Bara, Theda (1885–1955)
Bara, Theda (1885–1955)
American silent-film star whose performances popularized "the vamp" and introduced the term into the English language. Name variations: Theodosia Goodman, Theodosia de Coppet. Born Theodosia de Coppet Goodman on July 20, 1885, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died of cancer on April 7, 1955, in Los Angeles, California; eldest daughter of Bernard (a tailor) and Pauline Louise (de Coppet) Goodman (a hair products representative and housewife); graduated from Walnut Hills High School, 1903; attended University of Cincinnati, 1903–05; moved to New York City with family about 1905; married Charles J. Brabin (a film director), in 1921.
As Theodosia de Coppet, appeared on Broadway in The Devil (1908); appeared in the film The Stain (1908); signed with Fox film studios (1914) and was given new personal background and name, Theda Bara; starred in A Fool There Was (1915) and 39 other Fox "vamp" films through 1919; also appeared in The Two Orphans (1915) and Romeo and Juliet (1916); appeared in play The Blue Flame (1920); attempted film comeback in The Unchastened Woman (1925) and Madame Mystery (1926); retired in 1926.
From Theda Bara's first Fox film released in 1915 until Bela Lugosi's film portrayal of Count Dracula in 1931, the popular meaning of the word vampire was synonymous with a Bara-like person. Bara's famous characters, called vampires or vamps, were women who seduced men, especially married ones, purely for the challenge. A vamp held her lover until he was broken, then she callously discarded him. The term "to vamp" came to mean "to seduce."
Bara was born Theodosia Goodman on July 20, 1885, the eldest of three children. Her father Bernard, son of a Jewish family from Poland, was a tailor. Her mother Pauline Louise de Coppet had been born in Switzerland to French parents and was in the hair-products business before her marriage to Goodman. Theodosia graduated from Cincinnati's Walnut Hills High School in 1903 and attended the University of Cincinnati for two years. Apparently, she was already interested in acting and encouraged by her family. About 1905, the entire family moved to New York City.
Bara's early career is obscure, though she worked for a while under the name Theodosia de Coppet. In 1908, she appeared in a Broadway play titled The Devil but was no great success on stage. She also performed in a film called The Stain as an extra. In 1914, film producer William Fox offered her the female lead in A Fool There Was, a film based on a play inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Vampire." The plot involved a seductive woman's schemes to trap and ruin a prosperous married man. The 29-year-old Theodosia accepted. In connection with her new acting role, Theodosia Goodman became Theda Bara. Despite press releases to the contrary, the name was actually taken from the middle name of her maternal grandfather. Apparently, her family approved; they legally changed the family name to Bara in 1917.
The box office success of A Fool There Was ensured that both the movie and Bara's character became prototypes for other films of a woman destroying a man. The most famous line, "Kiss me, my fool," made Bara an institution. "Her silent comment cut through the rubble of
Victorian sentiment like a stiletto," wrote Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus, "and an enthralled America parroted her." When she began her career with Fox, she was paid $150 a week; as her popularity increased so did her salary. Eventually, she earned $4,000 a week.
In addition to fame as the silent screen's first successful vamp, Theda Bara was also the first star whose off-screen character was created entirely by a publicity campaign. To preserve the mystery and danger of the on-screen character, studio press agents fabricated an exotic background for Bara. Fan magazines regaled readers with the story of her exotic birth in the Sahara Desert, perhaps under the shadow of the Sphinx. Her father was variously reported as French, Italian, or Arabic, and her mother as Egyptian, Arabic or French. Her name was said to be an Oriental anagram. "Theda Bara" scrambled could read "death of Arab."
Though the facts of her background were available, the public and the media preferred the exotic story. In September 1915, the popular magazine Photoplay chose to "disbelieve those stupid people who insist that Theda Bara's right name is Theodosia Goodman and that she is by, of, and from Cincinnati." Yet Photoplay also carried articles that proclaimed her "a gentle, slightly melancholy, even timid creature" who regarded "love as a bit of a myth" and a "career of high license … something too shocking to contemplate."
Bara was surprised that the public could or did not distinguish between her screen characters and her real life, yet the life she lived for public view was designed to perpetuate the mystery. She was kept from all but the most carefully staged public appearances and interviews. Publicity photos caught her glaring into the camera, talons intact, with her darkly kohled eyes. Her contract reportedly banned her from using public transportation or going out without a heavy veil. It also forbade her to marry. She became known as "The Wickedest Woman in the World" and was the subject of immense speculation by fans and reporters alike.
From 1914 to 1919, Theda Bara starred in some 40 films featuring the vamp character, including The Serpent, The Vixen, The She-Devil, and Purgatory's Ivory Angel, but only The Serpent survives. Her portrayal of Cleopatra in a 1917 movie was banned in some places. Trying to avoid typecasting, she appeared in The Two Orphans (1915) and as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1916), but audiences would not allow her to break the mold. Just as Mary Pickford was expected to play the adolescent, Bara was expected to play the vamp.
