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).
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.