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Who is Theda Bara?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Theda Bara was a film actress of the silent era, nicknamed "The Vamp." She was one of the first movie stars and inspired many imitators in the early years of cinema. Theda Bara is one of the only movie stars never to have appeared in a sound film, and unfortunately, she has the highest percentage of lost films of anyone with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Theda Bara was born Theodesia Burr Goodman on 29 July 1885 in Cincinnati, Ohio to European Jewish parents. The oldest of three children, she attended Walnut Hills High School and the University of Cincinnati before turning her attention to the stage. In 1908, Theda Bara moved to New York City and began her acting career. Her first Broadway role was in The Devil (1908). Six years later, she made her film debut in The Stain, one of her few remaining films.

Theda Bara first portrayed "The Vamp," a predatory femme fatale that she would come to personify, in her second film, A Fool There Was. This film is also extant and can be found on the Internet. From 1914 to 1919, Theda Bara worked with the Fox Film Corporation, mostly at their New Jersey studio, and she was partially responsible for the corporation's success. In 1917, Theda Bara moved to Hollywood to work on the film Cleopatra, of which only 40 seconds remain intact.

From her earliest films, Theda Bara became known for her exotic, seductive, and dangerous characters. Though she experimented with other roles, such as Juliet, in an attempt to avoid being typecast, publicists presented her as an exotic, mysterious woman in real life. The publicity claimed that her name was an anagram of "Arab Death" and that she had grown up in Egypt, the daughter of a sculptor and a French actress. Many of her roles had her in diaphanous and extremely suggestive costumes in the Oriental style. In addition to characters like Cleopatra and Salome, she played madwomen, artists' muses, and the victim of a haunting.

After her contract with Fox expired in 1919, Theda Bara waned in popularity and only appeared in three more films, shot in 1925 and 1926. In 1921, she married director Charles Brabin, who preferred that she end her career. Theda Bara retired after a 1926 Broadway performance in The Blue Flame. She died of stomach cancer in Los Angeles, California on 17 April 1955. Though her film career was brief and only a small percentage of her work remains, Theda Bara and her vamp persona helped define the femme fatale as a staple character in Hollywood.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On Dec 19, 2011

I find it very sad that a lot of her movies were lost in a fire at the studio. I think that the debate about her career ending could be settled if people were allowed more than the few movies that still exist of her today to analyze and see if her performances were becoming repeated and if audiences were just tiring of her.

Maybe her time had simply passed in the movie industry or it could be because of her husband. But, to be honest after the Hayes Code if she had any thoughts about making a comeback they stopped once Hollywood adopted the code because her popularity revolved around how she looked and that would never be allowed again in that era after 1930 once the code was implemented.

By jcraig — On Dec 18, 2011

@jmc88 - I do not know how much credence that assumption goes. The Hayes code did not come out until 1930 and that was a few years after the last film she was ever in.

For those who do not know what the Hayes Code is, it was a code that movie studios went by to censor themselves so the government would not begin to censor their movies. This meant that movies like the ones that Theda Bara were in would cease to exist and people like her would not have a career.

However, this code came out several years after she quit, so I do not see this as being a reason why her career ended. It could be because of her husband or it could just be that her popularity was declining and that she was just a flash in the pan and her time had passed.

By jmc88 — On Dec 18, 2011

@JimmyT - I have to say that that is a very unfortunate thing to read that her husband did not support her success enough to allow her to continue her career. However, I will say though that I have always wondered about her career and if she was actually a good actress or if she was just seen as really good "eye candy" for the audience.

When she was an actress she wore really really risque clothing that was extremely revealing. This was prior to decency codes in the United States movie industry and people would be surprised to see what was allowed in some of these early movies.

I feel like she may be a product of her times and that she may be seen more as a sex symbol because of what she wore onscreen as opposed to her acting ability.

Around the time of her quitting the movie industry that was when the Hayes Code came out which started to censor the types of movies that she would be in and was probably the reason why her career ended.

By JimmyT — On Dec 17, 2011

Theda Bara had an extremely short career by Hollywood standards, but her impact has been felt.

Almost everyone who has seen an old series of movies has probably seen her face. She is very recognizable even to people who may not know who she is and she proved to be one of the first really famous female leads in movies.

It is a shame that her career eventually flamed out, which may or may not have been because her husband was an old fashioned man who felt she, as his wife, had to have a domestic role in the house and not have a career of her own.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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