"The reason good women like me and flock to my pictures is that there is a little bit of vampire instinct in every woman."
- Theda Bara
(quoted in Clark's Women, Women, Women: Quips, Quotes, and Commentary)
One of the greatest icons of silent film, Theda Bara has disappeared into history for all but 1920s lovers and film students, but she had a huge impact on the craft of film and acting.
She was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1885 to immigrant parents. Her first Broadway debut was in 1908 in the play The Devil. She moved on to silent film, and she made over 40 films in her movie career from 1915 to 1926, but only 6 remain intact. The rest were destroyed in a studio fire in 1937. (Noooooooooooo!!!!)
Her most famous roles were those as a "vamp", short for vampire. She was dynamic, exotic, and mysteriously alluring. She did not totally fit the "beautiful woman" mold of her time, but her acting skills and smoldering, dark sensuality made her one of the biggest movie stars of her day, only behind Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
Clips from "A Fool There Was", the 1915 movie that made Theda famous
Theda was also known for her eyes. Often framed in smoky, thick makeup, her large brown eyes could look innocent one moment and maniacally alluring the next. They were immortalized in songs from her day, such as "If I Had a Man Like Valentino" ("Theda Bara sure would die, /she would never roll another eye") and "Louisville Lou" by Yellen and Ager ("Oh, what that vampin' baby can do!/ She got the meanest pair o' eyes,/ Theda Bara eyes, that the world ever knew!")
Her most iconic role was as Cleopatra in 1917. Sadly, only 16 seconds of the film exists today, but there are plenty of pictures of her in the costumes from the film. Her costumes were very revealing (especially for that day!), and this helped solidify her spot as the first Hollywood sex symbol. Such costumes were common in her films but were later banned in the 1930 Production Code that censored movies.
Theda Bara later married Charles Brabin in 1921 and retired from acting. She is one of the most famous silent film-only actresses, and she has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her image as the epitome of vamp, the first temptress, the exotic "daughter of an Arab sheik and a French woman, born in the Sahara" helped mold the new film media and set the standard for generations of actors afterward.
While I wouldn't recommend going out in a snake bra, you can still get the mysterious vamp look of Theda Bara into your wardrobe!