That’s right, this month the infamous Theda Bara is my icon of the month.
She 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. She had two siblings: Marque (1888–1954) and Esther (1897–1965), who also became a film actress as Lori Bara and married Francis W. Getty of London in 1920. She was named after the daughter of US Vice President Aaron Burr.
Bara attended Walnut Hills High School graduating in 1903, once she finished high school she dyed her blonde hair black and went in pursuit of her dream. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked mainly in theater productions, but did explore other projects. After moving to New York City in 1908, she made her Broadway debut in “The Devil”. In 1911 she joined a touring company.
After returning to New York in 1914, she began making the rounds of various casting offices in search of work, and was eventually hired to appear in The Stain (1914) as an extra, but she was placed so far in the background that she was not noticed on the screen.
However, it was her ability to take direction which helped her gain the lead role as the “vampire” in A Fool There Was (1915) later that year, and “The Vamp” was born. It was a well-deserved break, because Theda was almost 30 years old, a time when younger women were always considered for lead roles. Theda’s second film, later that year for the newly formed Fox Studios, was as ‘Celia Friedlander’ in “Kreutzer Sonata” (1915).
Theda was hot property and was to make six more films in 1915, finishing up with “Carmen” (1915). The next year would prove to be another busy one, with theater patrons being treated to eight Theda Bara films, all of which would make a great deal of money for Fox Films, and in 1917 Fox headed west to Califoria and took Theda with them.Most of Bara’s early films were shot around the East Coast, 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 centre 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.
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.
Her career suffered without Fox studio’s support, and she did not make another film until “The Unchastened Woman” (1925) for Chadwick Pictures Corporation. 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. She was one of the most popular movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. 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 also 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.
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 movies. She was well known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production 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 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 person.
Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin in 1921. They honeymooned in Nova Scotia at The Pines Hotel in Digby, Nova Scotia, and later purchased a 400 hectares (990 acres) 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, which served as the “honors villa” at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. 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 in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Bara left the bulk of her estate to sister Lori. When she died, she left half of her $400,000 estate to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in Theda’s name with the other half going to children’s hospitals.
For her contribution to the film industry, Theda Bara has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Bara 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 forty 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, coldhearted women was morally instructive to men. Bara responded by saying, “I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin.”
For a time, she became a victim of her own screen image. Making movies at a time when audiences thought that the character that the actor played was the person that they were in real life she often found herself ostracized publicly. Late in her career she would tell stories of being refused service in restaurants and one nurse’s refusal to admit her husband into the hospital after an accident because the woman thought that she had caused it.
In 1994, she was honoured with her image on a United States 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. There is a street in Fort Lee, New Jersey named Theda Bara Way after her.
“To understand those days, you must consider that people believed what they saw on the screen. Nobody had destroyed the grand illusion. Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them. Why, women kicked my photographs as they went into the theaters where my pictures were playing. And once on the streets of New York, a woman called the police because her child spoke to me.” – Theda Bara