Vamping with Theda Bara (Who?!)

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One of the highlights of our work at the Jewish Women’s Archive is uncovering hidden histories. In our This Week in History profile this week, we are looking back at silent film star Theda Bara.

“Who?” you ask.

In our celebrity obsessed culture, though we do our best to remember the fleeting nature of fame, we simultaneously forget that for every one person whose infamy is cast in stone, there were hundreds of others alongside of them. Not every star can win the Academy Award, not every actress or actor’s work is remembered for all time. And yet, in her own reign of fame, let’s say, she was so “wildly popular” that it is rumored that she had “500,000 fans” following her wherever she went.

Such is the story of Theda Bara. During her 40-film, 5-year run from 1915 to 1920, she originated the “vamp” character.  Her portrayal of an ”exotic woman luring men to ruin,” made her films scandalous! She was the original vamp. In the new online Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, to be launched on March 1st on JWA.org, Bara’s entry reads:  “Bara scandalized the mores of the middle classes. Meetings held across the country put the burgeoning film industry on trial and focused on Theda Bara—the vampire, the wickedest woman in the world, as she was billed by Fox.” Of course, in real life she was nothing like her onscreen persona.

Born Theodosia Goodman in 1890, she was raised in Cincinnati and moved to New York at 18 to become an actress. A year earlier, another 18-year-old moved to New York to begin her show business career. Sophie Tucker, who was actually a few years older than Theda, arrived in New York in 1907. Did they know each other? If they had had Facebook, would they have friend-ed each other? Posted on their respective Walls? I imagine them both as young women in New York, dreaming of making it big, missing their families – or maybe not. And eventually they both really did make it very big, achieving unfathomable success and worldwide fame.

Both Sophie and Theda ended up with sexy, brash onstage/onscreen personas. Sophie with her double entendres that were not double entendres, because they were about sex; and Theda, with her mysterious and mischievous vamp characters that got her films censored, (which led Fox pictures eventually to end her contracts.)

When Fox canceled her contracts, Bara did a little more stage work, and starred in two more films in the 1920’s. She died in 1955, and was married to her husband, Charles Brabin for 34 years. Her only surviving film was her first “A Fool There Was” (1915).

That’s where the similarities end between Sophie and Theda. Sophie died in 1966, only 11 years later, but she died “with two years worth of bookings” left. Sophie worked through the birth of radio, the demise of radio, and then the birth of TV. But Theda only barely made it into the era of talkies. And yet both of their careers were hard won, as Sophie says in Making Trouble, she "slaved for it."

Why should we remember Theda? Not only did she originate an archetypal character of American cinema, but she was also the victim of that very character – her career stalled when notions about sexuality changed.

Theda’s story is a caveat that sometimes the legacy we work for is not the legacy we earn. We at the JWA tell the stories of women whose lives have been hidden by time and in doing that are happy to find stories about women, like Theda, whose legacies should not be forgotten.

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