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THEDA BARA
By Kendahl Cruver

 

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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.

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.
 
1915 Theda Bara felt pennantAfter 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 1916 Theda Bara 4x8 Strand Movie Theatre Cardroom, 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 stories.
 
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 angry 1915-16 Theda Bara Trading Cardimmigrants. 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 1917 Theda Bara Kromo Gravure Trading Cardoutdated. 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. Advertising Photo for Theda Bara in Madame MysteryShe 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.
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Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about classic actresses for Suite101.com

Other Theda Bara Pages:
Denny Jackson's Theda Bara Page --
Super Vamp from the Early Years.