With her mesmerizing
kohl-rimmed eyes, barely-there costumes and exotic ways, Theda Bara became the
first sex symbol of the silver screen. Though she usually portrayed villains,
she was one of the most beloved women of her time. Other Theda
She was born Theodosia Goodman in Avondale, Ohio, on July 29, 1885. She
spent most of her uneventful childhood reading. She became obsessed with acting
as a teenager, and participated in her school drama club.
After high school, Theodosia attended the University of Cincinnati. Two
years later, she dropped out and moved to New York to pursue a career on the
stage. Though there are no clear records of her career in these years, it is
certain that after nearly a decade of small parts, she was not successful.
Theodosia's luck changed when she met film director Frank Powell. He invited
her to play an extra in a crowd scene for "The Stain"(1914). He had her in mind
for his next Fox Studios production. Once she had shown she could take
direction, Powell offered her the lead in "A Fool There Was"(1915). She was
signed to a five-year contract and given a new name: “Theda”, a childhood
nickname and “Bara”, from the family name Baranger.
The movie was publicized so heavily that Theda was a star by opening night.
Studio publicists held a press conference in a darkened hotel
room, draped in
velvet curtains and perfumed with incense. There they announced that Theda had
been born in the shadow of the pyramids, to a French actress mother and an
Italian sculptor father.
Then the curtains parted to reveal Theda reclining on a couch. She recited
her lines and the press was dismissed. Louella Parsons stayed long enough to see
Theda run to the window and gasp, “give me air!” The studio claimed that
Parson’s discovery was intentional; no one was expected to believe Theda’s
In "A Fool There Was", Theda played a wicked “vamp” who sucks the energy out
of her hapless suitors. The slinky, soulless temptress would drive a succession
of men to death. Such immoral behavior was shocking, and sensational to
post-Victorian audiences. The movie was a huge success.
Eager to capitalize on its new star, Fox rushed Theda through "The Kreutzer
Sonata" and "The Clemenceau Case" (both 1915), two more vamp successes. Contrary
to common belief, she also played non-vamp roles, including "The Two
Orphans"(1915), "East Lynne"(1916) and "Under Two Flags"(1916). She was even
successful as a heroine, but Fox barely promoted these films. She more
lucrative as a vamp.
Theda attracted larger crowds, and critical acclaim, in a series of
historical productions in which she played famous vamps. She liked her strong
roles in "Carmen"(1917), "Salome"(1918) and "Madame DuBarry" (1917). Audiences
enjoyed the spectacle, and the sight of Theda clothed in little more than a few
strategically placed strings of beads. Her most successful historical movie was
"Cleopatra"(1917), one of the most sought after lost films today.
Within two years, Theda had become one of the most popular movie stars. She
was known as “The Wickedest Woman in the World”, an ironic title, given the fact
that she would go home after work every night, eat dinner and read. The "Vamp"
was actually a bookworm.
Soon after reaching her peak, the quality of Theda's movies lessened, with
bombs such as "The Forbidden Path"(1918) and "The Soul of Buddha" (1918). She
high hopes for "Kathleen Mauvourneen" (1919), but while the movie received good
reviews, its depiction of impoverished Irish surroundings caused riots among
immigrants. Many theaters refused to show the movie. On the upside, Theda
had enjoyed a strong chemistry with the director of the film, Charles Brabin.
By now, Theda was unhappy working at Fox. The studio had abandoned her and
begun to focus on its new cowboy star, Tom Mix. After completing her contract,
she took a European cruise.
When Theda returned home, the "vamp" was out of vogue. Looking to the stage
for a comeback, Theda starred in "The Blue Flame", in which she played a good
girl who comes back from the dead as an vamp. The role made Theda a
laughing-stock among New York critics, but she earned a fortune playing to
sell-out crowds on the road. After a successful vaudeville speaking tour, Theda
felt that her life was incomplete. She married Brabin in 1921.
A few years later, Theda made a comeback in "The Unchastened Woman" (1925).
Both the movie and her acting style were laughably
outdated. Though she
attracted some nostalgic fans, audiences mostly stayed away. Theda also signed a
contract to make comedy shorts with producer Hal Roach. She was disappointed
with the first installment, "Madame Mystery" (1926), and as Brabin disapproved
of her working, Theda gladly cancelled her contract.
Theda then settled in Beverly Hills with Brabin. She became a superb cook
and hostess. Theda enjoyed socializing for the first time in her life, and she
was widely admired for her wit.
In 1934, Theda gave her last stage performance, a five-night run of Bella
Donna in Los Angeles.
She then only retired because she could not find roles.
The next few years she traveled, threw parties and attended theater.
When Theda died of colon cancer on April 7, 1955, the public had come to look
upon her films as unimportant artifacts. When people eventually became curious
about Theda’s work, most of her films were either disintegrated or lost. Only
"A Fool There Was", "Unchastened Woman", and "Madame Mystery" are now available.
They are unfortunately not her best movies. While a print of "East Lynne"
exists, it is only available for public viewings.
Future audiences will probably never be able to see the best of Theda Bara.
Stills from her sets are the only substantial remaining visual record of her
career. These, and the remaining movies, offer a tantalizing glimpse of the
quiet woman who shocked and delighted post-Victorian audiences and whose image
is still a familiar part of our culture today.
Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about
classic actresses for
Jackson's Theda Bara Page --
Super Vamp from the Early Years.