June 16, 2004

A nice Jewish girl

The name still conjures something magical for me: Theda Bara. It's an anagram for Arab death, although that was dreamt up by Fox's publicity department later, when they concocted a fanciful and entirely fictional biography for Bara, who between 1915 and 1919 was one of the three most popular stars in the nascent medium of movies.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, I spent a few weeks of summer afternoons at a film class offered at one of the private schools in my home town. Regrettably, I can hardly remember the young man who ran the classes, but despite various limitations -- this would have been 1976, before the advent of VCRs, meaning that we couldn't see most of the films we were learning about -- there is much I remember. He focused on the birth of film, and I remember the only visual aids he had were a few books he'd pass around as he spoke of the silent cinema, and a super 8 projector (if I remember rightly, he had a few Buster Keaton and Keystone Kops shorts).

He was most interested in comedy, and particularly in Chaplin, but my tastes ran toward horror. I remember the photos of Cesare, asleep in Caligari's cabinet, of the menacing claws of Count Orlock -- Nosferatu -- and Lon Chaney in a few of his thousand faces. Yet none of those images were quite as hair raising as the tales of Theda Bara.

She may well have been the first sex symbol, and her screen persona introduced the word "vamp" into the English language. Bara played, for the most part, characters who were dangerous to men, who ruined them, who played with them for her own satisfaction. Here is a fairly typical publicity still of her:


She played Cleopatra and Salome, but these films, along with most of the 38 others she made, were lost in a warehouse fire -- only 3 full films remain.

Fox Studios, which went on to become Twentieth Century Fox, dreamt up elaborate tales for her past -- she was conceived and born in Egypt, near the Sphinx, the offspring of an Italian father and a French mother, but the reality, as my long ago instructor assured us, was far more mundane. As a child I found the studio tales far more intriguing, and wished they were true -- as an adult, I find reality far more compelling:

...a little research reveals that Theodosia Goodman was really born in Avondale (a wealthy, largely Jewish, suburb of Cincinnati) on July 29, 1885.

Unlike so many silent stars, Theda (a childhood nickname) had a happy childhood. Close to her parents and two siblings, she even went to college for two years, an unusual accomplishment for a woman of those times. Aggressively intellectual, Theda remained a voracious reader for the rest of her life, especially enjoying philosophy and psychology.

She was also enamored of the theater, and dropped out of school (to her father's dismay) in 1905 to pursue an acting career. It's embarrassing but necessary to admit that Theda Bara did not have whatever it took to become a stage star. From 1905 through 1914 she labored mightily in New York and in various travelling stock companies, but was never able to rise above playing bits on Broadway or supporting roles on tour. She was already pushing 30 when director Frank Powell cast her as The Vampire in William Fox's film version of the Broadway hit A Fool There Was (released in January, 1915).

(A Fool There Was, incidentally, is about the only one of the three extant Bara films readily available.)

I had a vague recollection that, like Valentino, or more likely like Fatty Arbuckle, Bara's career was cut short by an early death or scandal. I was right (there was a scandal), but not one of her own making. After years of playing the vamp, she got a part in which she played the innocent. Going against type isn't what turned off movie goers, however:

By 1919, William Fox had lost interest in Theda, who was actively campaigning for better films and more varied roles. The straw that broke the camel's back was Kathleen Mavourneen, the film Theda hoped would be her ticket to a contract at another studio. Instead, Irish and Catholic groups protested not only the depiction of Ireland, but of a Jewish actress in the leading role. The film was yanked after several movie-theater riots and bomb threats.

If living well is the best revenge, Bara had it -- by all accounts a happy marriage and a long, happy life -- no Nora Desmond madness for her. She was, at heart, as she once told an interviewer, a nice Jewish girl.

Note: There's a wonderful gallery of Bara photos here, from which I took the photo for this entry.

Posted by Ideofact at June 16, 2004 11:59 PM