Theda Bara remains the archetypal silent movie star. Her dark, smoky eyes and porcelain skin define the era, when film-making was in its infancy and stars had to colour their faces with unnatural shades to show up on the film stock. (To achieve the look above, Bara had to paint her face yellow and her lips brown).
Born in 1885, Bara was a Jewish girl from Ohio who was transformed into an exotic Middle Eastern mystic by the fledgling movie publicity machine. She was famous at a time when onscreen and offscreen images intermingled to create a wholly Baudrillardian simulacrum; Fox Studios spread so much misinformation about Bara that she’s often cited as the first publicity-created star and its hard to untangle the real woman from the studio-created myth.
Bara wasn’t actually the first onscreen vamp (although her legend would have us believe that she was), various bit parts in the early teens were siren-like characters and The Vampire (1913) starring Alice Hollister was the first feature-length examination of the gothic subject matter at nearly 40 minutes long. But no one popularised the smouldering glances and man-trapping sexuality like Theda Bara.
Bara was the quintessential Edwardian film star and the most successful screen femme fatale to date, so when the first vogue of the vamp ended after the Great War (and the age of the Flapper began) she was left typecast with no where to go. A marriage to a film director who wasn’t keen to have a working wife also didn’t help the longevity of her career.
Despite this she made 42 films in 12 years – all silent pictures – and in 1918 she was the third top movie star in America, ranked only behind Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in popularity. A fire at Fox’s film storage vaults in the 1930s meant that the majority of her films were destroyed (only 6 prints remain), and as she never made the transition to sound she is viewed as a rather mysterious figure of the silent screen.
The film that catapulted Bara to stardom and cemented her image as a man-hungry vampire was A Fool There Was (1915). Based on a Rudyard Kipling poem that was in turn written about a painting, the film follows the story of a wealthy diplomat that meets his end as Bara seduces him to the point of no return, destroying his life in the process. I (the Broken Hearts) created a soundtrack for this film that was screened at the BFI in 2009.
This strangely necrophiliac triptych of publicity shots for A Fool There Was (1915) could well have inspired Alexander McQueen in this deathly ensemble from A/W 2001
You can read more about this collection in my first post.
Theda Bara was sold to the public using exotic notions of the Orient. Despite her Ohio origins, studio publicists spun tales about her heritage, claiming that she was the daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor who grew up in the shadow of the Sphinx. Adding to this mystique were the widely circulated rumours that her stage name was an anagram of ‘Arab Death.’ The reality was a little more mundane; Bara was a shortened version of ‘Baranger’ (her mother’s maiden name) while Theda was an abbreviation of her birth name Theodosia.
Her vampish roles often had an Eastern theme, allowing for lavish costumes and near nudity (the type which would eventually lead to the self-censorship of the Hays Code). Astonishingly, Bara’s starring role in Cleopatra (1917) preceded the Egyptomania craze that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and lasted throughout the 20s.
Her exoticised image is celebrated in the popular song ‘Rebecca Came Back from Mecca’ published in 1921 that you can hear if you listen from 4.20 here. Ever the trend-setter, a proliferation of ‘exotic’ themes in fashion and popular entertainment followed Bara’s success in Cleopatra and Salome.
Eastern influences in the Ziegfeld Follies from Jazz Age Beauties by Robert Hudovernik
Egyptian influences fed into Art Deco styles throughout the 1920s. From Art Deco by Victor Arwas (all 1925-27).