07 January 2017

Theda Bara - talented actress or sexually provocative vamp?

Theodosia Goodman aka Theda Bara (1885-1950s) was born in Ohio, one of three children of a Cincinnati tailor. As a teenager Theda was interested in the theatrical arts and once she (perhaps) graduated from Cincinnati University, she dyed her blond hair black and left to become an actress.

By 1908 she was in New York. That year she app­ear­ed in The Devil, a Broadway stage play, using the name Theodosia de Coppett (her moth­er’s maiden name). In 1911 she joined a touring company. After returning to New York in 1914, she began having interviews at casting offices and was eventually hired to appear in The Stain (1914) as an extra.

In 1914 she met Frank Powell who cast her as the vampire in A Fool There Was (1915). Theda she quickly took Bara as her surname, short for her maternal grandfather’s name Baranger and prepared to be famous. It was from this role that that the world learned the word vamp, a woman who saps the sexual energ­ies from respectable men. In some of her publicity photos, her devoured victims were the skeleton at her feet. Just as well A Fool There Was did well; Theda was already 30 years old.
 
Theda Bara
Cleopatra, 1917

Theda became the screen's first well promoted and purpose-designed actress. Press releases noted she was the daughter of an "Italian artist and an Arab­ian princess". Or the daughter of a "French artist and his Egyptian concubine". In truth Theda had never been to Egypt or to France, but the studios called her the Serpent of the Nile anyhow. The public became fascinated with her haunting kohl-covered eyes, exotic clothes, snakes and skulls.

Theda's second film, made for the newly formed Fox Studios, was as Celia Friedlander in Sonata (1915). Theda was hot property by that time and went on to make six more impressive films in 1915, including Carmen (1915). The next year was another productive one, with theatre patrons delighting in eight Theda Bara films, all of which made a fortune for Fox Films. Publicity was crucial. America's most popular men's magazine, The National Police Gazette, gave the entire front cover of a 1916 issue to Ms Bara and her Russian wolfhound. 

Then in 1917 Fox headed west to California and took Theda with them. That year she starred in a mega-hit, Cleopatra (1917). This was quickly followed by The Rose of Blood (1917). In 1918 Theda wrote the story and starred as the priestess in The Soul of Buddha (1918). And she bought herself an amazing Tudor party mansion in  Beverly Hills.

With all the panic about wanton female behaviour, in an era still dominated by strong codes of moral behav­iour, this actress was an object more of fascination than fear. But after seven films in 1919, ending with The Lure of Ambition (1919), her contract was suddenly term­inated by Fox, and her career  never recovered. “Irresistible” had turned into “intolerable”.

The income stream dried up and her Beverly Hills mansion went on the market, to be bought by none other than the (later) infamous actor Fatty Arbuckle.

Theda Bara and wolfhound
The National Police Gazette, 
17th June 1916

In 1921 Theda Bara married Charles Brabin (1882-1957), the Englishman who moved to the USA to become a full time film writer and director. From their wedding day in 1921, they remained married for the rest of their lives. In 1926 she made her last film, Madame Mystery directed by Stan Laurel, then went back into permanent re­tirement at 41.

Film prints were difficult to store and were made of silver nitrate, so film companies often kept only one copy of every film they made. If a studio’s single stored copy of a film caught fire, it was most likely gone for good. Unfortunately Bara’s Fox films were totally destroyed in a notorious New Jersey film archive fire in 1937. She had her own personal archive but did not realise that they too had disintegrated until she took some films out in the 1940s. Thus only 3 of her many films were known to have survived completely intact.

In 1955, Theda Bara died of cancer at 69 in Los Angeles. It was only a few years after her death that she was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6307 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood (1960).

