Theda Bara

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Theda Bara
Theda Bara 1921 Orval Hixon.jpg
Bara in 1921
Theodosia Burr Goodman

(1885-07-29)July 29, 1885
DiedApril 7, 1955(1955-04-07) (aged 69)
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale
Alma mater University of Cincinnati
Years active1908–1926
(m. 1921)

Theda Bara ( /ˈθdəˈbærə/ THEE-də BARR; [1] born Theodosia Burr Goodman; July 29, 1885 – April 7, 1955) was an American silent film and stage actress. [2]


Bara was one of the more popular actresses of the silent era and one of cinema's early sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname "The Vamp" (short for vampire, a seductive woman), [lower-alpha 1] later fueling the rising popularity in "vamp" roles that encapsulated exoticism and sexual domination. [5] The studios promoted a fictitious persona for Bara as an Egyptian-born woman interested in the occult. Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but most were lost in the 1937 Fox vault fire. After her marriage to Charles Brabin in 1921, she made two more feature films then retired from acting in 1926, never appearing in a sound film.

Early life

Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman on July 29, 1885 in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. [2] She was named after the daughter of US Vice President Aaron Burr. [6] Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936), [7] a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise Françoise (née de Coppett; 1861–1957), was born in Switzerland. [8] Bernard and Pauline married in 1882. Theda had two younger siblings: Marque (1888–1954) [9] and Esther (1897–1965), [7] who also became a film actress under the name of Lori Bara.

Bara attended Walnut Hills High School, graduating in 1903. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked mainly in local theater productions, but did explore other projects. After moving to New York City in 1908, she made her Broadway debut the same year in The Devil. [10]


Most of Bara's early films were shot along the East Coast, where the film industry was centered at that time, primarily at Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. [11]

Bara lived with her family 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), which 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.[ citation needed ]

Bara in A Fool There Was (1915) Theda Bara, A Fool There Was (1915) Publicity Still.jpg
Bara in A Fool There Was (1915)

Between 1915 and 1919, Bara was Fox studio's biggest star, but tired of being typecast as a vamp, she allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final Fox film was The Lure of Ambition (1919). In 1920, she turned briefly to the stage, appearing on Broadway in The Blue Flame . Bara's fame drew large crowds to the theater, but her acting was savaged by critics. [12]

Bara in The She-Devil (1918) The She Devil 1918.jpg
Bara in The She-Devil (1918)

Her career suffered without Fox Studios' support, and she did not make another film until The Unchastened Woman (1925) for Chadwick Pictures. Bara retired after making only one more film, the short comedy Madame Mystery (1926), for Hal Roach. Directed by Stan Laurel, she parodied her vamp image within the film.[ citation needed ]

At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week (the equivalent of over $56,000 per week in 2017 adjusted dollars). Bara's better-known roles were as the "vamp", although she attempted to avoid typecasting by playing wholesome heroines in films such as Under Two Flags and Her Double Life. She 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.[ citation needed ]

Image and name

The origin of Bara's stage name is disputed; The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats says it came from director Frank Powell, who learned Theda had a relative named Barranger, and that Theda was a childhood nickname. In promoting the 1917 film Cleopatra , Fox Studio publicists noted that the name was an anagram of Arab death, and her press agents, to enhance her exotic appeal to moviegoers, falsely promoted the young Ohio native as "the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French woman, born in the Sahara." [13] [14] In 1917, the Goodman family legally changed its surname to Bara. [7]


Bara was known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code) started in 1930, and then was more strongly enforced in 1934. It was popular at that time to promote an actress as mysterious, 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 never had been to Egypt, and her time in France amounted to just a few months.) They called her the "Serpent of the Nile" and encouraged her to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews. Some film historians point to this as the birth of two Hollywood phenomena: the studio publicity department and the press agent (later evolving into the public relations person).[ citation needed ]

A 2016 book by Joan Craig with Beverly F. Stout chronicles many personal, first-hand accounts of the lives of Theda Bara and Charles Brabin. [15] It reveals a great dichotomy between Theda Bara's screen persona and her real-life persona. Included are Bara's surprised responses to the critical reactions to her screen portrayals from a sector of the community. The author was befriended by Theda Bara and Charles Brabin beginning when she was a young girl. Craig's photographic-like memory paints an important picture of how they lived, where they lived, and what they said and did, even to the point of describing in great detail most of the rooms of their house. The book describes how Bara, who learned pattern making and wig making from her mother and father, designed and created most of the costumes and gowns she wore in her films, including the striking costumes she wore in Cleopatra.

