Theda Bara, the 1910s most notorious actress and vampire, was born “in the shadow of the pyramids” on July 29 sometime between 1885 and 1895. Raised in a tent next to the Sphinx, she moved to Paris as a young woman and instantly became a sensation in both theater and film, sometimes working in the infamous and realistic horror shows at the Grand Guignol. When she arrived in the United States, Theda blazed a path through American cinema, bringing amoral “vamp” characters vividly to life. Vamp, in this period, connoted a woman able to exert sexual power over men, a trait that Theda allegedly had in common with the characters she played. While filming Cleopatra in 1917, Theda conveniently discovered that she was in fact the reincarnation of the long dead Egyptian queen, saying “I know I am a reincarnation of Cleopatra…I live Cleopatra, I breathe Cleopatra, I am Cleopatra!” Theda Bara made over 40 films, mostly playing vamps, between 1914 and 1926 before her otherworldly powers seemingly ran out.
Now if that biography sounded a little suspicious, you’re correct! Theda Bara, while an incredibly successful actress of the early silent film era, was no more a vampire than Robert Pattinson is. The biography above? An ingenious, carefully crafted ploy by early Hollywood publicists and producers in a bid to get Theda Bara noticed. And it worked – just not in the way you’d expect, but more on that later. For now, let’s meet the real Theda Bara.
A young and patriotic Theda Bara. Image courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Theda Bara as a young woman. Image courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.
The real Theda Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman on July 29, 1885 to Jewish immigrant parents in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale. Her childhood was by all accounts stable, happy and maybe even a little boring. Theda’s mother remembered her daughter’s fondness for running away from home as a small child and for public recitations and theatrical opportunities as a teenager – all things you’d expect a from a future actress. Theda dropped out of the University of Cincinnati after two years and moved to New York City to pursue acting in 1905. It’s unknown what she did for the next decade – we do know, however, that she was playing with different stage names, but she doesn’t appear on any surviving playbills from the period, and no contemporary actors remember working with her during this time. Regardless, by 1914 Theda had appeared in her first movie (a bit part in The Stain), met famed director Frank Powell, changed her name and was at work on her second movie, A Fool There Was.
A Fool There Was was Theda’s first vamp role, and it was a smash hit. Theda became an overnight sensation and early sex symbol, but was also instantly typecast. For the rest of her career she struggled to move beyond vamps, but her efforts outside that type often bombed at the box office. Theda’s biggest hit was 1917’s Cleopatra, an enormous costume drama that inspired Elizabeth Taylor’s later movie of the same name. By 1926, married to director Charles Brabin and fed up with the vamp roles she was still typecast by, Theda Bara gave up acting. She died in 1955 of stomach cancer.
Compared to her similarly famous contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, Theda Bara is little-remembered today. Why is that? Part of it has to do with that fictional biography I described above. Fan magazines like Photoplay published that biography at the time, but writers and readers alike certainly knew it was fake. Theda’s publicists made sure they did, both by ensuring real details about Theda were leaked to the press and by making her fake biography more absurd every time they repeated it. That it was fake was part of the fun. Movie fans felt smart knowing the truth, and enjoyed Theda’s onscreen antics more knowing that she was a normal person in real life. In the ensuing decades, however, the obviousness of the fake biography has mostly been lost in translation, and much of it has been reported as fact. This makes Theda seem otherworldly and, well, ridiculous, and hasn’t helped her translate to modern audiences.
It also doesn’t help that most of Theda’s films were destroyed in a fire at the Fox storage vault in New Jersey in 1937. This means we can’t really appreciate Theda’s full body of work. Additionally, her acting method, called the Delsarte method, doesn’t really translate to modern audiences who are used to the natural and method acting techniques of actors like Daniel Day Lewis or Meryl Streep. The Delsarte method relies on specific facial expressions to convey different emotions, and often looks silly or wooden to us.
Theda Bara, while not a vampire, was a remarkable silent film actress. Not only was she one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, but she and her publicists also pioneered the art of a fake biography later heavily used in the studio era of the 1940s and 1950s. As a native Ohioan, hers is an exciting story for us at the Ohio History Connection to share.