Theda Bara

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Theda Bara
BornTheodosia Burr Goodman
(1885-07-29)July 29, 1885
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
DiedApril 7, 1955(1955-04-07) (aged 69)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Stomach cancer
Resting place
Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale
EducationWalnut Hills High School
Alma materUniversity of Cincinnati
Years active1908–1926
Spouse(s)Charles Brabin (1921–1955)
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Theda Bara
BornTheodosia Burr Goodman
(1885-07-29)July 29, 1885
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
DiedApril 7, 1955(1955-04-07) (aged 69)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Stomach cancer
Resting place
Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale
EducationWalnut Hills High School
Alma materUniversity of Cincinnati
Years active1908–1926
Spouse(s)Charles Brabin (1921–1955)

Theda Bara (/ˈθdə ˈbærə/[1] THEE-də BARR; born Theodosia Burr Goodman, July 29, 1885 – April 7, 1955) was an American silent film and stage actress.

Bara was one of the most popular actresses of the silent era, and one of cinema's earliest sex symbols. Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname The Vamp (short for vampire). Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but most are now lost because the 1937 Fox vault fire destroyed most of her films. After her marriage to Charles Brabin in 1921, she made two more feature films and retired from acting in 1926 having never appeared in a sound film. She died of stomach cancer on April 7, 1955 at the age of 69.

Early life[edit]

She was born Theodosia Burr Goodman in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936),[2] a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise Françoise (née de Coppett; 1861–1957), was born in Switzerland.[3] Bernard and Pauline married in 1882. She had two siblings: Marque (1888–1954)[4] and Esther (1897–1965),[2] who also became a film actress as Lori Bara and married Francis W. Getty of London in 1920.

Bara attended Walnut Hills High School graduating in 1903. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked mainly in theater productions, but did explore other projects. After moving to New York City in 1908, she made her Broadway debut in The Devil (1908).

Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (Publicity Still, 1915)


Theda Bara defends herself in a scene still for the 1918 silent drama "The She-Devil."

Most of Bara's early films were shot around the East Coast, primarily at the Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.[5] Bara lived with her family 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), which 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.

Bara in the title role as Cleopatra (1917)

Between 1915 and 1919, Bara was Fox studio's biggest star but, tired of being typecast as a vamp, she allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final Fox film was The Lure of Ambition (1919). Her career suffered without Fox studio's support, and she 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 and directed by Stan Laurel, in which she parodied her vamp image.

At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week. She was one of the most popular movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.[6] Bara's best-known roles were as the "vamp", although she attempted to avoid typecasting by playing 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.

Image and name[edit]

The origin of Bara's stage name is disputed; The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats says it came from director Frank Powell, who learned Theda had a relative named Barranger, and that "Theda" was a childhood nickname. In promoting the 1917 film Cleopatra, Fox Studio publicists noted that the name was an anagram of Arab death, and her press agents claimed inaccurately that she was "the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French woman, born in the Sahara."[7][8] In 1917 the Goodman family legally changed its surname to Bara.[9]

Bara in one of her famous risqué costumes, this one in Cleopatra (1917).

Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol[10] of the movies.[11] She was well known for wearing very revealing costumes in her films. Such outfits were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code started in 1930, and then was more strongly enforced in 1934.

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. (In fact, Bara had never 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 this as the birth of two Hollywood phenomena: the studio publicity department and the press agent, which would later evolve into the public relations person.

Marriage and retirement[edit]

Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin in 1921. They honeymooned in Nova Scotia at The Pines Hotel in Digby, Nova Scotia and later purchased a 400 hectares (990 acres) property down the coast from Digby at Harbourville overlooking the Bay of Fundy, eventually building a summer home they called Baranook.[12] They had no children. Bara resided in a villa-style home which served as the "honors villa" at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Demolition of the home began in July, 2011 [13]

In 1936, she appeared on Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theatre in a broadcast version of The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy. She did not appear in the play but instead announced her plans to make a movie comeback, which never materialized. She appeared on radio again in 1939 as a guest on Texaco Star Theatre. These may be the only surviving recordings of her voice.

In 1949, producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia Pictures expressed interest in making a movie of Bara's life, starring Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized.[14]


On April 7, 1955, Bara died of stomach cancer in Los Angeles, California. She was interred as Theda Bara Brabin in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.



For her contribution to the film industry, Theda Bara has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Bara is one of the most famous completely silent stars – she never appeared in a sound film, lost or otherwise. A 1937 fire at Fox's nitrate film storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed most of that studio's silent films. Bara made more than forty films between 1914 and 1926, but complete prints of only six still exist: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and two short comedies for Hal Roach.

In addition to these, a few of her films remain in fragments including Cleopatra (just a few seconds of footage), a clip thought to be from The Soul of Buddha, 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). As to vamping, critics stated that her portrayal of calculating, coldhearted women was morally instructive to men. Bara responded by saying, "I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin." [15]

In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

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.


