Theda Bara is one of the most famous actresses you’ve never heard of.
As one of the most popular actresses of the silent era, she was one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname “The Vamp” (short for vampire). Critics stated that her portrayal of calculating, cold-hearted women was morally instructive to men. Bara responded, “I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin. For I believe that humanity needs the moral lesson and it needs it in repeatedly larger doses.” She did claim, however, that “[t]here’s a little bit of vampire instinct in every woman (IMDB.com).”
At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week ($81,900 per week in today’s dollars). She was one of the most popular movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
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. (None of these claims was true.) They called her the “Serpent of the Nile” and encouraged her to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews.
Although Bara took her craft seriously, she was too successful as an exotic “wanton woman” to develop a more versatile career. She was philosophical about it: “To be good is to be forgotten. I’m going to be so bad, I’ll always be remembered (IMDB.com).”
Bara represented several Hollywood firsts: sex appeal, publicity and press agents, and typecasting. Bara herself suggested one Hollywood last:
To understand those days, you must consider that people believed what they saw on the screen. Nobody had destroyed the grand illusion. Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them. Why, women kicked my photographs as they went into the theaters where my pictures were playing. And once on the streets of New York, a woman called the police because her child spoke to me (IMDB.com).
- Information from Wikipedia, “Theda Bara”
- Conversion of dollar values from http://bit.ly/1QLGgXT
- IMDB: http://imdb.to/1ViZ5ZM
- Photo from http://bit.ly/1RPY9d0