On this day 128 years ago, Theodosia Burr Goodman was born in Avondale, a wealthy, largely Jewish, suburb of Cincinnati. An aspiring actress, she went to New York in 1908. Upon finding that there were no meaningful roles for blondes
(Google books preview), she dyed her hair brunette. She gained notoriety some seven years later, with what would be her iconic black hair and dark eye shadow
, in the movie version of a Rudyard Kipling poem called The Vampire
. It was an overwrought melodrama called A Fool There Was
, which starred Theodosia as Theda Bara, a femme fatale who lured men to their destruction. This film marked the first major motion picture publicity campaign and first studio-manufactured "star."
When the film was released in January 1915, Theda Bara was almost 30 years old, and her back story wasn't exciting enough. For William Fox's film version of the Broadway hit A Fool There Was
, Theda Bara was born around 1892, in the shadow of the Pyramids, the daughter of an Italian artist and a French actress, though everyone realized this was nonsense
. Regardless, the movie was a success, propelling Bara into stardom and adding "vampire" and "vamp" to the nation's vocabulary
due to her role in the film.
Between 1915 and 1920, Bara made over 40 films, releasing a new film every month or two. But, as highlighted in the previous Theda Bara post
, little of her extensive film collection remains, due in large part to a massive fire that destroyed 42 individual vaults containing the majority of the silent films produced by Fox before 1935
. From that, her surviving films consist of a cheaply-shot debut, a hoary melodrama, a turgid comeback and a ghastly farewell. So why does her legacy survive?
Film historian Robert S. Birchard made the observation
Theda Bara is unique among film stars in that her image comes down to us almost entirely from still pictures. She made something like forty films, and only a handful survive. But the images of Cleopatra and Salome, with the skimpy costumes and exotic poses, are what people remember. They don’t know the actress. They don’t know her films. But they know the image that she projected on the screen – or at least in the still pictures.
But if you turn back the clock, Bara was once top-ranked in terms of public popularity
(and the first in a 1916 collection of movie star inspired sandwiches
; Google Books), when people saw her not as a collection of still images, but an active actress.
By 1920, Bara's fame was fading, and Fox didn't renew her contract
. She married the director Charles Brabin in 1921
, who, like his wife, had limited success beyond silent films
. The married Bara decided to "vamp no more" and was working on an autobiography in 1925
(Google news archive), but like much of her film career, What Women Never Tell
is not available to the public, due not to fire but as the book was never completed. She passed away in 1955
(Google news archive), at age 65. According to that news article, she lived quietly in Beverly Hills with her husband, to whom she was married until her death.
Bringing the blonde-turned-black haired seductress full circle in 1958, Marilyn Monroe portrayed Theda Bara and other past film stars for a Life Magazine photo shoot
(Google auto-translation; original page in French with English captions