Theda Bara, 1917
In 1918, Theda Bara was one of the three biggest stars in Hollywood. There was America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, the biggest movie star in the world, and then the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin. After those two came The Vamp, Theda Bara.
She was the hottest sex symbol to hit the motion picture screen since, well, since the flickers started flickering. She was 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.
This was, of course, a carefully created image.
Theda Bara was 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 and wisely invested her considerable earnings.
A world-weary, hardened show-biz trooper who had failed all efforts at a legitimate stage career, 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.
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.
As a first generation American—her father, a tailor born in Poland, and her mother from Switzerland—Theda Bara loved America, was grateful for all the opportunities she was given, and 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.
Theda Bara as Cleopatra, 1917, a lost film
In 1918-19 a flu epidemic swept across the United States. The motion picture business was hit hard. 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.
Theda Bara, the man-eating 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’s a genuine movie star.
During the mid 50’s, in one of her last interviews, she spoke with Hedda Hopper about silent films and the essence of Hollywood stardom: glamour 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 glamour—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, Motion Picture Magazine
Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, With a Filmography by Ronald Genini. Yup, that’s the title. Haven’t read the book, so I don’t have a clue.
Tragically, almost all of Theda Bara’s films have been lost or destroyed. She made forty-two films, but the films and clips that do survive are, to judge by reviews and articles, not her best work.
A Fool There Was, 1915 DVD starring Theda Bara, May Allison, Victor Benoit. The film tha
t made Theda Bara an overnight sensation. And yup, this is the movie where Theda commands: “Kiss me, you fool!”
Theda Bara as The Vamp, publicity photo, 1915