For the past few months, movie studios, directors, and actors have been making the rounds campaigning for their films to take home the golden statue on Sunday at the latest Academy Awards.
The Hollywood publicity machine may seem like an ingrained institution as old as the very first motion picture, but its roots grew out of a more unexpected place. Over a decade before the inaugural Oscars ceremony was ever staged, Theda Bara, the woman now considered the very first “vamp,” hit Hollywood with the speed and ferocity of a meteor shower.
For early-20th century audiences of the silent pictures, Bara was a megastar, akin to the likes of Meryl Streep. She starred in over 40 movies during her short, four-year cinematic career, and her antics continued to grace the headlines of newspapers and early gossip rags until her death in 1955.
Yet, she is no longer a household name, and only traces of her explosive cinematic career survive. The majority of the films that Bara made are now lost, many in a tragic fire that befell the Fox Company vaults in 1937 and that destroyed most of their silent film archive.
Like all good Hollywood superstars, Theda Bara wasn’t born as such. She came into the world on July 29, 1885 as Theodosia Goodman from a humble background in Cincinnati, OH. Naturally, she would take some liberties with that date during her career, but she took things a step further. With the help of her movie studio, myths would arise around her origin story.
When Bara turned 18, she followed the movie plot that’s as old as the industry itself and moved to New York City, planning to become a star.
For over a decade, Bara couldn’t get a part, partly because she was a curvaceous siren during the 1910s when silhouettes were starting to narrow. Finally, at the age of 29—and while claiming to be only 25—she was given a shot by director Frank Powell in his new picture A Fool Was There.
It her breakout role, Bara played the lead, a vixen (or a “vampire woman,” as she was billed by the studio) who seduced a devoted family man on a boat to England only to leave him once his life had been soundly ruined.
Bara's performance was impressive, but when it came time to release the movie, her studio Fox realized they had a problem. No one knew who Bara was, so how were they going to convince moviegoers to see it?
With that, the very first movie publicity campaign was born. Fox went a step above just spreading the world about its new film; they decided to create an alluring backstory for Bara. They reeled the public in by publicizing their new lead as something of the “vampire woman” that she portrayed.
“In a move that would set in motion Hollywood’s long-standing love affair with celebrity gossip, the studio PR team planted false stories in the press and invented a fantasy backstory for her,” Addison Nugent wrote in Messy Nessy Chic. “They sold the young Jewish-born starlet as an Arabian woman of mystery, born in Egypt in the shadow of the sphinx. They also invented the story of her parents, claiming she was the product of a French artist’s scandalous tryst with an Arabian mistress.”
The role of vamp may have been created for Bara, but she wholeheartedly embraced it.
In a 1916 column for The Day Book, Bara explained, “In motion pictures the tremendous influence of the human voice is lacking. Therefore, EVERYTHING we have to work with must be made to exert its greatest value. Clothes must convey—or tend to convey—the character one is playing.”
Bara used this same technique to build her reputation in the media. “Dress a woman in a long-trained gown that suggests every line of her figure and uncovers more of her back than convention allows and she is immediately stamped as a person to be shunned. Tradition is a powerful ally. Therefore that type of gown must be in every stage vampire’s wardrobe,” Bara writes.
She goes on to talk about the roomful of these dresses that she owns. “The psychology of the long, clinging, revealing robe, is to suggest the sinuosity of the serpent, the patron reptile of the human vampire!”
While most of Bara’s films have been lost, dozens of photographs and stills of the actress still exist, showing her posing in exotic, glamorous, and very risqué for the day outfits. Think long, flowing skirts with only two blinged-out disks covering her breasts or sheer gowns with only the most naughty bits covered.
Her eyes were always heavily lined with kohl and her hair changed length and style but always remained dark and sultry. And the woman knew how to pose.
“Miss Bara misses no chance for sensuous appeal in her portrayal of the Vampire,” wrote the New York Daily Mirror. “She is a horribly fascinating woman, vicious to the core, and cruel. When she says ‘Kiss me, my fool,’ the fool is generally ready to obey and enjoy a prolonged moment, irrespective of the less enjoyable ones to follow.”
Her movies included such titles as Salomé, When a Woman Sins, The She-Devil, Romeo and Juliet, and The Siren’s Song. Her most famous role was her 1917 portrayal of Cleopatra, of which only a few clips remain.
Bara may have embraced the role of seductress (although not all of her roles were of the “female vampire” variety) but she didn’t skate by on it. In a 1936 radio interview deep into the era of the “talkies,” the actress spoke about how hard making movies was in the era of silent pictures.
“We had to express jealousy, hate, love, or devotion all in pantomime, and at the same time keep pace as the director guided us with the one, two, three, four, just as the metronome guides a pianist,” she said.
By 1919 Bara had largely retired from the motion pictures after not seeing eye-to-eye with Fox management. She turned to the stage to perform on Broadway for a few years, and her goings-on continued to be closely followed by the media. Bara finally officially retired from the movies in 1926.
While Bara had embraced her on-screen persona, her private life told a different story.“On the silent screen she appealed to men’s most primitive instincts. On the screen she was, indeed, a bad girl, and this was her allure. Off the screen she was a good woman, happily married for thirty-four years to a husband who now survives her,” read Bara's 1955 obit in The New York Times.
By all accounts, it was a happy and fruitful life, but one that gradually vanished from view over the years.
While her contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford remain firmly lodged in the Hollywood cannon, Bara now remains largely lost to time, with her films victims of unfortunate tragedies like fire and the neglect that befell so many of those from the silent picture era.
But while her current legacy mostly remains silent, Bara's outsized impact on the people of her day is inarguable. And maybe that’s all that matters.
As her New York Times obit concludes, “She took people’s minds off their troubles: is not this a tribute worth having?”