1914The StainGang mollCredited as Theodosia Goodman
1915Siren of HellLost film
1915A Fool There WasThe Vamp
1915The Kreutzer SonataCelia FriedlanderLost film
1915The Clemenceau CaseIzaLost film
1915The Devil's DaughterLa GiocondaLost film
1915Lady Audley's SecretHelen TalboysLost film
1915The Two OrphansHenrietteLost film
1915SinRosaLost film
1915CarmenCarmenLost film
1915The Galley SlaveFrancesca BrabautLost film
1915DestructionFernadeLost film
1916The SerpentVania LazarLost film
1916Gold and the WomanTheresa DecordovaLost film
1916The Eternal SaphoLaura BruffinsLost film
1916East LynneLady Isabel Carlisle
1916Under Two FlagsCigaretteLost film
1916Her Double LifeMary DooneLost film
1916Romeo and JulietJulietLost film
1916The VixenElsie DrummondLost film
1917The Darling of ParisEsmeraldaLost film
1917The Tiger WomanPrincess PetrovitchLost film
1917Her Greatest LoveHazelLost film
1917Heart and SoulJessLost film
1917CamilleMarguerite Gauthier[16]Lost film
1917CleopatraCleopatraApproximately 20 seconds exist
1917The Rose of BloodLisza TapenkaLost film
1917Madame Du BarryJeanne VaubernierLost film
1918The Forbidden PathMary LyndeLost film
1918The Soul of BuddhaPriestessStory
Lost film
1918Under the YokeMaria ValverdaLost film
1918SaloméSalomeLost film
1918When a Woman SinsLilian Marchard / PoppeaLost film
1918The She DevilLoretteLost film
1919The LightBlanchette Dumond, aka Madame LefresneLost film
1919When Men DesireMarie LohrApproximately 17 seconds exist
1919The Siren's SongMarie BernaisLost film
1919A Woman There WasPrincess ZaraLost film
1919Kathleen MavourneenKathleen CavanaghLost film
1919La Belle RusseFleurett Sackton/La Belle RusseLost film
1919The Lure of AmbitionOlga DolanLost film
1925The Unchastened WomanCaroline Knollys
1926Madame MysteryMadame MysterieuxShort film
192645 Minutes from HollywoodHerselfShort film

In popular culture[edit]

Theda Bara was one of three actresses (Pola Negri and Mae Murray were the others) whose eyes were combined to form the Chicago International Film Festival's logo, a stark, black and white close up of the composite eyes set as repeated frames in a strip of film.[17]

The International Times' logo is a black-and-white image of Theda Bara. The founders' intention had been to use an image of actress Clara Bow, 1920s "It girl", but a picture of Theda Bara was used by accident and, once deployed, not changed.[18]


At the height of Bara's fame, her vamp image was celebrated in popular songs of the day.

I know things that Theda Bara's just startin' to learn
Make my dresses from asbestos; I'm liable to burn.

She's as bold as Theda Bara
Theda's bare but Becky's bare-er.

Theda Bara sure would die
She would never roll another eye.

They call the lady Louisville Lou
Oh, what that vampin' baby can do!
She got the meanest pair o' eyes,
Theda Bara eyes, that the world ever knew.

Books and films[edit]

In June 1996, two biographies of Bara were released: 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.

Bara has also been the subject of several works of fiction, including "In Theda Bara's Tent" by Diana Altman, "The Director's Cut: A Theda Bara Mystery" by Christopher DiGrazia and the play "Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi" by Bob Johnston.

Theda Bara appears as a character in the books "Vampyres of Hollywood" and "Love Bites" by Adrienne Barbeau.


  1. ^ "Theda Bara Speaking 1936". Retrieved 7 January 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Theda makes 'em all Baras," New York Times, Nov. 17, 1917
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ "Marque Bara", Newport Daily News (Newport, Rhode Island), April 26, 1954, p. 2.
  5. ^ ort Lee Film Commission (2006), Fort Lee: Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry, Arcadia Publishing, ISBN 978-0-7385-4501-1 
  6. ^[dead link]
  7. ^ [2]"Cleopatra (1917)". The New York Times, Film review. Retrieved May 29, 2011
  8. ^ [3]"Famous silent screen vamp Theda Bara dies of cancer", Associated Press wire story, printed in The Montreal Gazette, April 8, 1955. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
  9. ^ "Theda Makes 'em All Baras. Actress's Family Join Her in Dropping Name of Goodman" (PDF). New York Times. November 17, 1917. Retrieved 2008-07-20. Actress's Family Join Her in Dropping Name of Goodman. Theda Bara, actress, and all the members of her family got permission yesterday from ... 
  10. ^ "Classic Images – Vol. 250 – April 1996 Issue". Retrieved 2010-08-02. 
  11. ^ "Theda Bara Photo Gallery". Retrieved 2010-08-02. 
  12. ^ Lorna Innis, "Hollywood’s link with province long, varied", Chronicle Herald (Halifax), February 26, 2012
  13. ^
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Panati, Charles (1998). Sexy Origins and Intimate Things: The Rites and Rituals of Straights, Gays, Bi's, Drags, Trans, Virgins, and Others. Penguin Books. p. 295. 
  16. ^ "Theda Bara Makes 'Camille' Reality". Hartford Courant. October 30, 1917. Retrieved 2008-07-20. Heralded as one of the screen triumphs of the day, "Camille", adapted from the Dumas novel, and with Theda Bara the featured player, fulfills the promises of the management of Poli's Theater, where this film really heads the bill this half of the week. Vaudeville must... 
  17. ^ About Our Logo – The Chicago International Film Festival.
  18. ^ Miles, Barry (1998). Many Years From Now. VintageRandom House. p. 232. ISBN 0-7493-8658-4. 

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