Theda Bara – born Theodosia Burr Goodman; (July 29, 1885 – April 7, 1955) was an American silent film and stage actress.
Bara was one of the most popular actresses of the silent era, and one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname The Vamp (short for “vampire”), later fueling the rising popularity in “vamp” roles that encapsulated exoticism and sexual domination. Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but most were lost in the 1937 Fox vault fire. After her marriage to Charles Brabin in 1921, she made two more feature films and then retired from acting in 1926, having never appeared in a sound film.
Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman on July 29, 1885 in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936), a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise Françoise (née de Coppett; 1861–1957), was born in Switzerland. Bernard and Pauline married in 1882. Theda had two siblings: Marque (1888–1954) and Esther (1897–1965), who also became a film actress under the name of Lori Bara. She was named after the daughter of US Vice President Aaron Burr.
Bara attended Walnut Hills High School, graduating in 1903. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked mainly in local theater productions, but did explore other projects. After moving to New York City in 1908, she made her Broadway debut in The Devil (1908).
Most of Bara’s early films were shot along the East Coast, where the film industry was centered at that time, primarily at the Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Bara lived with her family in New York City during this time. The rise of Hollywood as the center of the American film industry forced her to relocate to Los Angeles to film the epic Cleopatra (1917), which became one of Bara’s biggest hits. No known prints of Cleopatra exist today, but numerous photographs of Bara in costume as the Queen of the Nile have survived.
Bara in A Fool There Was (1915)
Between 1915 and 1919, Bara was Fox studio’s biggest star, but tired of being typecast as a vamp, she allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final Fox film was The Lure of Ambition (1919). In 1920, she turned briefly to the stage, appearing on Broadway in The Blue Flame. Bara’s fame drew large crowds to the theater, but her acting was savaged by critics.
Bara in The She-Devil (1918)
Her career suffered without Fox studio’s support, and she did not make another film until The Unchastened Woman (1925) for Chadwick Pictures. Bara retired after making only one more film, the short comedy Madame Mystery (1926), made for Hal Roach and directed by Stan Laurel, in which she parodied her vamp image.
At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week (the equivalent of over $56,000 per week in 2017 adjusted dollars). Bara’s best-known roles were as the “vamp”, although she attempted to avoid typecasting by playing wholesome heroines in films such as Under Two Flags and Her Double Life. She appeared as Juliet in a version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Although Bara took her craft seriously, she was too successful as an exotic “wanton woman” to develop a more versatile career.
Image and name
The origin of Bara’s stage name is disputed; The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats says it came from director Frank Powell, who learned Theda had a relative named Barranger, and that “Theda” was a childhood nickname. In promoting the 1917 film Cleopatra, Fox Studio publicists noted that the name was an anagram of Arab death, and her press agents claimed inaccurately that she was “the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French woman, born in the Sahara.”In 1917 the Goodman family legally changed its surname to Bara.
Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol of the film era.
Bara was known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code) started in 1930, and then was more strongly enforced in 1934. It was popular at that time to promote an actress as mysterious, with an exotic background. The studios promoted Bara with a massive publicity campaign, billing her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. They claimed she had spent her early years in the Sahara desert under the shadow of the Sphinx, then moved to France to become a stage actress. (In fact, Bara had never been to either Egypt or France.) They called her the Serpent of the Nile and encouraged her to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews. Some film historians point to this as the birth of two Hollywood phenomena: the studio publicity department and the press agent, which would later evolve into the public relations (PR) person.
A 2016 book, by Joan Craig with Beverly F. Stout, chronicles many personal, first-hand accounts of the lives of Theda Bara and Charles Brabin. It reveals a great dichotomy between Theda Bara’s screen persona and her real-life persona. Included are Bara’s surprised responses to the critical reactions to her screen portrayals from a sector of the community. The author was befriended by Theda Bara and Charles Brabin beginning when she was a young girl. Ms. Craig’s photographic-like memory paints an important picture of how they lived, where they lived, and what they said and did, even to the point of describing in great detail most of the rooms of their house. The book describes how Ms. Bara, who learned pattern making and wig making from her mother and father, designed and created most of the costumes and gowns she wore in her films, including the striking costumes she wore in Cleopatra.
Marriage and retirement
Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin in 1921. They honeymooned at The Pines Hotel in Digby, Nova Scotia, Canada, and later purchased a 400-hectare (990-acre) property down the coast from Digby at Harbourville overlooking the Bay of Fundy, eventually building a summer home they called Baranook. They had no children. Bara resided in a villa-style home in Cincinnati, which served as the “honors villa” at Xavier University. Demolition of the home began in July 2011.
In 1936, she appeared on Lux Radio Theatre during a broadcast version of The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy. She did not appear in the play but instead announced her plans to make a movie comeback, which never materialized. She appeared on radio again in 1939 as a guest on Texaco Star Theatre. These may be the only recordings of her voice ever made.
In 1949, producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia Pictures expressed interest in making a movie of Bara’s life, to star Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized.
