Theda Bara

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Theda Bara

Also known as: The Vamp
Born: July 29, 1885(1885-07-29)
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
Died: April 13, 1955 (aged 69)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Years active: 1908–1926
Ethnicity: Caucasian
Height: 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m)
Hair: Black

Theda Bara (July 29, 1885 – April 13, 1955), born Theodosia Burr Goodman, was an American silent film actress - one of the most popular of her era, and one of cinema's earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname "The Vamp" (short for vampire). The term "vamp" soon became a popular slang term for a sexually predatory woman. Bara, Valeska Suratt, and Musidora popularized the vamp persona in the early years of silent film and spawned imitators like Louise Glaum, Nita Naldi and Pola Negri.


Theodosia Burr Goodman was born in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936),[1] a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise de Coppett (1861–1957), was born in Switzerland. Bernard and Pauline married in 1882.

Theda's siblings were a boy, Marque (1888–1954)[2] and a girl, Esther (1897–1965),[1] who also became a film actress as Lori Bara and married Francis W. Getty of London in 1920.

The origin of Bara's stage name is disputed; The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats says it came from director Frank Powell, who learned Theda had a relative named Barranger. At the time, many thought the name was taken from an anagram of "Arab Death."

In 1917 the Goodman family legally changed its surname to "Bara".[3]


Theda Bara attended Walnut Hills High School (1899-1903) and lived at 823 Hutchins Avenue. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked in theater productions mainly but did explore other projects, moving to New York City in 1908. She made her Broadway debut in The Devil (1908).

Theda Bara resided in a villa-style home which is currently the "honors villa" at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Theda Bara in the title role as Cleopatra (1917)

Theda Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but complete prints of only six still exist. Most were produced by William Fox, beginning with A Fool There Was (1915) and ending with The Lure of Ambition (1919). The phenomenal success of A Fool There Was gave William Fox the money to found Fox Film Corporation, while the ensuing films ensured the studio's success.

Theda Bara.jpg
At the height of her fame, Bara was making $4,000 per week. She was one of the most popular movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.[4] Bara's best-known roles were as the "vamp", although she attempted to avoid typecasting by playing wholesome heroines in films such as Under Two Flags and Her Double Life. She also appeared as Juliet in a version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Although Bara took her craft seriously, she was too successful as an exotic "wanton woman" to develop a more versatile career.

Most of Bara's early films were shot on the East Coast, primarily at the Fox studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Bara lived with her family in New York City during this time. The rise of Hollywood as the center of the American film industry forced her to relocate to Los Angeles to film the epic Cleopatra (1917), which became one of Bara's biggest hits. No known prints of Cleopatra exist today, but numerous photographs of Bara in costume as the Queen of the Nile have survived.

Between 1915 and 1919, Bara was Fox studio's biggest star but, tired of being typecast as a vamp, she allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final Fox film was The Lure of Ambition (1919). Her career suffered without Fox studio's support, and she did not make another film until The Unchastened Woman (1925) for Chadwick Pictures Corporation. Bara retired after making only one more film, the short comedy Madame Mystery (1926), made for Hal Roach, in which she parodied her vamp image.

About 1920, Bara had her portrait painted by the young Chicago portrait painter Theodore Lukits (1897–1992). The whereabouts of the portrait are unknown.

She was so impressed by his work that she encouraged him to move to Los Angeles where she could introduce him around. Lukits moved west in 1921 and developed a special relationship with Fox Studios, painting some of its stars, including Dolores Del Rio and selling works to Sol Wurtzel, who ran Fox's day to day operations. For the rest of his life Lukits credited his fortuitous meeting with Bara for some measure of his success in Hollywood.

Theda Bara is most famous for having a higher percentage of lost films than any other actor with a Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame. A 1937 fire at Fox's nitrate film storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed most of that studio's silent films. Out of her 40 films, only a few remain completely intact: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and two short comedies for Hal Roach. In addition to these, a few of her films remain in fragments including Cleopatra (just a few seconds of footage), a clip thought to be from The Soul of Buddha, and a few other unidentified clips featured in a French documentary, Theda Bara et William Fox (2001). Most of the clips can be seen in the documentary The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006).

