Theda Bara small

Theda Bara (born Theodosia Burr Goodman) (July 29, 1885April 13, 1955), was an American silent film actress. Bara was one of the most popular screen actresses of her era, and was one of cinema's earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname "The Vamp" (short for vampire). The term "vamp" soon became a popular slang term for a sexually predatory woman. Bara, along with Broadway turned film actress Valeska Suratt, and the French film actress Musidora, popularized the vamp persona in the early years of silent film and was soon imitated by rival actresses such as Louise Glaum, Nita Naldi and Pola Negri.


Theodosia Burr Goodman was born in 1885 in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936),[1] a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise de Coppett (1861–1957), was born in Switzerland and was also Jewish. Bernard and Pauline married in 1882.

Theda's brother and sister were Marque (1888–1954)[2] and Esther (1897–1965),[1] who also became a film actress under the name Lori Bara and married Francis W. Getty of London in 1920.

In 1917 the Goodman family legally changed its surname to "Bara".[3]


She attended Walnut Hills High School from 1899 to 1903 and lived at 823 Hutchins Avenue. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked in theater productions mainly but did explore other projects, moving to New York City in 1908. She made her Broadway debut in The Devil (1908).


Theda Bara made more than 40 feature films between 1914 and 1926. Complete prints of only six of these films still exist. Most of Bara's films were produced by William Fox, beginning with A Fool There Was (1915) and ending with The Lure of Ambition (1919). The phenomenal success of A Fool There Was gave William Fox the money to found Fox Film Corporation, while the ensuing films helped to make Fox a successful studio.

At the height of her fame, Bara was making $4,000 per week for her film performances. She was one of the most famous movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in popularity.[4] Bara's best-known and most popular roles were as "vamp" characters, although she attempted to avoid being typecast by playing more wholesome heroines in films such as Under Two Flags and Her Double Life. She also 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.

Most of Bara's early films were shot on the East Coast, primarily at the Fox studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Bara lived with her mother and siblings 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). This film 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.

Between 1915 and 1919, Bara was promoted heavily by Fox, and was the studio's biggest star. When the studio lessened their support, her career suffered. Bara, tired of being typecast as a vamp, allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final film for Fox was The Lure of Ambition (1919). She left Fox and did not make another film until The Unchastened Woman (1925) for Chadwick Pictures Corporation. Bara retired after making only one more film, the short comedy Madame Mystery (1926), made for Hal Roach, in which she parodied her vamp image.

Theda Bara is most famous for having a higher percentage of lost films than any other actor/actress with a Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame. A 1937 fire at Fox's nitrate film storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed most of that studio's silent films. Out of her 40 films, 3 remain completely intact. Cleopatra (almost completely lost, 40 seconds remain), Du Barry, Carmen, Salome, and Camille are among the lost. Fortunately, A Fool There Was is preserved in a complete print. Madame Mystery is preserved in a 9.5 mm print which runs 21 minutes, which may be an abridged version for home viewing.[5]

She is also one of the most famous completely silent stars. Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, although mostly silent, were filmed in sound, and none of their sound films have been lost. Bara was never filmed in sound, lost or otherwise.

Sex symbolEdit

Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol[6] of that era, and in a number of her films appeared in risqué transparent costumes that left little to the imagination.[7] Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code started in 1930, and then was more strongly enforced in 1934.

Bara was photographed in several sittings in skimpy Oriental-themed costumes. It was popular at that time to promote an actress as mysterious and elusive, 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 had never even been to Egypt or France.) They called her the "Serpent of the Nile" and encouraged Bara to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews. Some film historians point to the excessive handling of Bara, with its over-the-top misrepresentations about the star, as the birth of two new Hollywood phenomena: the studio publicity department and the press agent, which would later evolve into the public relations person.

At the height of Bara's fame, her vamp image was notorious enough to be referred to in popular songs of the day. The lyrics of "Red-Hot Hannah" said: "I know things that Theda Bara's just startin' to learn / Make my dresses from asbestos, I'm liable to burn...." The song, "Rebecca Came Back From Mecca", contains the lyrics "She's as bold as Theda Bara / Theda's bare but Becky's bare-er", The song "If I had a man like Valentino" contains the chorus lyric, "Theda Bara sure would die / She would never roll another eye".

Marriage and retirementEdit

Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin (1883–1957) in 1921. Her film career soon began to slow down, finally ending with the comedy Madame Mystery made for Hal Roach in 1926. The following year, Bara made a successful but much maligned appearance on Broadway in The Blue Flame.

Though she subsequently expressed interest in returning to the stage or screen, her husband did not consider it proper for his wife to have a career. She did make at least three interview appearances on radio from Hollywood: on the June 8, 1936 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater; as a guest on NBC's For Men Only on March 7, 1939; and on CBS, November 8, 1939.

Bara spent the remainder of her life as a hostess in Hollywood and New York, in comfort and relative wealth. Producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia Pictures expressed interest in 1949 in making a movie biography of her life, to star Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized.[8]


Bara died of stomach cancer in 1955 in Los Angeles, California, and was interred as Theda Bara Brabin in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Her death certificate incorrectly listed her birthday as "July 22, 1892".


