As a youth, my bedroom walls were covered with posters, a lot of them from the old movie classics – “Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, etc. (I was a preteen – cut me some slack). But my favorite was a six foot black and white poster of Theda Bara dressed as Cleopatra. I had no idea who Theda Bara was when I bought the poster, but I was mesmerized.
Back then there was no such thing as the Internet, so to find out any information one had to actually go to a library. Despite a helpful librarian, there was very little information on Theda Bara. She was a silent film star, the original vamp (whatever that meant), and she died in 1955. As I grew to adulthood the posters came down and I had all but forgotten about Ms. Bara.
Flash ahead to present day . . . I was Googling “The Daily Show” and missed typing the space between the e at the end of ‘the’ and the d at the beginning of ‘Daily.’ One of the suggestions that popped up was Theda Bara. Instantly forgetting what I was originally trying to look up, I clicked on her name and one of the entries was Vamp – The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden. I was mesmerized all over again.
At a press conference in 1915 Chicago, Fox Studios introduced their newest star:
She was born in the shadow of the pyramids, Selig and Goldfrap related, the pampered only child of a French actress, Theda de Lyse, and Italiian sculptor, Guiseppe Bara. The adventurous de Lyse had been touring Egypt when she encountered Bara, lost in the desert sands.” p.1
“After the reporters were up to date on the amazing history of Theda Bara, the drawing room curtains parted dramatically to reveal The Serpent of the Nile herself . . . she was dressed in velvet and veils in the sweltering heat. Selig and Goldfrap excused the atmosphere, explaining that the Arabian star was not accustomed to the frigid January air of Chicago . . . After the press conference, the reporters were ushered out – all except one. Young Louella Parsons – not yet a famous Hollywood gossip columnist – witnessed the Arabian star ripping her veils and coat off, staggering to the window, throwing it open, and gasping in perfect mid-American, ‘Give me air!'” p.2
Actually, Theda Bara was born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio, the oldest of three children to Bernard and Pauline Goodman. Fox Studios’ PR men, Al Delig and John Goldfarp came up with the idea and carefully scripted Theda’s past (including the end of the press conference). Thus launched the amazing career of the original vamp (vamp taken from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire”).
Eve Golden takes you back to the 19teens and twenties when movies were in their infancy (and the censors were even more absurd than they are today – well maybe not more so, but just as, but I digress). Her style of writing is more conversational than strictly documentation which makes it a pleasure to read. Golden takes you through the life of Ms. Bara, following her highs (in her heyday, Theda was the most popular actress in the country, her movies outdrawing those of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford) and not sugarcoating her lows (“. . . Theda blew up when Harper’s hit the stands, describing Pola Negri as ‘the first vamp.'” p.232). And like many actors and actresses of today, fought the execs constantly to avoid being typecast (which led to some of her best and worst performances). She was very bright, witty, generous, and charming much of the time, but she could also play the supreme diva, once sailing to Paris to go clothes shopping. But more importantly, Golden destroys the myth that Bara was caricature, laughably able to bring down any man only having to flutter her eyelashes. Supporting her are a number of reviews stating the woman could act.
Placed throughout the book are photos documenting Theda’s career, both onset and off. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all that’s left of Theda Bara. In 1937, the vault where most of Theda Bara’s movies were stored was destroyed by fire. Sadly, the few movies that have survived, even Theda admitted, were some of her worst performances. It’s possible that there are more, lost and forgotten in some vault, or secretly hidden by a collector. My hope is that one day a treasure trove of Theda Bara’s movies will be discovered and the world (and I hope that I’ll still be around) will see that she was a great actress.