Bara is also one of the most famous completely silent stars - she was never filmed in sound, lost or otherwise. She did appear on Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio program in 1936 in a broadcast version of The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy.[5] The broadcast was preserved and is available for purchase.[6]

Sex symbol

Theda Bara in one of her famous risqué costumes, this one in Cleopatra (1917).

Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol[7] of the movies.[8] She was well known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films, which could still be considered risqué by today's standards, more than 90 years later. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code started in 1930, and then was more strongly enforced in 1934.

It was popular at that time to promote an actress as mysterious, with an exotic background. The studios promoted Bara with a massive publicity campaign, billing her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. They claimed she had spent her early years in the Sahara Desert under the shadow of the Sphinx, then moved to France to become a stage actress. (In fact, Bara had never been to Egypt or France). They called her the "Serpent of the Nile" and encouraged Bara to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews. Some film historians point to this as the birth of two Hollywood phenomena: the studio publicity department and the press agent, which would later evolve into the public relations person.

At the height of Bara's fame, her vamp image was celebrated in popular songs of the day. The lyrics of "Red-Hot Hannah" state: "I know things that Theda Bara's just startin' to learn / Make my dresses from asbestos, I'm liable to burn...." The song, "Rebecca Came Back From Mecca", contains the lyrics "She's as bold as Theda Bara / Theda's bare but Becky's bare-er", The song "If I had a man like Valentino" contains the chorus lyric, "Theda Bara sure would die / She would never roll another eye".

Marriage and retirement

Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin (1883–1957) in 1921. They had no children.

It is claimed her husband did not consider it proper for his wife to have a career, and this is why she did not make many more appearances after her marriage - although by 1921, her popularity was already waning in any case.

In 1949, producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia Pictures expressed interest in making a movie of Bara's life, starring Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized.[9]


Bara died of stomach cancer in 1955 in Los Angeles, California, and was interred as Theda Bara Brabin in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Her death certificate incorrectly listed her birthdate as July 22, 1892.



Theda Bara has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In June 1996, two biographies appeared, Ron Genini's Theda Bara: A Biography (McFarland) and Eve Golden's Vamp (Emprise). In October 2005 TimeLine Films of Culver City premiered a film biography, Theda Bara: The Woman With the Hungry Eyes. A film by British video artist Georgina Starr titled Theda based around Bara's lost films premiered in London in November 2006.[10]

Bara has also been the subject of several fictional works including "In Theda Bara's Tent" by Diana Altman, "The Director's Cut: A Theda Bara Mystery" by Christopher DiGrazia and the play "Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi" by Bob Johnston.

The Fort Lee Film Commission dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as "Theda Bara Way" in May 2006 to honor Bara, who made many of her films at the Fox Studio on Linwood and Main.

Theda Bara's image has been the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival. A stark, black and white close up of her eyes set as repeated frames in a strip of film serves as the logo for the nonprofit festival.


