Theda Bara (Theodosia Burr Goodman) - biography
Theda Bara (pronounced /ˈθiːdə ˈbɛərə/) (July 29, 1885 – April 13, 1955), born Theodosia Burr Goodman, was an American silent film actress. Bara was one of the most popular screen actresses of her era, and was 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, along with Broadway turned film actress Valeska Suratt, and the French film actress Musidora, popularized the vamp persona in the early years of silent film and was soon imitated by rival actresses such as Louise Glaum, Nita Naldi and Pola Negri.
Theodosia Burr Goodman was born in 1885 in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936), a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise de Coppett (1861–1957), was born in Switzerland and was also Jewish. Bernard and Pauline married in 1882. Theda's brother and sister were Marque (1888–1954) and Esther (1897–1965), who also became a film actress under the name Lori Bara and married Francis W. Getty of London in 1920.
The origin of Bara's stage name is somewhat murky; 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". Education
She attended Walnut Hills High School from 1899 to 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 made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926. Complete prints of only six of these films still exist. Most of Bara's films 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 helped to make Fox a successful studio. At the height of her fame, Bara was making $4,000 per week for her film performances. She was one of the most famous movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in popularity. Bara's best-known and most popular roles were as "vamp" characters, although she attempted to avoid being typecast by playing more 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 mother and siblings 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). This film 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 promoted heavily by Fox, and was the studio's biggest star. When the studio lessened their support, her career suffered. Bara, tired of being typecast as a vamp, allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final film for Fox was The Lure of Ambition (1919). She left Fox and 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, when she was making a promotional appearance, Bara had her portrait painted by the young Chicago portrait painter Theodore Lukits (1897–1992). The whereabouts of this work are unknown. She was so impressed by his work that she encouraged him to move west to Los Angeles where she offered to introduce him around. Lukits did indeed move west in 1921 and he 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/actress 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, 3 remain completely intact. Cleopatra (almost completely lost, 40 seconds remain), Du Barry, Carmen, Salome, and Camille are among the lost. Fortunately, A Fool There Was is preserved in a complete print. Madame Mystery is preserved in a 9.5 mm print which runs 21 minutes, which may be an abridged version for home viewing.
She is also one of the most famous completely silent stars. Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, although mostly silent, were filmed in sound, and none of their sound films have been lost. Bara was never filmed in sound, lost or otherwise. Bara however appeared on Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio program in 1936 in a broadcast version of The Thin Man with the stars from the film William Powell and Myrna Loy. The broadcast was preserved and is available for purchase.
Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol of that era, and in a number of her films appeared in risqué transparent costumes that left little to the imagination. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code started in 1930, and then was more strongly enforced in 1934.
Bara was photographed in several sittings in skimpy Oriental-themed costumes. It was popular at that time to promote an actress as mysterious and elusive, 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 even 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 the excessive handling of Bara, with its over-the-top misrepresentations about the star, as the birth of two new 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 notorious enough to be referred to in popular songs of the day. The lyrics of "Red-Hot Hannah" said: "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. The couple produced no children though Bara was still within childbearing age at their marriage. Her film career soon began to slow down, finally ending with the comedy Madame Mystery made for Hal Roach in 1926. The following year, Bara made a successful but much maligned appearance on Broadway in The Blue Flame.
Though she subsequently expressed interest in returning to the stage or screen, her husband did not consider it proper for his wife to have a career. She did make at least three interview appearances on radio from Hollywood: on the June 8, 1936 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater; as a guest on NBC's For Men Only on March 7, 1939; and on CBS, November 8, 1939.
Bara spent the remainder of her life as a hostess in Hollywood and New York, in comfort and relative wealth. Producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia Pictures expressed interest in 1949 in making a movie biography of her life, to star Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized.
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."