Theda Bara in Cleopatra
Theda- The Ultimate Cleopatra
The few who know of the name "Theda Bara" in the 21st century, will immediately think of strange costumes, bizarre poses and heavy make up when hearing the name of the very first screen vamp. This is because the exotic pictures of Theda Bara along with faded headlines are just about all that remain of this fascinating star. Very little information exists about the woman who is considered to be the first screen vamp.
Theda Bara emerged as a mysterious creature and she, the real Theda, is as mysterious as her outlandish publicity that filled fan magazines during the 1910s.
Theda Bara and Movie History
As far back as 1894 movies were extremely popular.
In the earliest days of film, audiences watched short subjects of simple tasks being accomplished. The thrill was simply watching moving pictures. When the initial amusement of seeing movement on film wore off, stories began being filmed and distributed nation wide for all to enjoy. It was not until 1903 that the first hit movie was released. It was called The Great Train Robbery, and it stood out among the other short plays that audiences had seen because it was so well made, well acted and suspenseful.
For the next ten years silent movies improved in quality, variety, and trick photography.
In 1915 two exciting things happened to the movies. One was the release of The Birth of a Nation, the other was the triumphant rise of Theda Bara, and the coining of a new phrase in the movie vocabulary- the "vamp."
Theda Bara was being touted as being of exotic and illegitimate Egyptian parentage but, was actually a Cincinnati girl, born Theodosia Goodman.
The film that swept her to stardom overnight was Fox's A Fool There Was, directed by Frank Powell. It was based on Rudyard Kipling's "The Vampire," and it was no sooner on theater screens throughout the land than the word vampire was abbreviated to "vamp," specifying a female creature of prey.
Theda Bara films today are rarer than those of any other American star. Little of Theda's approximately 50 movies appear to have survived except her classic A Fool There Was and a much later comedy short, Madame Mystery, made when she was no longer a big star and was merely kidding her former screen personality. There have been rumors that a fire in the Fox studio during the late 30's destroyed her films. Also, Theda had a personal copy of her movies that disintegrated over the years. In a way it's an especial pity that A Fool There Was is the only vintage Bara movie that remains to us. Since it is the first of the vamp films, it is fortunate that is should have survived. But as the first, it was also one of the crudest in many ways, and gives a rather inaccurate picture of the whole vampire cycle.
For that comparatively early period, it was a very good movie. Its theme was powerful and pulled no punches. It tried, courageously, to be different by showing a man's downfall at the hands of an evil woman in scenes of purely symbolic content. Scenes like this tend to appear dated today, and are likely to evoke raucous laughter from audiences that show and care nothing about the history of movies. So too does some of Theda's high powered emoting.
For all its present day inadequacies, it was a remarkably advanced film for those years. It is too bad that more of Theda Bara's other films between 1914 and 1920 are not available to us today. Theda is all too often classified as a vamp, and she certainly did stimulate the activity of other vamp stars- Louise Glaum, Valeska Suratt, and many others.But her talents were by no means limited to femme fatale roles, and she played dramatic and romantic roles in a surprising number of non-vamp pictures. She was Esmerelda, the dancing gypsy, in The Dancer of Paris, and early version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; she played the tragic cigarette in Under Two Flags ( a role Claudette Colbert essayed in the talkie version), and was Juliet to Harry Hilliard's Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.
Just before 1920, she did a complete about face from her usual style to play the sweet and simple heroine of Kathleen Mavourneen. Bur of course, and understandably, it is as the Great Vamp that she is remembered in modern dramas like Destruction, and the stories of the great sirens of history and literature such as Cleopatra, Camille, Salome, and DuBarry.
Bara was one of the earliest actresses to be typecast. Her image was so powerful as a vamp, that it was almost impossible to cast her as anything else. Her last movie was The Madame Mystery 1926.
Young Theodosia Goodman
The Beautiful and Serene Theda
From Theodosia Goodman to Theda Bara
Theodosia was born in July 29th 1885. She was the daughter of a Jewish tailor. As a teenager, Theda developed an interest in the theater and dyed her blond hair black, taking off in pursuit of her ambitions. There are records of stage productions she was in such as The Devil, in 1911.
It is unknown what drove her from stage to screen, but the next traces of Theda are as an extra in The Stain 1914.
Many modern audiences scoff at Theda's appearance, and state that she was no beauty, but Theda was not really touted as a great beauty. She was sexy, and charismatic, and attractive. With strong, handsome features, her presence could be breathtaking. One must look past the style of makeup that she wore, because the look is no longer in vogue, and the heavy eye makeup was used partly to exaggerate her expressions, as she was a "pantomime" actress.
She Married Charles Brabin in 1921 and made a few films during the early years of her marriage, and often spoke of making a comeback, but her husband was a wealthy and respected man in society and he did not approve of his wife making movies. Bara lived very comfortably for the remainder of her life, and entertained often.
She passed away at age 69 in 1955 from stomach cancer.
Looking Stunning and elegant in the 20's
In the late 30's Theda was Interviewed
Theda Bara on the right
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Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on February 19, 2020:
Q. What do Women want?
A. Power over the mere male !
Dianna Mendez on June 30, 2012:
I vaguely remember movies written about her as an actress. She was quite the talk of the town for her era. Thanks for the history on this actress.
Michele Travis from U.S.A. Ohio on June 30, 2012:
Loved this hub. The pictures are beautiful, and the story is wonderful. I had never heard of her. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on June 29, 2012:
Very informative hub! She was a very beautiful screen siren of times past. Thanks for helping me to learn more about her.
Skarlet (author) from California on June 29, 2012:
Thank you Angela and Billybuc.
I have always been interested in Hollywood history and have read extensively over the years. I can sit here and remember a story, but I have to look up dates, and refresh my facts before writing a hub about it.
Suzie from Carson City on June 29, 2012:
Amazing how clear these very old photos are.....unless they've been enhanced through modern tech? She was a darling little girl and rather attractive when not made up as her "Vamp" personna
I know I've heard the name a time or two, but until now, knew next to nothing about her.
You do a spectacular job on these hubs about the stars from the distant past, Skarlet. UP++
Angela Blair from Central Texas on June 29, 2012:
Girl, you're a treasure trove of information about entertainment folks -- and I'm impressed and enjoying every article you write on the subject. Theda Bara was even before my time (not many folks are) and I've never seen her movies(s) only still photos -- although I've always been aware of her name and that she was "the vamp". To me, she actually seems quite beautiful in the girlish, natural picture you've presented of her. The one with the "wonder woman" bra makes her appear like she's being held up by someone and is terrified. Amazing what the camera lens can do. Again, I'm enjoying this series very much and looking forward to the next. Best/Sis
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 29, 2012:
Alright, Skarlet, do you know this stuff or do you have to do copious research before writing? If you know all this about the ex-stars I am in awe of your intellect. :) Great hub and honestly, I knew very little of this. Thank you for expanding my knowledge.