Friday, 30 August 2013

Whatever Happened To... The Vamp?

 If ever an actress was manufactured for the silver screen, it was Theda Bara. From her name to her ethnic origins, even down to her eating habits, the woman born Theodosia Goodman into a hardworking Jewish family in Ohio, was transformed. She rose from obscurity to apparent overnight success as the original Vamp in the 1915 silent film, A Fool There Was.

At 30, Theodosia had been playing the theatre circuit, auditioning for bit parts in films and generally trying to make ends meet. She wasn't especially striking and, by now, her age was against her, but somehow (and there is conjecture about precisely how), she caught the eye of Fox Director Frank Powell. He was looking for an actress for his new film, based loosely on the Rudyard Kipling poem, The Vampire (itself inspired by a painting by Burne-Jones of the same name). Fox was a cash strapped embryonic studio and couldn't afford any of the big stars. Theodosia de Coppet (as she was then known) fitted the bill perfectly.

Being Jewish middle class wasn't ideal so, in typical Hollywood fashion, if the star's background didn't fit, the studio simply rewrote it. Enter Theda Bara (anagram for 'Arab Death'), with a French actress mother and Italian sculptor father. She was born in Egypt, "in the shadow of the Sphinx", they said, and Theda did her best to live up to the hype. In reality, she had never even been to France, Italy or Egypt!

Her back-story maintained she dabbled in the Occult, conjured up dark spirits and ate raw beef. She had also, apparently, been reincarnated on a number of occasions. In short, she was an exotic, sexually charged, otherworldly character, both on and off the screen. And, while this was the cause of her fame and fortune, it also became the catalyst for her downfall. She was typecast, so when the public grew tired of vampish characters, Theda really had nowhere else to go.

Her career was short, even by Hollywood standards - just five years. Today, only one of her major films remains intact, but while her candle burned, it flamed with fire and intensity. She scorched the screen and her attire frequently teetered on the edge of acceptability. What she did for nipple tassles had to be seen to be believed! 

From this, you might think that her audience was mostly male. Not a bit of it. She had the ability to captivate both male and female cinemagoers, in thirty-three films in just three years. In shocked delight, they flocked to see movies with titles such as, Sin, Destruction, The Serpent, Galley Slave, When a Woman Sins and,he rinterpretation of Cleopatra. Fan magazines latched on and dubbed her, "The Wickedest Woman In The World", "The Devil's Handmaiden" - and, of course, "The Queen of Vampires".
Her public lapped it up and hungered for more. At the height of her fame, Theda Bara stood third in line, behind Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, as the top three Hollywood film stars of the day. 

It becomes unclear just how much of the image was Theda's creation and how much the studio's, when quotes such as this appeared (allegedly penned by Theda herself):
"You say I have the most wicked face of any woman. You say my hair is like the serpent locks of Medusa, that my eyes have the cruel cunning of Borgia, that my mouth is the mouth of the sinister scheming Delilah, that my hands are like the talons of a Circe or the blood-bathing Elizabeth Bathory. And then you ask me of my soul — you wish to know if it is reflected in my face."

Whew! Powerful stuff!

By the end of 1919, her time at Fox was over. The fans were tired of seeing her in, essentially, the same role and she was tired of playing it. There had been some failed attempts to modify her image, but going from wicked vamp one minute to downhome, wholesome American woman the next, was a leap of credibility too great to have any chance of success.

In 1920, Theda married Charles Brabin and retired from public life. She did indeed become an American housewife, wed as she was to a man who didn't believe wives should work outside the home.
From then on, she made brief reappearances, usually to talk about the Golden Days of the silent era. Then, in 1936, she appeared in Cecil B. deMille's Lux Radio Theatre in a production of The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy. There were talks to make a film about her life, but this never materialised.

Theda and Charles Brabin remained married until her death, in 1955, from stomach cancer at the age of 69. She is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale California. Charles - a film director, who originally hailed from Liverpool - lived on for only two more years.

Brief though her stardom may have been, there was only ever one Vamp Girl. And that was Theda Bara.


  1. oh my lord. Theda. Fabulous post.

    1. Shame there isn't more of her on film. So much has been lost!