On April 7, 1955, Bara died of stomach cancer in Los Angeles, California. She was interred as Theda Bara Brabin at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
The Stain (1914) – Role: Gag Moll – Credited as Theodosia Goodman
Siren of Hell (1915) – Lost Film
A Fool There Was (1915) – Role: The Vampire
The Kreutzer Sonata (1915) – Role: Celia Friedlander – Lost Film
The Clemenceau Case (1915) – Role: Iza – Lost Film
The Devil’s Daughter (1915) – Role: La Gioconda – Lost Film
Lady Audley’s Secret (1915) – Role: Helen Talboys – Lost Film
The Two Orphans (1915) – Role: Henriette – Lost Film
Sin (1915) – Role: Rosa – Lost Film
Carmen (1915) – Role: Carmen – Lost Film
The Gallery Slave (1915) – Role: Francesca Brabaut – Lost Film
Destruction (1915) – Role: Femade – Lost Film
The Serpent (1916) – Role: Vania Lazar – Lost Film
Gold and the Woman (1916) – Role: Theresa Decordova – Lost Film
The Eternal Sapho (1916) – Role: Laura Bruffins – Lost Film
East Lynne (1916) – Role: Lady Isabel Carlisle – Lost Film
Under Two Flags (1916) – Role: Cigarette- Lost Film
Her Double Life (1916) – Role: Mary Doone – Lost Film
Romeo and Juliet (1916) – Role: Juliet – Lost Film
The Vixen (1916) – Role: Elsie Drummond – Lost Film
The Darling of Paris (1917) – Role: Esmeralda – Lost Film
The Tiger Woman (1917) – Role: Princess Petrovitch – Lost Film
Her Greatest Love (1917) – Role: Hazel – Lost Film
Heart and Soul (1917) – Role: Jess – Lost Film
Camille (1917) – Role: Marguerite Gauthier – Lost Film
Cleopatra (1917) – Role: Cleopatra – Approximately 20 seconds exist
The Rose of Blood (1917) – Role: Lisza Tapenka – Lost Film
Madame Du Barry (1917) – Role: Jeanne Vaubernier – Lost Film
The Forbidden Path (1918) – Role: Mary Lynde – Lost Film
The Soul of Buddha (1918) – Role: Priestess – Lost Film
Under the Yoke (1918) – Role: Maria Valverda – Lost Film
Salome (1918) – Role: Salome – Lost Film
When a Woman Sins (1918) – Role: Lilian Marchard/Poppea – Lost Film
The She-Devil (1918) – Role: Lorette – Lost Film
The Light (1919) – Role: Blanchette Dumond, aka Madame Lefresne – Lost Film
When Men Desire (1919) – Role: Marie Lohr – Lost Film
The Siren’s Song (1919) – Role: Marie Bernais – Lost Film
A Woman There Was (1919) – Role: Princess Zara – Lost Film
Kathleen Mavourneen (1919) – Role: Kathleen Cavanagh – Lost Film
La Belle Russe (1919) – Role: Fleurett Sackton/La Belle Russe- Lost Film
The Lure of Ambition (1919) – Role: Olga Dolan – Lost Film: 82 second outtake exists
The Unchastened Women (1925) – Role: Caroline Knollys
Madame Mystery (1925) – Role: Madame Mysterieux – Short Film
45 Minutes from Hollywood (1926) – Role: Herself – Short Film
For her contributions to the film industry, Bara received a motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Her star is located at 6307 Hollywood Boulevard.
She is one of the most famous completely silent stars—she never appeared in a sound film, lost or otherwise. A 1937 fire at Fox’s nitrate film storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed most of that studio’s silent films. Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but complete prints of only six still exist: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and two short comedies for Hal Roach.
In addition to these, a few of her films remain in fragments, including Cleopatra (just a few seconds of footage), a clip thought to be from The Soul of Buddha, and a few other unidentified clips featured in a French documentary, Theda Bara et William Fox (2001). Most of the clips can be seen in the documentary The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006). As to vamping, critics stated that her portrayal of calculating, cold-hearted women was morally instructive to men. Bara responded by saying, “I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin.”. Additional footage has been found which shows her behind the scenes on a picture. While the hairstyle has led some to theorize that this may be from The Lure of Ambition, this has not been confirmed.
In 1994, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The Fort Lee Film Commission dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as “Theda Bara Way” in May 2006 to honor Bara, who made many of her films at the Fox Studio on Linwood and Main.
Over a period of several years, filmmaker and film historian Phillip Dye reconstructed Cleopatra on video. Titled Lost Cleopatra, the full-length feature was created by editing together production-still picture montages combined with the surviving film clip. The script was based on the original scenario with modifications derived from research into censorship reports, reviews of the film, and synopses from period magazines. Dye screened the film at the Hollywood Heritage Museum on February 8, 2017.
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- Article: Cinemas’s First Sex Symbol Was Also America’s First Goth
- Cover image: Theda Bara-From the movie Cleopatra
- Page image: Theda Bara-From the movie Cleopatra