested not so much with its originality as with the publicity program created by Fox. To sell the film with the unknown star, a fictional biography of Theda Bara was created and presented at a press conference in January 1915. She was described as an Arabian actress and came before the reporters in a fur-bedecked coat. After the press conference, a young Louella Parsons was granted a brief few minutes with Theda, who confessed to the charade. Parsons sucked up the exclusive, a leak planned all along by Fox’s publicity men. The day after the newspapers published the press account, Parsons released her exclusive, and the planned leak turned Theda into one of the most talked-about women in the country. The movie had not yet opened.

A Fool There Was became one of the highest-grossing films of 1915. It was introduced by a live actor who read Kipling’s poem. The critics praised Theda as a great actress and commended the film for not giving in to demands for a happy ending. Fox searched for other films for his new star, and assigned Bara to a role in her second movie, The Kreutzer Sonata. She again played a wicked woman who stole the husband of another woman. She did not get away with it this time, however, and the wife eventually killed her. Her third film, The Clemenceau Case could also be classified as a vamp movie and was enormously successful. Theda was being praised by critics, drawing large audiences, and becoming the target of moral critics who were calling for the banning of her films.

During the filming of Theda’s fourth movie, The Devil’s Daughter, the nickname she had picked up around the set, “Vamp,” was mentioned to a reporter. He used it, and it became the common way to describe Theda and the roles in which she was being cast. As she played the part to reporters at press conferences, the publicity scripts became more involved and eventually suggested she was a reincarnation of some famous wicked ladies such as Lucretia Borgia or Elizabeth Bathory.

While Theda received good reviews for her next film, The Two Orphans, in which she played a heroine, it was a flop at the box office due in large part to Fox pulling the publicity budget. Fox wanted her to return to the vamping. The next film was a gangster movie with the made-for-Theda title Sin. The Fox publicity camp went to work calling the nation to “Sin with Theda Bara.” Sin was a great success in spite of being banned in several states.

Over the next several years Theda starred in a host of films (without dialogue to worry about, the production time on films was relatively short), and while she played a variety of roles, she continually returned to the vamp role her audiences yearned for. Her star status earned her leads in more impressive films such as Carmen, Camille, and Cleopatra. Theda’s vamp image permeated the popular culture and inspired a number of songs (mostly comedies) such as “The Vamp,” “I’m a Jazz Vampire,” “Since Sarah Saw Theda Bara,” and “Sally Green, the Village Vamp,” as well as a new dance, The Vampire Walk. However, by 1919, from the heights of stardom, her career began to wane. Theda was assigned to a series of bad films and her drawing power dropped seriously. In attempting to change her image, she starred as an Irish lass in Kathleen Mavourneen, which received good reviews but turned into a disaster. It was rejected by the Irish because it portrayed the poverty in the old country and because Theda, a Jew, starred as an Irish girl. Angry theater patrons set off stink bombs and riots.

Theda left Fox in 1920 and found herself at age 35 a largely unmarketable commodity. While she made several movies during the 1920s, her career was obviously over, and after Madame Mystery in 1926, she never returned to the movies (although she did appear on the stage occasionally). She lived a long life in her Beverly Hills home, remembered to her death as the original vamp. She died in Hollywood in 1955.

Sources:

Genini, Ronald. Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmography. Jeffersonville, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001. 168 pp.
Golden, Eva. Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Vestal, NY: Emprise Publishing, 1996. 273 pp.