Bara, Theda

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BARA, THEDA (Theodosia Goodman ; 1885–1955), U.S. film actress. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Theda Bara was noted for her femme fatale roles. William Fox recognized her potential and cast her in A Fool There Was (1915) under the name by which she came to be known as the foremost "vamp" of the silent screen. Among her other films were The Devil's Daughter (1915), The Serpent (1916), Heart and Soul (1917), The Forbidden Path (1918), Devil (1918), The Soul of Buddha (1918), When a Woman Sins (1918), and Lure of Ambition (1919). However, of the more than 40 films she made from late 1914 through 1926, only three and a half remain.

Born in the wealthy, largely Jewish Cincinnati suburb of Avondale, Bara was close to her immigrant parents and siblings and had a happy childhood. Extremely intelligent and an avid reader, she attended college for two years. But she dropped out of school, dyed her blonde hair black, and set out to pursue her love of theater. Although she was not very successful on the Broadway stage, her role as the vampire in A Fool There Was, at the age of 30, made her an overnight success.

The first sex symbol for the masses, Bara was renowned for her portrayal of sinful, smoky-eyed women who lured proper husbands away from their wives, playing the relentless vamp in such films as Sin (1915), Destruction (1915), The Vixen (1916), and The Rose of Blood (1917). As the movie industry's first fabricated movie star, publicists billed Bara as "The Serpent of the Nile," who was born in the shadow of the Pyramids. They claimed that her first name was an anagram for "death" and her last name was "Arab" spelled backwards. Constantly being photographed with snakes, skulls, crystal balls, and opulent accouterments, Theda Bara epitomized evil at its most lavish. Because of her fatal allure for America's husbands and her influence on young women, clergymen across the country regularly denounced her from their pulpits.

After a while, Bara began to demand better roles and succeeded in playing such heroines as Cleopatra (1917), Salome (1918), Carmen (1916), Juliet (1917), Madame DuBarry (1917), and Marguerite Gautier in Camille (1918). But her two favorite parts were the staunch Foreign Legion girl in Under Two Flags (1916) and the innocent Irish peasant in Kathleen Mavourneen (1919). However, her film career ended with the latter, as Irish and Catholic groups protested not only the way Ireland was depicted but also the fact that a Jewish actress had been given the leading role. The film was pulled out of circulation after several bomb threats and movie-theater riots.

Undaunted and unscathed, Bara married successful director Charles Brabin in 1921. The wealthy couple lived well and traveled widely; and when they were at home, Bara's charm as a hostess and her skill as a gourmet cook made their Beverly Hills estate a haven for their friends in the film community. Bara wrote a memoir of her professional experiences entitled "What Women Never Tell," but it was never published.


E. Golden, Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara (1996).

[Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]