Theda Bara

Theda Bara

Theda Bara was the stage name and later legal name of Theodosia Burr Goodman (July 29, 1885April 13, 1955), an American silent film actress. Movie executives made promotional claims that her stage name was chosen because it is an anagram for "Arab Death." In reality, "Theda" was a childhood nickname for Theodosia. "Bara" apparently was a shortened form of her maternal grandmother's maiden name, Baranger.

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 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 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. They married in 1882. Theda's brother and sister were Marque (1888-?) and Esther (1897-1965), who also became a film actress under the name Lori Bara and married Francis W. Getty of London in 1920.

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


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 feature 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.

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 9.5mm 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.

Sex symbol

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.

At the height of Bara's fame, her vamp image was notorious enough to be referred to in popular songs of the day. A line in "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. 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.


The actress 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 birthday 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.

The Fort Lee Film Commission dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as "Theda Bara Way" in May of 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. Only a handful of Theda Bara films still exist: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and two short comedies she made for Hal Roach in the mid-1920s.


Note: Extant films are in lightblue background.

Year # Title Role
1914 1 The Stain Gang moll
1915 2 A Fool There Was The Vamp
3 The Kreutzer Sonata Celia Friedlander
4 The Clemenceau Case Iza
5 The Devil's Daughter La Gioconda
6 Lady Audley's Secret Helen Talboys
7 The Two Orphans Henriette
8 Sin Rosa
9 Carmen Carmen
10 The Galley Slave Francesca Brabaut
11 Destruction Fernade
1916 12 The Serpent Vania Lazar
13 Gold and the Woman Theresa Decordova
14 The Eternal Sapho Laura Bruffins
15 East Lynne Lady Isabel Carlisle
16 Under Two Flags Cigarette
17 Her Double Life Mary Doone
18 Romeo and Juliet Juliet
19 The Vixen Elsie Drummond
1917 20 The Darling of Paris Esmeralda
21 The Tiger Woman Princess Petrovitch
22 Her Greatest Love Hazel
23 Heart and Soul Jess
24 Camille Marguerite Gauthier
25 Cleopatra'' Cleopatra
26 The Rose of Blood Lisza Tapenka
27 Madame Du Barry Jeanne Vaubernier
1918 28 The Forbidden Path Mary Lynde
29 The Soul of Buddha Priestess
30 Under the Yoke Maria Valverda
31 Salome Salome
32 When a Woman Sins Lilian Marchard/Poppea
33 The She Devil Lorette
1919 34 The Light Blanchette Dumond, aka Madame Lefresne
35 When Men Desire Marie Lohr
36 The Siren's Song Marie Bernais
37 A Woman There Was Princess Zara
38 Kathleen Mavourneen Kathleen Cavanagh
39 La Belle Russe Fleurett Sackton
La Belle Russe
40 The Lure of Ambition Olga Dolan
1925 41 The Unchastened Woman Caroline Knollys
1926 42 Madame Mystery Madame Mysterieux
43 45 Minutes from Hollywood Herself


Further reading

  • 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.

External links

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