Theda Bara has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. In June 1996, two biographies appeared, Ron Genini's Theda Bara: A Biography (McFarland) and Eve Golden's Vamp (Emprise). In October 2005 TimeLine Films of Culver City premiered a film biography, Theda Bara: The Woman With the Hungry Eyes. A film by British video artist Georgina Starr titled Theda based around Bara's lost films premiered in London in November 2006.[9]

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.

Theda Bara's image has been the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival. A stark, black and white close up of her eyes set as repeated frames in a strip of film serves as the logo for the nonprofit festival.

Of silent stars Theda Bara is usually cited as an example of someone with a high percentage of lost films. Only 4 of her features exist including The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and 2 short comedies for Hal Roach. In addition to these a few of her films remain in fragments including Cleopatra (40 seconds of footage), The Soul of Buddah, and a few other unidentified clips featured in a french documentary, Theda Bara et William Fox (2001). Most of the clips can be seen in the documentary The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006).


Note: Extant films are indicated by a

Year Film Role Notes
1914 The Stain Gang moll A print of the film was discovered in Australia in the 1990s.
1915 A Fool There Was The Vamp
The Kreutzer Sonata Celia Friedlander The film is now considered to be lost.
The Clemenceau Case Iza The film is now considered to be lost.
The Devil's Daughter La Gioconda The film is now considered to be lost.
Lady Audley's Secret Helen Talboys
The Two Orphans Henriette The film is now considered to be lost.
Sin Rosa The film is now considered to be lost.
Carmen Carmen The film is now considered to be lost.
The Galley Slave Francesca Brabaut The film is now considered to be lost.
Destruction Fernade The film is now considered to be lost.
1916 The Serpent Vania Lazar The film is now considered to be lost.
Gold and the Woman Theresa Decordova The film is now considered to be lost.
The Eternal Sapho Laura Bruffins The film is now considered to be lost.
East Lynne Lady Isabel Carlisle A print of this film survives in the film archive of the Museum of Modern Art.
Under Two Flags Cigarette The film is now considered to be lost.
Her Double Life Mary Doone The film is now considered to be lost.
Romeo and Juliet Juliet The film is now considered to be lost.
The Vixen Elsie Drummond The film is now considered to be lost.
1917 The Darling of Paris[10] Esmeralda The film is now considered to be lost.
The Tiger Woman Princess Petrovitch The film is now considered to be lost.
Her Greatest Love Hazel The film is now considered to be lost.
Heart and Soul Jess The film is now considered to be lost.
Camille Marguerite Gauthier[11] The film is considered lost.
Cleopatra[12] Cleopatra Approximately 40 seconds exist at George Eastman House
The Rose of Blood Lisza Tapenka The film is now considered to be lost.
Madame Du Barry Jeanne Vaubernier The film is now considered to be lost.
1918 The Forbidden Path Mary Lynde The film is now considered to be lost.
The Soul of Buddha Priestess The film is now considered to be lost.
Under the Yoke Maria Valverda The film is now considered to be lost.
Salome Salome The film is now considered to be lost.
When a Woman Sins Lilian Marchard/Poppea The film is now considered to be lost.
The She Devil Lorette The film is now considered to be lost.
1919 The Light Blanchette Dumond, aka Madame Lefresne
When Men Desire Marie Lohr
The Siren's Song Marie Bernais
A Woman There Was Princess Zara
Kathleen Mavourneen Kathleen Cavanagh
La Belle Russe Fleurett Sackton
La Belle Russe
The Lure of Ambition Olga Dolan
1925 The Unchastened Woman Caroline Knollys
1926 Madame Mystery Madame Mysterieux
45 Minutes from Hollywood Herself



  1. 1.0 1.1 New York Times
  2. "Marque Bara", Newport Daily News (Newport, Rhode Island), April 26, 1954, p. 2.
  3. Template:Cite news
  5. Silent Era : The silent film website
  6. Classic Images - Vol. 250 - April 1996 Issue
  7. Theda Bara Photo Gallery - Bombshells.Com
  8. Thomas F. Brady, "De Sylva Working on Movie of Bara", New York Times, January 21, 1949, p. 25. Hedda Hopper (column), The Washington Post, August 21, 1949, p. L1. Hedda Hopper (column), The Washington Post, October 23, 1949, p. L1. Thomas F. Brady, "Betty Hutton Set for 2 Metro Films", New York Times, December 2, 1949, p. 36.
  9. Georgina Starr
  10. A very loose adaptation of the novel Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo
  11. Template:Cite news
  12. A very short fragment of this film survives

Further readingEdit

  • The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee. Albany: Bear Manor Media, 2007. ISBN 0-275-98259-9.
  • Template:Citation/core
  • Template:Citation/core
  • Famous Juliets. By Jerome Hart, in Motion Picture Classic, March, 1923.
  • A Million and One Nights. By Terry Ramsaye. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926.

External linksEdit