For many Theda Bara (1885 – 1955) is still very much a mystery. Co-Director/ Co-Curator James Harrison puts pen to paper on his own thoughts on one of the most iconic film stars to appear in the early years of the film history.
What I have always found incredible about Theda Bara is that while she was (and still is) considered one of the first major sex symbols of Hollywood, her entire film career only covers roughly about 12 years. What’s more, her filmography only consists of about 40 titles, many of which, are now lost. Alas, the films which are now known to have survived are not really titles that showcase Bara’s stardom. Out of the remaining surviving titles, only her 1915 film A Fool There Was by Frank Powell would come closest to highlighting the power Bara had on screen.
So apart from A Fool There Was, to be honest, the rest are pretty terrible. But this doesn’t make any difference to many of her fans. It is her image which makes her the icon which she is. And there is the mystery in those eyes of Theda Bara! Which could well be one of the reasons why she is still remembered over 70 years after her death.
Mystery shrouds every aspect of her life: her appearances on-screen, her appearances off screen (publicity) and a lack of reliable biographical information. Bara’s background has always been shadowy. At the time of the release of Cleopatra (1917) studio agents at the Fox Studio claimed that she was “the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French woman, born in the Sahara”. She wasn’t, this was a studio fabrication intended to make her seem ‘exotic’.
In fact, Theda Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio,1885. Her father wasn’t an Arab but of Polish or Russian background while her mother was born in Switzerland. Her Caucasian heritage of course did not fit with the studios idea of exoticism so the press men decided to make some changes. This kind of manufacturing has shaped Hollywood stars throughout its history, to be a true ‘star’ all aspects of your life were tailor-made – stardom is a careful construction, an amalgamation of both onscreen and off-screen persona.
The fact that nearly all of her films are now lost – only 6 are known to have survived – adds another element to the ‘mystery’ of Theda Bara. Even the titles of some of her films: The Vixen (1916), The Tiger Woman (1917), The Serpent, Gold and the Woman (1916), The Galley Slave (1915), The Devil’s Daughter(1915) and Sin (1915) all establish how Theda Bara was constructed and perceived: she was the Vamp of Hollywood. Publicity stills from these titles arouse a notion of her as a seductive, dangerous and sexually alluring woman. However Cleopatra (1917) is probably the most striking embodiment of Bara the exotic sex symbol, now only seconds of this film remain.
Theda, like so many stars in her wake, tried to get away from her typecast image in the latter part of her film career, but to no avail. She threw in the towel after the completion of the aptly named Madame Mystery in 1926. She finally realised that the only way to get away from such an image was to give up her acting and film career entirely. But her mysterious and vampish image carried on throughout the rest of her life and onwards. Bara died in 1955 but over the following decades her legendary image endured . Whether it was Marilyn Monroe in costume as Bara’s Cleopatra (yes that is really Monroe), or Bara becoming the cover girl for the underground British magazine It, her image continued to haunt the world long after her death. It is worth noting that It magazine mistook Theda for the later Hollywood sex symbol Clara Bow, the star of the film It (1927). After realising their mistake, the editorial staff decided to keep the image of Theda anyway. And Theda Bara’s image continues to be reincarnated today: whether it’s Chanel launching a ‘Vamp’ cosmetics range or the re-establishment of her films.
Theda Bara has become a powerful symbol of how an image can change not only a woman’s identity in Hollywood, but the iconography of Hollywood itself.
Highly recommend Eve Golden’s Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara as further reading.
Originally posted on Real|Reel Journal in 2012. Expanded and adapted for South West Silents.