Long before Mae West, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlowe, and Madonna vamped their way across the silver screen, there was Theda Bara—the original celluloid “vamp.”
Born Theodosia Goodman on July 29, 1885, Theda Bara had a brief but notable career as the star of dozens of silent films. Raised in Cincinnati, Bara moved to New York City at age eighteen to pursue acting. Only marginally successful on the stage, she became an overnight sensation when director Frank Powell cast her as the star of A Fool There Was in 1915. In the film, which was based on a stage melodrama that was in turn based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, Bara played a temptress who squeezed money, dignity, and finally life out of men. As the sensuous, cruel seductress, Bara created the original “vamp.”
Over the next five years, Bara starred in forty films, almost always as a “vamp,” an exotic woman luring men to ruin. Her films were considered scandalous, and at least one critic advocated censoring them. However, Bara was wildly popular with the public, who flocked to her films. She was said to have received over a thousand marriage proposals from adoring fans. Others named children after her. One critic called her “a clever actress with… a marvelously mobile and expressive face.”
“Always I have been a Charlatan,” Bara wrote in a 1919 essay, adding, “I became famous for the Vampire-woman I am not.”
Her large black eyes, accentuated by heavy kohl makeup, set off her rounded, dead-white face. Elaborate props such as a tiger-skin rug and a long gold cigarette holder embellished her exoticism, as did her penchant for veils, crowns, large hoop earrings, and bronze bangles. With her long, dark hair and voluptuous figure draped in low-cut gauzy gowns, the vamp perpetuated a familiar stereotype of European passion and exoticism. At the same time, the character created a popular image of women as sensual yet powerful. The vamp dominated and triumphed over men, and contrasted sharply with the clean-cut WASPish characters portrayed by Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.
Despite Bara’s popularity, the Fox studio refused to renew her contract after 1919. The film industry had moved on to a cleaner image of sexuality. Seductresses would abound in later Hollywood films, but without the aura of mystery and menace that had defined Bara’s roles.
After her marriage to Charles Brabin in 1921, she made two more feature films and then retired from acting in 1926, having never appeared in a sound film. Today, the only surviving Bara film is A Fool There Was, her first success. She died on April 7, 1955.