**

Now two new questions.  1] Of the 42 films she made in her 4-year career at Fox, Bara was typecast as a heartless man-wrecking vamp in most of them. So did Bara model herself on the problematic Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress in the world in the 1890s? After all Bernhardt was French, was born Jewish, and her greatest roles, Cleopatra, Phèdre and Theodora the Empress of Byzantium, evoked uncontrolled sexuality and a fascination with the Orient. Anne Helen Petersen wrote Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol and the first vamp. But really her image combined and defined vampish sexuality on the big screen a la Sarah Bernhardt, the actress who had been mesmer­ising Western stage audiences for decades.

For moviegoers of the late 1910s, Bara’s vampy screen performances in those now-lost films apparently served as the celluloid embodiment of the dangers and pleasures of sex; it is still possible to grasp some of her primal appeal and unwholesomeness. Imagine a nearly naked raven-haired starlet doing unseemly poses while lounging alongside a man’s skeleton. In the publicity shots from Cleopatra, Bara let herself be photographed in a skimpy coiled-snake bra.

Like Sarah Bernhardt, Bara’s charms were not subtle. And critical opinion about both these actresses during their own careers was polarised. It’s hard not to think that it was the morality of the characters they played that was being judged, rather than their acting skills.

2] Rachel Paige King analysed a second issue. Bara was the first star promoted with an elaborate PR strategy, possibly designed to cover up what was a liability in early C20th America — her Jewish family. According to her publicity, Theda Bara was the child of exotic French/Egyptian parents who had met in the Sahara Desert. She was in fact from a rock solid, boring Jewish immigrant family in Cincinnati, Ohio.

When vampish roles were becoming passe, Bara asked to be cast in a popular story about an Irish peasant heroine. The making of Kathleen Mavourneen was a happy exp­er­ience for Bara. She could leave the vamp pigeon hole she had accepted four years earlier. And she fell in love with her director, Charles Brabin. By the time Kathleen Mavourneen was distributed, Bara was as creatively satisfied as she had ever been. The early reviews of the film were positive.

But incr­eas­ingly many in the Irish-American community found the casting of a Jewish actress as an Irish heroine off­ensive. Riots broke out at theat­res showing the film. Bara received anti-Semitic death threats. Even though the film was silent and accents were irrevelant, many moviegoers were put off and the film failed. After four years Bara’s career ended, at least partially because of anti-Semitism.

Just as well The Motion Picture Production Code, under the control of Will Hays' man Joseph Breen, did not enforce the set of industry moral guidelines and censorship laws until 1930. Breen was virulently anti-Semitic, anti-communist and anti female sexuality.







17 comments:

Andrew said...

She is immediately recognisable by the heavy kohl around her eyes.

Deb said...

Since actors in silent films had no voice, it was inevitable that their acting would be melodramatic, protracted and exaggerated. No wonder Theda Bara's sexuality seemed intense.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Theda Bara is such an icon that it seems amazing that only a few of her films survive. I know there are ongoing projects to convert early films to safety film (and that Bara's films were lost mostly to fire), but it seems that this is a project which should have been finished long ago, given the money in the industry, and the contribution that these films have made to American and world culture.
--Jim
P.S. Whenever I come across here name, I recall the old joke: If you crossed Pola Negri with Theda Bara, you'd get Pola Bara!

Another Student said...

Theda's marriage to Charles Brabin might have been the first one in Hollywood history to last for life. Hopefully it was happy.

Hels said...

Andrew

my late father and his brothers were not allowed to go to the cinema in the 1920s, but they somehow slipped in without adult supervision. All he remembered of Theda Bara - her eyes and her state of undress.

Hels said...

Deb

agreed. In silent films, the focus on over-the-top body language and facial expression was essential. Yet that put the young women actors in a dilemma. If they obeyed the films' directors and played up their sexiness via movements and costumes, they would be breaching the strong codes of public morality.

Hels said...

Parnassus

Those ongoing projects that you mention to convert early films to safety film could only be successful where _at least one_ copy of the early films survived intact. Alas the experts say that that 90% of all American silent films and 50% of early American sound films totally self destructed.

What a cultural legacy lost forever :(

Hels said...

