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Theda Bara

By , 24 May, 2009, 7 Comments

One of the most iconic film images — not iconic silent film images, but just plain most iconic film images — are those of Theda Bara as the titular Egyptian queen in Cleopatra (1917).

Iconic Theda Bara As Cleopatra

Iconic Theda Bara As Cleopatra

Only about 40 seconds of this film has apparently survived; like the bulk of Bara’s film career, this film is believed to be lost. (Though there are those dedicated people who continue to search for films presumed lost; like Mary Ann Cade, who actually owns the belt, slave bracelet and chain of office Theda wore in Cleopatra!)

Of Theda Bara, Daniel Blum (in A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen) writes:

1915 Fox was forging ahead as one of the leading film companies, and this year their prestige soared when in January they released “A Foll There Was” with Theda Bara in the leading role. She became famous overnight. “A Fool There Was” had been a stage play which had been evolved from Kipling’s poem “The Vampire.” The word “vamp” became a household word and Theda Bara became the most famous vampire in the screen and a great box office attraction. She made 40 pictures for Fox in three years, or more than one a month. A legend, built in a press agent’s mind, had Miss Bara born in the shadow of the Sphinx, the daughter of a French artist and his Arab mistress. She was born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati of a nice middle-class family. As Theodosia De Coppet she had some stage experience and played a small part in Pathe’s film “The Stain” before shooting to stardom. She appeared also this year in a version of “Carmen” in direct competition with Geraldine Farrar, and “The Two Orphans” with Jean Sothern and Herbert Brenon who subsequently became a famous director.

I don’t know why I’ve not yet watched any of the few surviving Bara films… I take that back; I do know…

As a feminist, I’ve sort of intellectualized what I know of Theda Bara the actress’ vamp status — yet another female stereotype based on “dangerous women” (in this case, those who literally sucked the life force from men) — and that of the real life Theodosia into some sort of doomed duel with The Man.

By all accounts (outside of the old Hollywood image machine), Theodosia was not only a “good girl,” but a very kind and virtuous person. Like Marilyn Monroe, she hated being typecast and forced into roles she did not find challenging. But more than just feeling stifled in her career, Theodosia personally disliked the image of vamp itself; finding it so contrary to her own identity. One could just call it “acting,” but to Theodosia, it was the publicity machine which choked the life out of her & her career.

For those reasons, I’ve found the idea of watching Theda Bara films more than a little saddening…

Perhaps one day I’ll suck-it-up and watch what magic she left for us on the screen.

Some Images Of Theda Bara From Blum's Book

Some Images Of Theda Bara From Blum's Book

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7 Responses {+}
  • Raquelle

    I had a discussion on my blog on how knowing about the lives of stars affects how we view them on screen. You should definitely give Theda Bara’s films a chance.

    Great post by the way!

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Raquelle, I know it’s quite perverse of me to “defend” Theodosia by not watching her films, so one day I will get over it. 😉

    I’m most often struck by the relationship between “the person” and “the films” in today’s world of celebrity hype. While the old Hollywood system ground out a number of stars (not to mention hopefuls!), practically killing them in the process, I sometimes find myself wishing things were a bit more that way today… Like starlets without panties, I just wish I’d see/know a little less about today’s movie stars.

  • Eric

    “Cleopatra” is a beautiful disaster. I love it.

  • Hala Pickford

    I dont know where the 40 seconds came from…I guess I didnt count it when watching but the clip is in the WONDERFUL documentary “The Woman with the Hungry Eyes” and all it is is Theda turning her head, then turning it back. I’d say 10 seconds tops!

    As for feminism me thinks you need to see A Fool There Was (her most available, and perhaps most antique film…shes not in more than a handful of scenes but shes very key). Whats cool about it is at the time women were not supposed to be ‘vampy’ (she was the first!), they were not supposed to want sex, or live for themselves. In the film we see a good little family complete with model woman who treats her daughter like a little Victorian doll. Theda steals her husband for sport, takes all his money, steals him from his family, and eventually his life as well. He dies and he still wants her…and she just looks over his body and starts LAUGHING!

    See unlike every other movie of that time (well into even the 1960s if you will) the ‘bad girl’ just got away scot free…she was off to vamp again and no karma for the trouble she caused. Cecil B DeMille usually used the classic example: all the sex and violence you could want but then in the end the brat would have to pay and/or die. Theda just walked on mwahahaha.

    Only 2 other full films of hers exist: East Lynne and an Unchastened Woman. Sadly as of now both are hard to find…but there will be Theda at The Rudolph Valentino Film Festival I promise that (in fact I’ve already lined up the documentary!)

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Hi Hala,

    So lovely to meet another fan of silent films — I’m off to check out your blog 😉

  • Angela

    No worries, I felt the same way when I had a copy of “A Fool There Was” lying on my coffee table for a week before I was able to watch it,
    mostly because I’m supposed to be related to Ms. Theda!
    I don’t know how factual that is, but I’ve been doing my best to find out. My blog is about this journey.

  • Vivia

    I have always loved Theda. I remember living in New Orleans, and going to a dingy little pizza parlor filled with cigarette smoke and the most wonderful pizza when I was a child in the early 60s. Theda’s Cleopatra played on a noisy old projector. It may have been the last footage existing. But I fell in love with her.

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