Meet Theda Bara, the First “Vamp” of Cinema, Who Revealed the Erotic Power of the Movies

Read­ers of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion, asked to envi­sion a vam­pir­i­cal­ly allur­ing lady of cin­e­ma, may find their imag­i­na­tions going straight to Elvi­ra, Mis­tress of the Dark. But the tra­di­tion of the sil­ver-screen “vamp” goes much deep­er, reach­ing all the way back to the silent era. The term itself was first coined to refer to The­da Bara, not exact­ly a house­hold name now, but then in a league with Char­lie Chap­lin and Mary Pick­ford. She was one of the most pop­u­lar per­form­ers alive.

Bara revealed to a gen­er­a­tion of movie­go­ers the sheer erot­ic pow­er of cin­e­ma, an accom­plish­ment you can glimpse in the clip above of 1915’s A Fool There Was, the pic­ture that made her an icon. The minute she arrives on screen, writes The Guardian’s Kira Cochrane, “it becomes obvi­ous why she was so pop­u­lar — why she went on to have songs writ­ten about her, chil­dren named after her, a per­fume and even a sand­wich (minced ham, may­on­naise, sliced pimen­to and sweet pick­les on toast — served warm) cre­at­ed in her hon­our.” Her face, though it may not seem so notable at first, soon “comes into its own — so much so that when you learn that her char­ac­ter’s malev­o­lence has led one man to jail, anoth­er to beg­gary, and her most recent vic­tim to a very pub­lic sui­cide, you believe it.”

Frank Pow­ell, direc­tor of A Fool There Was, “took a chance on a 29 year-old The­da (she lied and said she was 25)” by ask­ing her to star, writes Messy Nessy’s Addi­son Nugent. “It’s the sto­ry of a devot­ed fam­i­ly man who, while on a ship to Eng­land, meets a beau­ti­ful stranger referred to only as ‘The Vam­pire Woman.’ This mys­te­ri­ous crea­ture cor­rupts his soul, destroys his fam­i­ly, drains him of all of his mon­ey and dig­ni­ty, and even­tu­al­ly caus­es his demise.”

And so the for­mer Theo­dosia Good­man — with some assis­tance from Fox Stu­dios’ PR team, who “plant­ed false sto­ries in the press and invent­ed a fan­ta­sy back­sto­ry for her” — swift­ly became a new kind of femme fatale for this new artis­tic and com­mer­cial medi­um. These dan­ger­ous young women, write the New York his­to­ry pod­cast­ers the Bow­ery Boys, “were the spir­i­tu­al chil­dren of the pri­or gen­er­a­tion of new­ly empow­ered women who fought against the con­straints of Vic­to­ri­an soci­ety. A few years lat­er, as anoth­er vein of female pow­er (the tem­per­ance move­ment) helped bring about Pro­hi­bi­tion, these young women would be called flap­pers, care­free and fueled on the pow­ers of jazz and ille­gal alco­hol.”

Dur­ing her dozen-year-long screen career, Bara made some forty films in total, most of them lost in the Fox vault fire of 1937, includ­ing the 1917 epic Cleopa­tra, a few frag­ments of which you can see in the video above. Her final appear­ance, in 1926’s Madame Mys­tery, both par­o­died the vamp image she could nev­er quite shake and saw her bid farewell to the world of silent cin­e­ma. “Before pic­tures grew up and start­ed to talk, we had to trans­late all our motion into pan­tomime,” said Bara her­self in a lat­er radio inter­view. “We had to express jeal­ousy, hate, love, or devo­tion all in pan­tomime, and at the same time keep pace as the direc­tor guid­ed us just as a metronome guides a pianist.”

The vamp, as Bara played and defined the fig­ure, expressed all those emo­tions with a fear­some vivid­ness, and she “became so syn­ony­mous with the term that she is now referred to as the orig­i­nal on-screen vamp,” writes Cochrane, “the woman who made per­for­mances such as that of Louise Brooks in Pan­do­ra’s Box, Bar­bara Stan­wyck in Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty and Lin­da Fiorenti­no in The Last Seduc­tion pos­si­ble.” Or as the orig­i­nal vamp summed up her own lega­cy, “To be good is to be for­got­ten. I’m going to be so bad I’ll always be remem­bered.”

A Fool There Was will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch After the Ball, the 1897 “Adult” Film by Pio­neer­ing Direc­tor Georges Méliès (Almost NSFW)

Broke­back Before Broke­back: The First Same-Sex Kiss in Cin­e­ma (1927)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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