In 1918 Theda Bara was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Leading in popularity and box office appeal was Mary Pickford. Charlie Chaplin came second. And not far behind these two giants of the silver screen, Theda Bara.
She was the hottest sex symbol to hit the motion picture screen since, well, since the flickers started flickering. Bara was The Vamp, the sexually insatiable woman, the lethal seductress who sucks the life out of a man, then abandons him, leaving only chaos and destruction in her wake. Theda Bara was the original femme fatale.
This was, of course, a carefully created image.
Theda Bara was, in fact, Theodosia Burr Goodman, (1885-1955) a Jewish woman from Cincinnati who led a quiet and scandal free private life. In fact, she was a bookworm who liked nothing better than to curl up with a cup of tea and devour volume after volume of poetry and art history. She did not drink alcohol, go to night clubs, take drugs, or indulge in wild sexual escapades. She worked hard in the flourishing motion picture industry, saved money, remained married to one man, director Charles Brabin, and wisely invested her considerable earnings.
A world-weary, hardened show-biz trooper who failed in the legitimate stage, Theda got a break in pictures and patiently cooperated with the outlandish publicity which claimed she was born in the shadow of the Egyptian pyramids, the pampered child of a beautiful French actress and an Italian sculptor.
Fox studio publicity men Al Selig and John Goldfrap–flamboyant geniuses who invented the playbook on celebrity publicity–further embellished this nutty tale as they coached Theda to speak to the press with a heavy French accent.
Theda Bara was labeled: The Wickedest Woman in the World.
Draped in velvet cloaks in an overheated hotel room—the press was told that she was accustomed to the desert climate of her native Egypt—Theda dramatically announced to the assembled reporters:
“Raised in a huge tent not far from the Sphinx, the oasis, our little home for years, was to us like the Garden of Eden. My mother taught me the languages, expression, and the art of pantomime. On the other hand, my father taught me how to paint, and the beauty and combination of colors. And through the instruction of both I learned the symphony of the soul.”
At the height of Theda’s career, while filming “The Forbidden Path,” and during World War I, Theda received a telegram that she lovingly preserved in one of her huge, crumbling scrapbooks:
Feb.11, 1918: 158th Infantry Regiment selected you for its Godmother by unanimous vote today. This regiment composed of Arizona men all sincere admirers of yourself. Mary Pickford has adopted 143rd Artillery Regiment here. Will be greatly disappointed if you turn us down. Please wire your acceptance at once.
Theda Bara’s brother Marque, was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the Signal Corps. In 1917 Theda was asked to sign the American flag carried by a company of volunteers from York, Pennsylvania. Graciously, Theda autographed the stars and stripes. In gratitude the regiment sent her an ebony communion cup–unaware that she was Jewish.
This request from the 158th was profoundly touching to the patriotic movie star. She adopted the troops as her boys and finally got to meet the entire regiment in June 1918. She broke down and wept as she spoke to the star-struck soldiers.
“My heart is too full–words can’t come. This has been the most glorious day of my whole life.”
The soldiers responded by rewriting their marching song, doing their maneuvers to: “Vamp, Vamp, Vamp. The Boys are Marching!”
Theda, along with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were the most effective war bond salespeople in the United States. In 1917, on the steps of the New York Public Library, Theda sold $70,000 in bonds a single afternoon. She returned in November and sold another $300,000 worth of bonds during several rallies.
In times past, Hollywood actors and executives were deeply patriotic. As Jack Warner explained to Louella Parsons in 1941:
“My brothers and I are examples of what this country does for its citizens. There were no silver spoons in our mouths when we were born. If anything, there were shovels. But we were free to climb as high as our energy and brains could take us.”
As a first generation American—her father, a Polish born tailor, and her mother from Switzerland—Theda Bara most obviously loved America, and like all first generation American Jews, was grateful for the golden opportunities this land offered. This great movie star went out of her way to support her country and the brave troops who sacrificed so much on the bloody western front.
In 1918-19 a flu epidemic swept across the United States. The motion picture business was hard hit. All across the country, film and stage shows closed; people wore cotton masks in the street. In October, one hundred and ninety-six thousand people died of influenza in America. World-wide, forty-million people lost their lives, far more casualties than combat deaths in the Great War.
Theda Bara, the vamp who made love to men and then cruelly destroyed them, in an act of incredible bravery and compassion, visited veteran’s hospitals while the flu was still raging.
She refused to wear a face mask, insisting that the veterans should have a chance to look their idol’s face.
That is a genuine movie star.
And a stark contrast to contemporary leftist celebrities who are but a simulacrum of genuine movies stars.
During the mid 50’s, in one of her last interviews, Theda Bara spoke with Hedda Hopper about silent films and the essence of Hollywood stardom: glamor and mystery.
“To understand those days, you must consider that people believed what they saw on the screen. Nobody had destroyed the great illusion. Now they know it’s all make-believe… It’s the stars themselves who have been failing the fans. People have always been hungry for glamor–they still are. But it takes showmanship and a constant sense of responsibility to hold their interest. A star musn’t allow her public to see her in slacks. She should dress beautifully at all times–I don’t mean in a bizarre way. She must live their dreams for them and remain a figure of mystery. Glamour is the most essential part of Hollywood.”
Theda Bara made forty-two feature films between 1914 and 1926. At the height of her fame she was earning $4,000 a week. Keep in mind those were the days before income taxes. Complete prints of only six films still exist. In 1937 there was a massive fire at Fox’s nitrate film storage vaults in New Jersey destroying most of the studio’s silent films, and the majority of Theda Bara movies. The rest were lost to nitrate deterioration or destroyed by uncaring studios. The four complete films—The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), and The Unchastened Woman (1925)—to judge by reviews and articles, are not her best work. The loss of Cleopatra, save for 40 seconds, is particularly cruel. The costumes and sets glimpsed in publicity stills, are stunning. Also lost are: Du Barry, Carmen, Salome, and Camille. Still photos from all four productions hint at deliriously lush productions. We can only hope that full copies of Bara’s lost films will yet be discovered in some dusty archives.