From 1910 to 1920, she became one of the most popular stars of the decade, due in part to the extreme contrast between her immoral characters and the virtuous women wronged by them. America was at the threshold of great change, still influenced by the restrictive Victorian era but moving toward the flamboyant Roaring Twenties. Early films pandered to audience expectations of a clear definition between good and evil. Simplistic portrayals in both plot and character maintained the social roles and limitations for both women and men.
Prior to Bara's vamp, women had generally been portrayed in film as good and vulnerable, as hard workers in lowly jobs or as faithful wives. Bara's roles were not kind to women. The vamp appeared in scanty clothes and heavy makeup; her express purpose was to ruin men. It was "the vengeance of women on men," explained Bara. "The woman vampire is loved but does not love in return; she exploits men for their money and their sex, and, when they are exhausted of both, abandons them."
[People] refuse to believe that I, in real life, am not as I am in my screen life.
Both shocked and thrilled, people flocked to the movies. Men relished the characters. Some women wrote angry letters or defaced movie posters, but others imitated the characters' costumes, makeup, and seductive ways. Reviewers and commentators publicly examined women's essential nature, particularly discussing distinctions between good women and evil women, depending on the nature of their sexuality. "In no way did her creation resemble a woman—unless one wants to give credence to full hips and bare nipples protruding from serpentine bras," writes Rosen. "Yet she was not, in 1915, a figure of ridicule. On the contrary, she was sex, blatant and overt and so far removed from reality that she could not possibly be a threat to audiences newly probing their own sexuality."
So popular was Bara's vamp that the image was unashamedly copied by new stars and even established ones, Betty Blythe, Vilma Banky, Nita Naldi, Valeska Suratt, Louise Glaum, Lya de Putti , and Pola Negri . As audiences grew more sophisticated in the aftermath of World War I, however, viewers had trouble believing that a vamp destroyed men simply for the fun of it. The character became too simplistic and was often the subject of satire.
By 1919, Theda Bara's popularity had waned, and, when her contract with Fox ended, she left to appear on stage. Though she announced that she wanted to be "a symbol of purity" and "spread happiness," Bara returned to the vamp character in The Blue Flame which was produced on Broadway in March 1920. The play was greeted by critics with derision. The audience, however, liked Bara, and the play did well financially on tour. Still, the vamp of early films was no longer in vogue. In the Roaring '20s, stars imitated Bara's wicked-woman concept but developed more depth for the characters.
In 1921, Theda Bara married one of her directors, Charles J. Brabin. She tried a film comeback in The Unchastened Woman (1925) and Madame Mystery (1926), then retired from films. Having been careful with her earnings, Bara lived comfortably after her retirement. She and Brabin had one of Hollywood's successful marriages. They lived in Beverly Hills, entertained frequently, and Bara became known for her gourmet meals. Her mother lived near her and the family connections remained strong. As she aged, Bara was described as short, bosomy, and slightly plump. She died of cancer on April 7, 1955, after a two-month hospitalization in Los Angeles.
Theda Bara had added a new word to the English language and a new dimension to women's acting roles, for as one television-era writer put it, "Without Theda Bara, there might never have been Dynasty's Joan Collins." She "bridged the gap between sexual austerity and sexual flamboyance," writes Rosen. "And in so doing, she managed a permanent disservice to women. Before Freud's theories of behavior had become popularized, she cast that ominous shadow, the vagina with teeth. She sucked the blood from her lovers; she deprived them of their self-respect. For her they groveled. And while by the mid-twenties her vamp aroused ridicule, was she not the mother of the femmes fatales?" It might be interesting to note that the height of Bara's popularity coincided with the height of the women's suffrage movement. While Bara bared her fangs, women were picketing the White House for the vote.
Blum, Daniel. A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen. London: Spring Books, 1962.
Higashi, Sumiko. Virgins, Vamps, and Flappers: The American Silent Movie Heroine. Monographs in Women's Studies. St. Albans, VT: Eden Press Women's Publications, 1978.
Jacobs, Lewis. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History. NY: Teachers College Press of Columbia University, 1968.
Newsweek (obituary). April 18, 1955, p. 71.
Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus. NY: Coward, McCann, 1973.
Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. The Encyclopedia of Hollywood: An A-to-Z of the Heroes, Heroines, and History of American Film. NY: Facts on File, 1990.
Time (obituary). April 18, 1955, p. 104.
Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, and Psychoanalysis. NY: Routledge, 1991.
Drew, William M. Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1989.
Everson, William K. American Silent Film. NY: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. 4th ed. NY: Macmillan, 1986.
Schickel, Richard. The Stars. NY: Dial Press, 1962.
Trent, Paul, and Richard Lawton. The Image Makers: Sixty Years of Hollywood Glamour. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1972.
Turner, Mary M. Forgotten Leading Ladies of the American Theatre: Lives of Eight Female Players, Playwrights, Directors, Managers, and Activists of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Early Twentieth Centuries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990.
Women and Film. Janet Todd, editor. NY: Holmes & Meier, 1988.
Photographs, portfolios, scrapbooks, press books, reviews, and manuscript notes in the Theda Bara Collection in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, and in the Robinson Locke Scrapbooks, both in the New York Public Library; clipping file in the Harvard Theatre Collection.
Margaret L. Meggs , writer of articles and short stories about women's lives, and teacher of women's studies in college and continuing education courses