Marriage and retirement

Bara with Charles Brabin, 1922 Theda Bara & Charles Brabin 1922.jpg
Bara with Charles Brabin, 1922

Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin in 1921. They honeymooned at The Pines Hotel in Digby, Nova Scotia, Canada, and later purchased a 400-hectare (990-acre) property down the coast from Digby at Harbourville, Nova Scotia, overlooking the Bay of Fundy, eventually building a summer home they called Baranook. [16] They had no children. Bara resided in a villa-style home in Cincinnati, which served as the "honors villa" at Xavier University. Demolition of the home began in July 2011. [17]

In 1936, she appeared on Lux Radio Theatre during a broadcast version of The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy. She did not appear in the play but instead announced her plans to make a movie comeback, [18] [19] which never materialized. She appeared on radio again in 1939 as a guest on Texaco Star Theatre .

In 1949, producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia Pictures expressed interest in making a movie of Bara's life to star Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized. [20] [21]


Bara's niche in the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Glendale Theda Bara Grave.JPG
Bara's niche in the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Glendale

On April 7, 1955, after a lengthy stay at California Lutheran Hospital in Los Angeles, Bara died there of stomach cancer. [2] She was survived by her husband Charles Brabin, her mother, and sister Lori. [2] She was interred as Theda Bara Brabin at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. [22]


Bara often is cited as the first sex symbol of the film era. [23] [24]

For her contributions to the film industry, Bara received a motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Her star is located at 6307 Hollywood Boulevard. [25]

Bara never appeared in a sound film, lost or otherwise. A 1937 fire at Fox's nitrate film storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed most of that studio's silent films. Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but complete prints of only six still exist: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and two short comedies for Hal Roach.[ citation needed ]

In addition to these, a few of her films remain in fragments, including Cleopatra (just a few seconds of footage), a clip thought to be from The Soul of Buddha, and a few other unidentified clips featured in the documentary Theda Bara et William Fox (2001). Most of the clips can be seen in the documentary The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006). As to vamping, critics stated that her portrayal of calculating, cold-hearted women was morally instructive to men. Bara responded by saying "I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin." [26] Additional footage has been found which shows her behind the scenes on a picture. [27] While the hairstyle has led some to theorize that this may be from The Lure of Ambition , this has not been confirmed.

In 1994, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. [28] The Fort Lee Film Commission dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue in Fort Lee, New Jersey as "Theda Bara Way" in May 2006 to honor Bara, who made many of her films at the Fox Studio on Linwood and Main. [29]

Over a period of several years, filmmaker and film historian Phillip Dye reconstructed Cleopatra on video. Titled Lost Cleopatra, the full-length feature was created by editing together production-still picture montages combined with the surviving film clip. The script was based on the original scenario with modifications derived from research into censorship reports, reviews of the film, and synopses from period magazines. [30] Dye screened the film at the Hollywood Heritage Museum on February 8, 2017. [31]


