Bara was one of the most popular screen actresses of her era, and was one of cinema's earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname "The Vamp" (short for vampire). The term "vamp" soon became a popular slang term for a sexually predatory woman. Bara, along with the French film actress Musidora, popularized the vamp persona in the early years of silent film and was soon imitated by rival actresses such as Nita Naldi and Pola Negri.
Watch Theda Bara's in the silent film, A Fool There Was, free from YouTube. Birth
Theodosia Burr Goodman was born in 1885 in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853-?) a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland . Her mother, Pauline DeCoppett (1861-1957), was born in Switzerland and was also Jewish. They married in 1882. Theda's brother and sister were Marque (1888-?) and Lori [originally Estie] (1897-?). In 1917, all changed their names to "Bara".
She attended Walnut Hills High School in 1899-1903 and lived at 823 Hutchins Avenue. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked in theatre productions mainly but did explore other projects, moving to New York City in 1908. She made her Broadway debut in The Devil (1908).
Theda Bara made more than 40 feature films between 1914 and 1926. Complete prints of only six of these films still exist. Most of Bara's films were produced by William Fox, beginning with A Fool There Was in 1914 and ending with The Lure of Ambition in 1919. Her films helped to make Fox Film Corporation a successful studio.
At the height of her fame, Bara was making $4,000 per week for her film performances. She was one of the most famous movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in popularity. Bara's best-known and most popular roles were as "vamp" characters, although she attempted to avoid being typecast by playing more 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.
Movie executives made promotional claims that her stage name was chosen because it is an anagram for "Arab Death." In reality, "Theda" was a childhood nickname for Theodosia. "Bara" was a shortened form of her maternal grandfather's last name, Baranger.
Most of Bara's early films were shot on the East Coast, primarily at the Fox studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Bara lived with her mother and siblings 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 in 1917 to film the epic Cleopatra. This film 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 promoted heavily by Fox, and was the studio's biggest star. When the studio dropped off their support her career suffered. Bara, tired of being typecast as a vamp, allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final film for Fox was The Lure of Ambition in 1919. She left Fox and did not make another film until 1925's The Unchastened Woman, for Chadwick Pictures Corporation. Bara retired after making only one more film, the short comedy, Madame Mystery, in 1926.
Theda Bara is most famous for having a higher percentage of lost films than any other actor/actress with a Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame. Out of her 40 films, 3 remain completely intact. Cleopatra (almost completely lost, 40 seconds remain), Madame Du Barry, Carmen, Salome, and Camille are among the lost. Fortunately, A Fool There Was is preserved.
She is also one of the most famous completely silent stars. Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, although mostly silent, were filmed in sound, and none of their sound films have been lost. Bara was never filmed in sound, lost or otherwise.
Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol of that era, and in a number of her films appeared in risqué transparent costumes that left little to the imagination. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Hays Code went into effect in 1930.
Bara was photographed in several sittings in skimpy Oriental-themed costumes. It was popular at that time to promote an actress as mysterious and elusive, with an exotic background. The studios promoted Bara with a massive 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. (Bara had in fact never even been to Egypt or France.) They called her the "Serpent of the Nile" and encouraged Bara to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews.
At the height of Bara's fame, her vamp image was notorious enough to be referred to in popular songs of the day. A line in "Red-Hot Hannah" said "I know things that Theda Bara's just startin' to learn - make my dresses from asbestos, I'm liable to burn...." The song, "Rebecca Came Back From Mecca", contains the lyrics "She's as bold as Theda Bara; Theda's bare but Becky's bare-er".
Marriage and Retirement
Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin (1883-1957) in 1921. Her film career soon began to slow down, finally ending in 1926 with the Hal Roach comedy Madame Mystery. The following year, Bara made a successful but much maligned appearance on Broadway in The Blue Flame.
Though she subsequently expressed interest in returning to the stage or screen, her husband did not consider it proper for his wife to have a career. Bara spent the remainder of her life as a hostess in Hollywood and New York, in comfort and relative wealth.
Bara died of stomach cancer in 1955 in Los Angeles, California and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. She died under the name "Theda Bara Brabin", and her death certificate incorrectly listed her birthday as "July 22, 1892".
Theda Bara has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In June 1996, two biographies appeared, Ron Genini's Theda Bara: A Biography (McFarland) and Eve Golden's Vamp (Emprise). In October 2005 TimeLine Films of Culver City premiered a film biography, Theda Bara: The Woman With the Hungry Eyes.
A film by British video artist Georgina Starr titled Theda based around Bara's lost films premiered in London in November 2006.
The Fort Lee Film Commission dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue in Fort Lee, New Jersey as "Theda Bara Way" in May of 2006 to honor Bara, who made many of her films at the Fox Studio on Linwood and Main.
Theda Bara's image has been the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival. A stark, black and white close up of her eyes set as repeated frames in a strip of film serves as the logo for the nonprofit festival.
Only a handful of Theda Bara films still exist: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1914), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and two short comedies she made for Hal Roach in the mid-1920s.
Although Bara only appeared in silent films, she did make at least one appearance on radio: The June 8, 1936 broadcast of Lux Radio Theatre, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille.
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