In 1918, the silent-film actress Theda Bara was, however briefly, the third-most popular star in America, ranking below only Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. Of the 42 films she made in her four-year career at Fox (she cranked out about one film per month), she was typecast as a heartless man-eating succubus in nearly all of them. Without access to the films for which she was most celebrated, such as Cleopatra (1917) and Salomé (1918), it’s difficult for viewers today to understand why she was such a hot ticket back then. The films that remain most likely don’t do her justice. A Fool There Was (1915) was her very first starring role, made when she was just learning how to act on screen. East Lynne (1916) was an atypical non-vamp role for Bara, based on a play already considered melodramatic and dated by the time the film was made. The Unchastened Woman (1925) and Madame Mystery (1926) were poorly received (and ultimately failed) attempts at a comeback; both were made long after her studio dropped her in 1919.
For moviegoers of the late 1910s, Bara’s vampy screen performances in those now-lost films apparently served as the celluloid embodiment of the dangers and pleasures of sex, and it is still possible to grasp some of her primal appeal; the memorable publicity shots from A Fool There Was ooze with unwholesomeness. In these images, the nearly naked raven-haired starlet strikes a variety of poses while lounging alongside a man’s skeleton. The images seem to suggest that modern women on the cusp of political and sexual emancipation might be up for just about anything. In the over-the-top publicity shots from Cleopatra made two years later, Bara let herself be photographed topless, save for a skimpy coiled-snake bra that looks like it was made to order for Madonna.
Still, even if one doesn’t need to watch the films to experience Bara’s unsubtle charms, it would be helpful if we could see them, if only to understand why she, of all the women promoted as sexpots during the early years of cinema, was the most famous, beloved, and popular. Unfortunately, her films went up in flames in a notorious New Jersey film archive fire in 1937. Back then, movie studios tended to keep only one copy of every film they made; prints were difficult to store and were made of silver nitrate. As a result, early films were highly flammable and could even spontaneously combust; if a studio’s single stored copy of a film caught fire, it was most likely gone for good. (The personal copies Bara kept also weren’t stored properly, and they deteriorated beyond repair.) At the time of the fire, she was only 51 years old. She lived another 18 years, dying in 1955, or long enough later to see almost her entire film legacy disappear.
It’s hard to know how good or bad Bara’s performances were, not only because so little filmic evidence remains, but because critical opinion about her during her own time was so polarized. According to the reviews, she was either good or she was terrible, and there were often wildly divergent opinions about the same performance. A Boston critic called her Cleopatra “brilliant” while one in Brooklyn found Bara in that role “repulsive.” It’s hard not to think that it was the morality of the characters she played rather than her acting skill that was being judged.
The type of role she was assigned over and over again was called “the vampire,” a woman who sapped men of their vitality. Stars during the silent era were often given nicknames. Mary Pickford, for example, was “The Girl With the Curls,” and Clara Bow was the “It Girl.” Bara was no “girl”; she was, as the actress most associated with “vampire” roles, called “the Vamp.” Still, the use of a diminutive suggests that for all the apparent panic about wanton female behavior, the actress was an object more of fascination than fear. Even if Bara’s films are gone, her vampy image has become part of the DNA of cinema. She was cinema’s first sex symbol and its first overnight success; a complete unknown in 1914, and the release of her first film in January 1915 made her an instant celebrity.
Bara was also the first star promoted with an elaborate PR strategy, perhaps designed to efface what was a liability in turn-of-the-century America—her Jewishness. After persuading her to exchange her birth name of Theodosia Goodman for the invented “Theda Bara,” the Fox studio (which, after a merger in 1935, became known as 20th Century Fox) had its publicity agents promote her as an exotic (though apparently Christian) product of the Orient. Still, reporters soon learned that the sultry star, who according to her studio was the child of artistic European parents who had met and married in Egypt, was in fact born in 1885 into a Jewish immigrant family in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In fact, the Goodmans were well known in the local Jewish community. Theodosia, the oldest of three children, was a bookish girl and a good student. She enrolled in the University of Cincinnati after her high-school graduation in 1903, but after a couple of years, she dropped out and moved to New York to try make it as an actress. It took a decade, but eventually she found success when studio head William Fox offered her a contract. Ironically, she was signed precisely because of her many years of failure—and her hunger for acting work. Fox was looking for a nobody who wouldn’t ask for too much money and who would leap at the chance he was offering.
After four years, Bara’s career faltered. It may be, as her biographer Eve Golden suggests, that her popularity was already on the wane. She was getting older and had had a couple of box office flops. She wasn’t the only actress specializing in “vampire” roles, and it seems that the public was tiring of all of them. Bara asked to be cast in a popular story about an Irish peasant heroine. This choice turned out to be a major career misstep. If it was by now well known that the on-screen vamp was really just a nice girl, a homebody, and the rare movie star to have not even a hint of scandal connected to her, it’s also true that Bara’s non-vamp roles had never been her greatest successes. This one became a reputation-killer from which she would never recover.
The actual making of Kathleen Mavourneen was, fortunately, a happy experience for Bara. She had an opportunity to wriggle out of the vamp pigeonhole she’d been assigned four years earlier. Furthermore, she fell in love with her director, Charles Brabin. (They married a couple years later.) As Kathleen Mavourneen wrapped, Bara was perhaps as creatively and personally satisfied as she had ever been. The early reviews, too, were positive.
This time, however, the public was not pleased. Many in the Irish-American community, a marginalized group in the early 20th century, found the casting of a Jewish actress in the role of an Irish heroine offensive. Riots broke out at theaters showing the film. Bara received death threats. Understandably, many moviegoers were put off and the film tanked. Although she fulfilled her contract by making two more films, her career was effectively over. She was only 34.
A century later, the success of a Natalie Portman or a Rachel Weisz still tends to depend on their not being thought of as particularly Jewish. For example, in spite of her Jewish father, Gwyneth Paltrow is frequently described in the press as the ultimate WASP, while Jewish Scarlett Johansson, on account of her gentile Danish father, is regarded as Scandinavian (like her male half-Jewish, half-Northern European Hollywood counterpart Jake Gyllenhal).
It may seem hard to believe now that a top star’s career could be destroyed by virulent anti-Semitism, even as anti-Semitic violence remains a global plague, overt appeals to popular racism and sexism are made by front-running presidential candidates and their supporters, and the 2016 Oscars themselves are being boycotted by African-American performers, directors, writers, and producers who received exactly zero nominations for their work.
Oh, well, maybe if we wait another 100 years.
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Rachel Paige King is the Media Librarian at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has been published in Salon, Newsday, Art & Antiques, and PopMatters.