From Romeo and Juliet (1916); standing, L-R: Helen Tracy (Lady Capulet), Alice Gale (Nurse), and Edward Holt (Capulet); seated: Bara as Juliet Romeo and juliet1916.jpg
From Romeo and Juliet (1916); standing, L-R: Helen Tracy (Lady Capulet), Alice Gale (Nurse), and Edward Holt (Capulet); seated: Bara as Juliet
Bara with Alan Roscoe in Camille (1917) Alan Roscoe-Theda Bara in Camille.jpg
Bara with Alan Roscoe in Camille (1917)
Bara in Cleopatra (1917) ThedaBara-Cleopatra.jpg
Bara in Cleopatra (1917)
1914 The Stain Gang mollCredited as Theodosia Goodman
1915 A Fool There Was The Vampire
1915 The Kreutzer Sonata Celia FriedlanderLost film
1915 The Clemenceau Case IzaLost film
1915 The Devil's Daughter Gioconda DiantiLost film
1915 Lady Audley's Secret Helen TalboysLost film
1915 The Two Orphans HenrietteLost film
1915 Sin RosaLost film
1915 Carmen Carmen Lost film
1915 The Galley Slave Francesca BrabautLost film
1915 Destruction FernadeLost film
1916 The Serpent Vania LazarLost film
1916 Gold and the Woman Theresa DecordovaLost film
1916 The Eternal Sapho Laura BruffinsLost film
1916 East Lynne Lady Isabel Carlisle
1916 Under Two Flags CigaretteLost film
1916 Her Double Life Mary DooneLost film
1916 Romeo and Juliet Juliet Lost film
1916 The Vixen Elsie DrummondLost film
1917 The Darling of Paris Esmeralda Lost film
1917 The Tiger Woman Princess PetrovitchLost film
1917 Her Greatest Love HazelLost film
1917 Heart and Soul JessLost film
1917 Camille Marguerite Gauthier [32] Lost film
1917 Cleopatra Cleopatra Approximately 20 seconds exist
1917 The Rose of Blood Lisza TapenkaLost film
1917 Madame Du Barry Jeanne Vaubernier Lost film
1918 The Forbidden Path Mary LyndeLost film
1918 The Soul of Buddha PriestessStory, Lost film
1918 Under the Yoke Maria ValverdaLost film
1918 Salomé Salome Lost film
1918 When a Woman Sins Lilian Marchard / PoppeaLost film
1918 The She-Devil LoretteLost film
1919The LightBlanchette Dumond, aka Madame LefresneLost film
1919 When Men Desire Marie LohrLost film
1919 The Siren's Song Marie BernaisLost film
1919 A Woman There Was Princess ZaraLost film
1919 Kathleen Mavourneen Kathleen CavanaghLost film
1919 La Belle Russe Fleurett Sackton/La Belle RusseLost film
1919 The Lure of Ambition Olga DolanLost film; 82-second outtake does exist [33]
1925 The Unchastened Woman Caroline Knollys
1926 Madame Mystery Madame MysterieuxShort film
1926 45 Minutes from Hollywood HerselfShort film

Cultural references

Bara is referenced in the 1921 Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby song "Rebecca Came Back from Mecca" [34] as well as their 1922 "Sheik From Avenue B," sung by Fanny Brice. [35] [36]

Bara was one of three actresses (Pola Negri and Mae Murray were the others) whose eyes were combined to form the Chicago International Film Festival's logo, a stark, black and white close up of the composite eyes set as repeated frames in a strip of film. [37]

The International Times ' logo is a black-and-white image of Theda Bara. The founders' intention had been to use an image of actress Clara Bow, 1920s "It girl", but a picture of Theda Bara was used by accident, and once deployed, not changed. [38]

In June 1996, two biographies of Bara were released: Ron Genini's Theda Bara: A Biography (McFarland) and Eve Golden's Vamp (Emprise). In October 2005 TimeLine Films of Culver City premiered the film biography Theda Bara: The Woman with the Hungry Eyes.

Bara has been the subject of several works of fiction, including In Theda Bara's Tent by Diana Altman, The Director's Cut: A Theda Bara Mystery by Christopher DiGrazia, and the play Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi by Bob Johnston.

Bara appears as a character in the books Vampyres of Hollywood and Love Bites by Adrienne Barbeau, and in Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story by Clive Barker.

In season 2, episode 1 of The Lucy Show , Vivian Bagley and Lucy argue over who should play Cleopatra in an upcoming play; Lucy states "I've seen the movie twelve times!" and Vivian quips "She means the one with Theda Bara".

A photo of Bara as Cleopatra is the album artwork for The Lumineers record Cleopatra released in 2016.

In May 2016, a memoir titled Theda Bara, My Mentor, Under the Wings of Hollywood's First Femme Fatale, by Joan Craig with Beverly Stout, was released. Young Joan, in the companionship of Bara during the 1940s and 1950s, includes tales of Bara's husband, Charles Brabin, friends Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Victor Fleming, and other stars of the past.

In season 2, episode 7 of the television series Downton Abbey , butler Carson describes the newly designed bathrooms at a nearby estate as "like something out of a film with Theda Bara".

In the book Queen of the Flowers, a Phryne Fisher mystery by Kerry Greenwood, a reference is made to "a reply straight from the last Theda Bara movie" (Constable Publishers, London, p.236).


  1. These roles did not portray the undead vampires featured in later horror films. The term "vampire" for a seductive woman was derived from "The Vampire", an 1897 poem by Rudyard Kipling. [3] [4]

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Further reading