Theodosia Goodman to Theda Bara, from blonde lass to sultry vamp
July 29, 2013 9:53 AM   Subscribe

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)
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Avondale, a wealthy, largely Jewish, suburb of Cincinnati.

Well that was jarring to read. Really interesting post, filthy light thief. I don't recall hearing of her before, though her signature look is definitely something that I have seen.
posted by cashman at 10:03 AM on July 29, 2013

The image featured in the "her iconic black hair and dark eye shadow" link is from her first movie, and it's not very representative of the proto-goth look she had (potentially NSFW, due to scantily clad pre-code images).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:24 AM on July 29, 2013

I've been watching a bunch of silent movies on Netflix lately and it's sad to think about how many are gone forever. Estimates are that 80% to 90% of films made before 1930 are lost.
posted by octothorpe at 10:37 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was introduced to Theda Bara thanks to Gilligan's Island, in an episode where, if memory serves me correctly, the castaways find a trunk of movie costumes washed up in the lagoon.

I read about her later in Kenneth Anger's infamous Hollywood Babylon, though interestingly he has little to say about her among all the silent film stars whose careers he, ahem, discusses, other than to note in passing that her biography was bunk.

Great post!
posted by Gelatin at 10:42 AM on July 29, 2013

it's sad to think about how many are gone forever

On the note of accidents and intentional destruction, I came across this short history/list of vault and nitrate fires. The saddest are the intentional destruction for silver content:
1948: Universal decides to toss out all of its silent library that it still has vaulted. By this time only a few hundred titles remain from the 5,000 films the studio produced prior to converting to talkies. The films, as well as screen tests and trailers, are destroyed to recover their silver content.
It's sad that the greatest value, as seen by the executives at the time, was the materials of the films themselves.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:56 AM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've long been aware of Theda Bara as an early, and probably the first, truly iconic American actress, but never really delved into her whole history. I'm so heartened to learn that she was not another chewed-up-and-spit-out Hollywood commodity/casuality, that she was sophisticated, intelligent, confident, had a happy childhood, made smart decisions about her own life, career and general welfare, had a happy marriage, and managed to live a full, interesting life without ruin or madness.

Refreshing! And not a popular way of telling stories about women who have been or are sex symbols, which always must focus on their collapse, ruin, and total degradation, etc. Thanks, filthy light thief; this was a great collection of links!
posted by taz at 11:08 AM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
to barra Theda's mascara?

Worth noting that the young Theodosia's namesake was the only child of Aaron Burr, another romantic figure who died (presumably) in a shipwreck at 30.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:35 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Several streets in Fort Lee, NJ, original home to Fox Studios, have been given honorary names of early film pioneers, including Theda Bara.
posted by plastic_animals at 12:46 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love how she's directly tied to the etymology of the word "vamp." Who knew?
posted by MoxieProxy at 1:31 PM on July 29, 2013

Fantastic post, as always. Theda Bara is someone I've always wanted to know more about, and now I do.
posted by immlass at 1:39 PM on July 29, 2013

MoxieProxy: I love how she's directly tied to the etymology of the word "vamp."

In reading on Theda, there are a lot of people who string together ideas but don't track down the true stories ("She was the original vamp!" -- but where did the term "vamp" come from?).

Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary page for Vamp, which notes the first usage was back in 1911, four years before A Fool There Was, so etymonline notes the term may be more tied to the role, which was first performed in 1909.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:54 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

An exceptional post, filthy light thief, with some wonderful background on this important silent film figure. Much appreciated!
posted by On the Corner at 12:34 AM on July 30, 2013

If you're pining for footage, here's the complete filmography of Theda Bara, with notes on what footage of which films remains, and where it might reside.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:28 PM on July 30, 2013

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