Before Harlow, before Mae, well before Madonna and her Gaultier cone-bra, there was Theda. One of the top three silent film stars in 1918, behind Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, Theda Bara was the first sex symbol for the masses. Theda was renowned for her portrayal of sinful, smoky-eyed women who lured proper husbands away from their frigid and heavily-corseted wives. Granted, often she led these men to corruption and dissolution, and occasionally death, but hey, given a choice all thinking men would rather go down (and up) with Theda than drift towards death with docile, whey-faced brides. (Do you want it to be great? Or do you want it to be easy?) Because of Theda's dark allure for America's husbands and her influence on young women, preachers all over the country regularly denounced her from their pulpits.
Bara was almost 30 when her film career began, which was considered over-the-hill back then (and still is in Hollywood, evidently). She shaved five years off her age in her publicity, the least of the whoppers in her Fox studio bio which billed her as the daughter of an eastern prince, born in the shadow of the sphinx, whose name was an anagram for 'death.' In fact, she was born Theodosia Goodman in Ohio on July 20, 1885 to wealthy Jewish immigrant parents. As a child, she was bookish, "strong-willed and mischievious," and never bothered to learn sewing and embroidery, as most young ladies did back then. Her biographer, Eve Golden, says, "Little Theda ran away from home at every opportunity and, according to her mother, 'showed a positive genius in ways and means of escaping our vigilance. We had the locks in the entrance doors placed high above her tiny reach, and yet she disappeared as if by magic.' Once she escaped wearing her mother's best gown and hat, trailing them down the street with a frantic mother in pursuit. Much to her mother's shock,'We afterwards discovered she had hammered a small hole in the screen door, just large enough to crawl through.'" **
In Hollywood, she was known as a sharply intelligent, well-read woman with a deep interest in spiritualism. Not all of her roles were femme fatales. She played a few sweet innocents who were wronged, including a praised Juliet, and showed an instinctive comic touch in a few of her lighter films. But she was most famous for playing deliciously dangerous and unbridled Vamps such as Cleopatra, Salome, and Madame DuBarry, in over 40 films, including:
Fool There Was
The Devil's Daughter
Lady Audley's Secret
The Darling of Paris
When a Woman Sins
The Siren's Song
Check out this review of Unchastened Woman: "Theda portrayed Caroline Knollys, a newly-pregnant woman who discovers her husband (Wyndham Standing) is cheating on her. She takes off to Venice, has her baby and gains a reputation as'the wickedest woman in Europe.' Returning to the U.S., trailing a string of admirers, Caroline eventually wins her husband back. Not really a parody, the film is a light drawing room romantic comedy with touches of pathos. **"
Too bad she took the husband back, but this was the 1920s, and it was radical enough for a young wife to take off to Europe, take a series of lovers, and return unchastened and triumphant.
Like many of her heroines, and unlike so many movie stars of the time, Theda did not come to a bad and early end. After marrying director Charles Brabin in the 1920s, she gave up the business. Reportedly, she penned an unpublished memoir, What Women Never Tell, in this time, and devoted herself to her two passions, reading and Brabin, to whom she was married for 33 years until her death in 1955.
At a time when women were either whores or housewives, Theda represented something new, the "Vamp," the sexually free goddess who ushered in the era of the Flapper and of new freedom for women. For more on Theda, check out: The Theda Bara Revival Kit. sh
**From "Vamp: The Rise of Theda Bara," by Eve Golden, Emprise Publishing
Last Month's Tart Emeritus: Kathleen Turner
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