Note: Extant films are indicated by a

Year Film Role Notes
1914 The Stain Gang moll A print of the film was discovered in Australia in the 1990s.
1915 A Fool There Was The Vamp
The Kreutzer Sonata Celia Friedlander The film is now considered to be lost
The Clemenceau Case Iza The film is now considered to be lost
The Devil's Daughter La Gioconda The film is now considered to be lost
Lady Audley's Secret Helen Talboys
The Two Orphans Henriette The film is now considered to be lost
Sin Rosa The film is now considered to be lost
Carmen Carmen The film is now considered to be lost
The Galley Slave Francesca Brabaut The film is now considered to be lost
Destruction Fernade The film is now considered to be lost
1916 The Serpent Vania Lazar The film is now considered to be lost
Gold and the Woman Theresa Decordova The film is now considered to be lost
The Eternal Sapho Laura Bruffins The film is now considered to be lost
East Lynne Lady Isabel Carlisle A print of this film survives in the film archive of the Museum of Modern Art.
Under Two Flags Cigarette The film is now considered to be lost
Her Double Life Mary Doone The film is now considered to be lost
Romeo and Juliet Juliet The film is now considered to be lost
The Vixen Elsie Drummond The film is now considered to be lost
1917 The Darling of Paris Esmeralda A very loose adaptation of the novel Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo
The film is now considered to be lost.
The Tiger Woman Princess Petrovitch The film is now considered to be lost
Her Greatest Love Hazel The film is now considered to be lost
Heart and Soul Jess The film is now considered to be lost
Camille Marguerite Gauthier[11] The film is considered lost
Cleopatra Cleopatra Approximately 40 seconds exist at George Eastman House
The Rose of Blood Lisza Tapenka The film is now considered to be lost
Madame Du Barry Jeanne Vaubernier The film is now considered to be lost
1918 The Forbidden Path Mary Lynde The film is now considered to be lost
The Soul of Buddha Priestess A small fragment in Theda Bara et William Fox showing Theda smoking while being serenaded is thought to be a clip from this film.
Under the Yoke Maria Valverda The film is now considered to be lost
Salome Salome The film is now considered to be lost
When a Woman Sins Lilian Marchard / Poppea The film is now considered to be lost
The She Devil Lorette The film is now considered to be lost
1919 The Light Blanchette Dumond, aka Madame Lefresne
When Men Desire Marie Lohr
The Siren's Song Marie Bernais
A Woman There Was Princess Zara
Kathleen Mavourneen Kathleen Cavanagh
La Belle Russe Fleurett Sackton / La Belle Russe
The Lure of Ambition Olga Dolan
1925 The Unchastened Woman Caroline Knollys
1926 Madame Mystery Madame Mysterieux
45 Minutes from Hollywood Herself


  1. 1.0 1.1 New York Times
  2. "Marque Bara", Newport Daily News (Newport, Rhode Island), April 26, 1954, p. 2.
  3. "Theda Makes 'em All Baras. Actress's Family Join Her in Dropping Name of Goodman" (PDF), The New York Times, November 17, 1917. Retrieved on 2008-07-20. “Actress's Family Join Her in Dropping Name of Goodman. Theda Bara, actress, and all the members of her family got permission yesterday from ...”
  4.[dead link]
  5. '''''' Gallery, Filmography, Biography. (1955-04-07). Retrieved on 2010-08-02.
  6. The Thin Man, 1936 Lux Radio Broadcast; background and sales information. Retrieved on 2010-08-02.
  7. Classic Images – Vol. 250 – April 1996 Issue. Retrieved on 2010-08-02.
  8. Theda Bara Photo Gallery. Retrieved on 2010-08-02.
  9. Thomas F. Brady, "De Sylva Working on Movie of Bara", New York Times, January 21, 1949, p. 25. Hedda Hopper (column), The Washington Post, August 21, 1949, p. L1. Hedda Hopper (column), The Washington Post, October 23, 1949, p. L1. Thomas F. Brady, "Betty Hutton Set for 2 Metro Films", New York Times, December 2, 1949, p. 36.
  10. Georgina Starr. Georgina Starr. Retrieved on 2010-08-02.
  11. "Theda Bara Makes 'Camille' Reality", Hartford Courant, October 30, 1917. Retrieved on 2008-07-20. “Heralded as one of the screen triumphs of the day, "Camille," adapted from the Dumas novel, and with Theda Bara the featured player, fulfills the promises of the management of Poli's Theater, where this film really heads the bill this half of the week. Vaudeville must...”

Further reading

  • Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse by Judith Buchanan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Chapter 6. ISBN 0-521871999.
  • The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee. Albany: Bear Manor Media, 2007. ISBN 0-275-98259-9.
  • Eve Golden (1996). Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Emprise. ISBN 1-887322-00-0. 
  • Ronald Genini (1996). Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmography. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-0202-4. 
  • Famous Juliets. By Jerome Hart, in Motion Picture Classic, March, 1923.
  • A Million and One Nights. By Terry Ramsaye. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926.
  • Susan Fox (2006). William Fox: A Story of Early Hollywood 1915-1930. Midnight Marquee Press Inc. ISBN 1-887664-62-9. 
  • Christopher DiGrazia (2011). The Director's Cut: A Theda Bara Mystery. 1921 PVG Publishing. ISBN 0-982770-94-4. 
  • Bob Johnston (2002). Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi. Dramatist's Play Service. ISBN 0-822218-37-2. 
  • Diana Altman (2010). In Theda Bara's Tent. Tapley Cove Press. ISBN 0-615343-27-9. 

External links

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