Today is the birthday of Theda Bara who was huge film star of the silent era. Her movie studio, Fox Films, told everyone that she was the daughter of a French woman and an Arab sheik who was born in the shadow of the Sphinx. This is not true at all. It is also probably the first studio publicity stunt. She was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1885.
Her first big film, A Fool There Was appeared in 1915. It was based on a 1909 stage melodrama, which was in turn based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling called the Vampire after a painting by Edward Burne Jones of the same name. It was about a beautiful temptress who robs men of their fortune, their dignity, even their lives. It is because of this film that femmes fatales are also called vamps. Theda was the original vamp. The film made her an overnight sensation. She starred in a further eleven films that year alone. It also led to her being typecast. She was labelled ‘hell’s handmaiden’ and ‘the wickedest woman in the world’. She was hugely popular and received two hundred fan letters a day and over a thousand proposals of marriage.
The costumes she wore seem surprisingly revealing for the time. All of her films were made before the introduction of the Hollywood Production Code in 1930 which banned any suggestion of nudity. It also banned any use of profanities such as ‘God’ and ‘Christ’ along with any scenes showing actual childbirth and white slavery. It makes me wonder what sort of films people were making.
As well as her adoring fans, Theda also had plenty of critics. Sometimes then, as now, people would confuse the person with the characters she played. When someone told her: “It is such women as you who break up happy homes.” She answered, “I am working for my living, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.” Her on screen persona was really the archetypal sensual and powerful woman. Her films have titles like The She Devil, The Vixen and The Eternal Sapho. To those who criticised the way that men faired in her films (it wasn’t well) her answer was: “The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. You see, I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feminist.”
Sadly almost all of her were lost in the Fox vault fire of 1937 which was caused by the spontaneous combustion of poorly stored old nitrocellulose film. A Fool There Was is one of the few that survive.