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.
In 1917 the Goodman family legally changed its surname to "Bara".
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.
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".
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 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.|
|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|
|10||The Galley Slave||Francesca Brabaut|
|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|
|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|
|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|