Hollywood's first and most notorious Vixen, Theda Bara
became synonymous with exoticism. She was alluring and unusual,
a wide-eyed siren, a gold digger...and eternal Vamp. In
fours years (1915 - 1919), Theda vamped her way through
39 films and millions of dollars for Fox Studios. The studio
built her up with such a tremendous publicity campaign,
that when they pulled the rug out from under her in 1919,
her career fell so far, that she was unable to revive it.
Pre WW1's film-going audiences were presented with Foxs'
version of their starlets mysterious and elusive upbringing
by proclaiming she was born of an Italian artist and an
Arabian princess and that her first name was an anagram
spelling "death" and her last name spelled backwards
was Arab. They claimed her mystique was the result of being
born in the Sahara desert in the shadow of a sphinx. They
further stated her mother left the family to become a well-known
actress on the European stage and that Theda was brought
up by her multitalented father. The story continued on that
she was sent to Europe to be trained for the stage where
she became a popular Parisian stage actress who played the
most renowned theatres of the time. The general public ate
it up and her agent's continued to create her persona as
their "Serpent of the Nile".
In reality, she was born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati,
OH on July 29, 1890. She was a blonde haired girl born of
a Jewish tailor and a Swiss mother. Upon graduating from
high school she followed her dreams of becoming an actresses.
She dyed her hair black, adopted exotic makeup and a wardrobe
to match. Her first stage performance was of a cast member
for Molnar's The Devil, which opened in New York
City on August 18, 1908. She continued to play the stage
and in 1914, on making her usual round of casting calls,
she met up with Frank Powell, a new film director for William
Fox. He was so impressed by her potential he immediately
cast her in his film, The Stain, but she was so far
way in the background as an extra she was not recognizable.
Powell, pleased with her ability to take direction, convinced
Fox to let her star in his next film, A Fool There Was.
Although Theda swore she would never play such an "unvirtuous
and daring" role, it proved to be her lucky break.
Although well known in theatrical circles for her high-strung
ambition and fascination with spiritualism her abilities
as an actress were never overly praised. Powell and Theda
devised her new name Theda, a shortened version of Theodosia
and Bara being extracted from the middle name of her Swiss
grandfather, Francois Bar[r]anger de Coppet. Even before
the release of A Fool There Was, Fox had his crackerjack
publicists concoct an alluring past for their newest discovery.
After all, they were paying her $150.00 a week and they
wanted to make a good return on their investment. Fox did
just that, and in doing so, created the first truly fabricated
A Fool There Was was a box office success, making
Theda and instant star and paving a path for Fox's impressive
new film company. Aside from "creating" this new
starlet, Fox introduced a new stereotype to the burgeoning
film industry...the Vamp(ire) woman, who mercilessly uses
her feminine wiles to bring any man to subordination and
impoverishment. Furthermore, besides making more follow-ups
for his newest star, Fox hired second string vamps for less
prestigious rehashes of the vamp formula. The final line
of A Fool There Was is the stuff made of legends.
Theda utters, "Kiss Me My Fool", while scattering
rose petals over the body of her lifeless lover as to command
him to wake from his eternal slumbers. Constantly being
photographed with snakes, skulls, crystal balls and opulent
anything, she epitomized a lavish evilness. She was described
as "the wickedest face in the world, dark-brooding,
beautiful and heartless."
Strings of vamp films would follow, although contrary to
popular belief, she did not always play the wicked woman.
Many of her roles featured her as a virtuous maiden, who
had been wronged. At the height of her career in 1919, she
was making films that cost $60,000 in production and she
herself was earning over $4,000 dollars a week. However,
the post WW1 culture backlashed on the very themes they
embraced before going to war and this upheaval into self-righteousness
did not fare well on Theda's films. With dwindling box office
receipts and wanting to break out of her vampish role, she
demanded a raise of $5000.00 a week. Fox, unwillingly to
catch a falling star, dropped her contract. Over the course
of the next few years, Theda returned to the stage, where
critics panned her. She married Charles Brabin in 1921 and
she returned to California, so that he could direct films
and she could live in retirement. In the mid 20's she attempted
two more comebacks with Unchastened Woman and Madame
Mystery, but neither would return her glory of years
past. She attempted several more stage comebacks in the
thirties and even wrote a book called What Women Never
Tell, a memoir of her professional experiences, which
to this day remains unpublished.
Theda died of abdominal cancer on April 7, 1955 in California