Theda Bara, Hollywood's
First Movie Star and Sex Symbol

“I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feminist.” – Theda Bara

Theda Bara was the first major Hollywood Film Star and sex symbol, albeit in the silent film era. Although she started out in theatre, once on film, she became hugely famous for her portrayals of femme fatales, earning her the nickname of "The Vamp." Equally famous were her skimpy costumes -- loved by audiences and hated by the censors.

Theda Bara was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, as Theodosia Goodman, on July 29, 1885. The daughter of a local tailor and his wife, Theda began her career in the theatrical arts after high school. Born a blonde, she dyed her hair black to create dramatic flair and by 1908 found herself in New York auditioning for stage roles. That year she appeared in "The Devil", a stage play, followed by a stint with a touring company.

In 1914 she was back in New York seeking work and was hired as an extra in the film The Stain (1914), but she was placed so far in the background that she was not noticed on the screen. But her ability to take direction soon landed her the lead of The Vampire in A Fool There Was (1915), and so "The Vamp" was born. At almost 30 years old, she became the screen's first fabricated star. The press purported that Theda was the daughter of an artist and an Arabian princess, and that "Theda Bara" was an anagram for "Arab Death"--a far cry from her humble Jewish upbringing in Southern Ohio!

Soon, the public was fascinated by this beautiful actress who allowed herself to be photographed with snakes and skulls, not to mention those skimpy costumes. The next year, Fox Studios was created and she appeared in her second film as Celia Friedlander in Kreutzer Sonata (1915). Suddenly, she was hot – really hot – property, making six more films that year.

The next year she made eight films and a great deal of money for Fox Film, and when the studio moved to California in 1917, Theda went with them. Her most famous film was shot in the new studio that year, the mega-hit Cleopatra, followed by The Rose of Blood that same year.

n an attempt to break out of her vamp typecast and be seen as a more versatile actress, Bara made the film Kathleen Mavourneen (1919) in a Mary Pickford type role. The film flopped and, mutually tired of each other, Bara and Fox agreed not to renew her contract.

During her reign in early Hollywood, Theda’s on-screen persona as an exotic foreign beauty who went through men like a shark made it difficult to land roles outside the type casting of femme fatale, although she made 40 highly successful films, where she portrayed a variety of roles from Vampire to Queen of the Nile to Juliet. Her “Vamp” image did cause some problems in her real life, for at that time the public equated a star’s on-screen persona as who they really were.

For a time, she became a victim of her own screen image, for at the time, audiences thought that the character an actor played on screen was the same as they were in real life.

She often found herself ostracized publicly, although in reality, her friends said that she was a quiet, reserved woman who would be more likely found in a bookstore rather than a Hollywood nightclub.

Late in her career she told stories of being refused service in restaurants and of a nurse's refusal to admit her husband into the hospital because the woman thought that she had caused his injury.

These stories were greatly exaggerated, mostly by Bara herself, to bolster her public persona.

When filming Cleopatra, Bara claimed to have the same astrological sign as the real Cleopatra, which of course wasn’t true, but made a good story.

Fox Studio went wild promoting Bara with a massive campaign, billing her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. They claimed that she had spent her early years in the Sahara Desert, under the shadow of the sphinx, and that she had then moved to France to become a stage actress. The truth is that she had never visited Egypt or France.

In 1926 she made one more film, Madame Mystery, after which she went back into retirement. She returned to the stage briefly in the 1930s with little success, and on April 7, 1955, she left us when she lost her battle with abdominal cancer at the age of 69.

Unfortunately, most of Theda’s films were destroyed in a fire at Fox Studios in 1937, and only 6 films remain today, although you can find a few clips and many on-set photos on YouTube and the web.

“To be good is to be forgotten. I'm going to be so bad, I'll always be remembered.” – Theda Bara

Theda Bara was one of a kind, and there has been no one like her since. A huge star in her day, she still holds the title of “The Vamp” and was posthumously awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. She continues to be remembered and admired by many for her fearless portrayals on screen.

Thank you, Theda, for having the courage to remold the perception of strong, sexual women!

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