Theda Bara, cinema’s first bona fide sex symbol, was born 130 years ago this week. Barely remembered today, she was once one of the great stars of the silent era (only Chaplin and Pickford were bigger). She made over 40 films, most of them, astonishingly, in the space of five years—between 1915 and 1919—but, thanks to a fire at Fox Studios in 1937, only a handful can be seen today. She never made a talkie, though she lived long into the sound era. But in her heyday she was a media sensation, a Kardashian avant la lettre.
Born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 29, 1885, Bara was a New York theater actress who wasn’t discovered by the movies until she was 30. The film that, quite literally, made her name—and that name was “The Vamp”—was A Fool There Was in 1915.
Adapted from a play that was loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling poem “The Vampire,” about a man who loses everything to a cold-hearted seductress, the early publicity for A Fool There Was—all that exists is a herald (flyer)—shows nothing of the kohl-eyed woman of mystery that Bara would become.
But the back of the herald reveals the first churning of the publicity machine that would make Bara’s name.
Theda Bara, leading woman at the Theatre Antoine, Paris, has been cast as the “Vampire,” one of the most fascinating, though revolting female characters ever created. Miss Bara’s interpretation is remarkable for intense dramatic realism, while her wonderfully seductive beauty serves to enhance the illusion created by her art. Her gowns in this production were designed by the leading costumers of her native Paris.
The truth is that Bara had never been to Paris, but that carefully placed untruth was just the first of many that would help create Bara’s persona. Her role in A Fool There Was made her the bad girl of movies and she started to wear more and more revealing costumes. Her stage name was hinted to be an anagram of “Arab death” and it was claimed variously that she was the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and either an Italian sculptor or an Arab sheik.
The poster for one of her earliest films, Carmen (1915)—Bara would excel at playing all of the famous femme fatales of history—is rather tame compared to the herald that accompanied it.
On the herald Bara is billed as the “Satellite of Satan” and made to look positively possessed.
The herald for Lady Audley’s Secret (1915) shows a more demure Bara but in the press notes on the back she is still described as “the famous vampire woman.”
And the publicity for The Devil’s Daughter (1915) and The Eternal Sapho (1916) portray Bara in full-on vampire mode with a wild, unkempt mane of hair and always those kohl-rimmed eyes.
Bara fought against type-casting, as this 1916 magazine cover and the herald for Romeo and Juliet (1916) attest.
But by 1917 the Theda Bara persona—of an exotic woman who was dangerously attractive to men and women alike—was firmly entrenched in the public mind. Bara’s films were billed as “Theda Bara Super Productions” none less so than Cleopatra (1917), for which both she and Fox Studios moved to from Fort Lee New Jersey to Hollywood.
She played Esmerelda in The Darling of Paris (1917), one of the earliest adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Though the blurb about Bara on the back of the herald was surprisingly unsensational.
A French poster for Madame du Barry (1917):
A poster and herald for The Rose of Blood (1918):
One of my favorite pieces of Bara-iana is this magazine ad for The Forbidden Path (1918), reminiscent of Burton Rice’s beautiful ads for Bluebird Photoplays:
And then there was Salomé (1918), the role that Theda Bara, or at least her press machine construct, the “Siren Supreme of the Screen,” was born to play:
And this is how Bara’s career continued, starring in film after film with titles like The Vixen, Sin, Destruction, The Serpent, Her Double Life, The She-Devil, When Men Desire and When a Woman Sins (1918).
In 1918 Bara appeared in cartoon form in the Mutt and Jeff short Meeting Theda Bara:
By 1919, tired of being typecast, Bara allowed her contract with Fox to expire and returned briefly and unsuccessfully to the stage. She married film director Charles Brabin in 1921 around the time of this magazine cover.
A comeback was teased in the trades (I’m not sure what year this was from but Selznick’s “greatest attraction ever made” never happened.)
Bara did make a comeback of sorts in The Unchastened Woman (1925) but she was to make only one more film, a comedic short directed by Stan Laurel, Madame Mystery (1926)—in the poster for which she is completely unrecognizable as “Theda Bara”—before retiring from the movies entirely.
In 1958, three years after Theda Bara’s death, Life Magazine invited Marilyn Monroe and photographer Richard Avedon to recreate images of five sex symbols of the past in the series “Fabled Enchantresses.” That Bara was one of the five—along with Lillian Russell, Marlene Dietrich, Clara Bow and Jean Harlow—was a testament to her enduring image more than thirty years after her final film.
And though her name may be almost forgotten today Theda Bara’s image endures as a signifier both of cinema itself (her eyes were used as the logo for the Chicago Film Festival) and of a certain kind of gothic allure as this club poster by illustrator Casey Castille attests.