Student

I thought that in 1921 Theda Bara might have married the director Charles Brabin, at least partially, to help out her career. But they really seemed to love each other, and stayed loyal and devoted until her death in 1955. There were not too many Hollywood marriages, then or now, about whom we can say that!

You might be interested in a book I noticed today called "Theda Bara, My Mentor: Under the Wing of Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale" by Joan Craig, with Beverly E Stout.

bazza said...

Hi Hels. With reference to this post's title - why couldn't she have been both? I just watched a very few minutes of Theda Bara on YouTube. One piece had an interview dubbed onto it which showed that she actually had a pleasant speaking voice; it seems that a much more extensive career could have been had!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

bazza

I originally thought that too. Between 1915 and 1919, Bara was Fox studio's biggest and most profitable star i.e she made a very high salary every week and Fox made enormous profits from her films. Just to show you have much Fox actively promoted her vampiness, they released a film called Sin (1915) and widely publicised the film with the line “Sin with Theda Bara”. It was hugely successful with the public.. in most states.

Even if cinemas were becoming anxious about showing sexy or vampish women on screen post-WW1, why did Fox not simply clean up Theda Bara’s on-screen image and renew her contract? Did they forget she was one of their biggest financial and cultural successes.

Annie ODyne said...

thanks Hels - as a result of your post I now have discovered the Theda Bara MYSTERY novels. whoop de do -
'REEL ONE

I wanted a job. I got a murder.
Let me set the scene. It was New York in the late spring of 1914, just before the war, and I was in a funk. I’d been in the movie business for two years, slapping makeup on actors for a few lousy shekels a week. I was bored stiff. Every outfit in town was in a rut – girls tied to railroad tracks, fat men getting pies in the face, little match girls dying in the snow – studios were pumping out everything and anything to make a buck.'

Hels said...

Annie

Well done, you! I had never heard of the "Kiss Me My Fool" blog until a few weeks ago. My favourite post noted that Elfenbein's was a favourite of uptown leading ladies, like Theda Bara, who used to wait there between fittings at Milgrim's. The Rathskeller, near 14th St, was a favourite of Jolson and Cantor etc".

How can one shortish post include ALL my favourite entertainers and cafés?

Annie ODyne said...

Yes. the Bara blog had an interesting non-flattering description of the man she married and his dyed hair, corset, + foppish ensembles for lecherousness.
One post cannot cover everything of course, but yours invariably lead me elsewhere to discovery, as today. 'vamp' from necksucking vampire never crossed my mind as I enjoyed CHER swinging her maribou c1975 and singing the v.a.m.p. Sadie Thompson song. Musically, a band vamp is just extended business to cover something else happening eg singer chatting to audience. Cannot jam bloodsucking into that one.

Hels said...

Annie

people might have found Charles Brabin unappealing, but I just had another thought. Theda Bara lost her contract and handsome income in 1919, and had to sell the Beverly Hills mansion she adored in 1920. If she didn't marry the financially stable Brabin in 1921, Theda would have had to rely on the charity of her friends for the rest of her life.

Parnassus said...

Hello again, I am sure that by now you are subscribed to the Ephemeral New York blog, but in case you missed it, they just did a post about East 19th Street, and artist and author enclave with quite a list of residents--including Theda Bara!
--Jim

Parnassus said...

Forgot to put the link!

https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/a-walk-down-manhattans-first-block-beautiful/

Hels said...

Parnassus

thank you. In 1910, when Theda Bara lived in East 19th Street New York, it must have been a _rental_. Her career had only started a few years earlier and she wouldn't have had money from her parents to buy a place. But imagine the excitement of socialising and drinking with all her near neighbours - artists, actors and writers.

I saw some photos of Bara's Tudor mansion in Beverly Hills, which she _bought_ in 1915. Huge, elegant, perfect for parties, but few neighbours' homes to be seen in any direction!

After they married, Theda and Charles seemed to live in a number of places - Nova Scotia, Beverly Hills, New York, Cincinnati. I think they must have done a lot of travelling.