Theda Bara

Theda Bara
Born Theodosia Burr Goodman
(1885-07-29)July 29, 1885
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
Died April 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
Nationality American
Education Walnut Hills High School
Alma mater University of Cincinnati
Occupation Actress
Years active 1908–1926
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 were lost in the 1937 Fox vault fire. 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

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. She was named after the daughter of US Vice President Aaron Burr.[5]

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 (1915)
Bara in The She-Devil (1918)

Most of Bara's early films were shot around the East Coast, primarily at the Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.[6] 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.

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). In 1920, she turned briefly to the stage, appearing on Broadway in The Blue Flame. Bara's fame drew large crowds to the theater, but her acting was savaged by critics.[7] 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.[8] 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

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

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."[9][10] In 1917 the Goodman family legally changed its surname to Bara.[2]

Bara is often cited as the first sex symbol[11] of the movies.[12] 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 her 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

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.[13] 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.[14]

In 1936, she appeared on Lux Radio Theatre during 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,[15][16] which never materialized. She appeared on radio again in 1939 as a guest on Texaco Star Theatre. These may be the only recordings of her voice ever made.

In 1949, producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia Pictures expressed interest in making a movie of Bara's life, to star Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized.[17]


Niche of Theda Bara, in the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Glendale.

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."[18]

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.


Year Film Role Notes
1914 The Stain Gang moll Credited as Theodosia Goodman
1915 Siren of Hell Lost film
1915 A Fool There Was The Vampire
1915 The Kreutzer Sonata Celia Friedlander Lost film
1915 The Clemenceau Case Iza Lost film
1915 The Devil's Daughter La Gioconda Lost film
1915 Lady Audley's Secret Helen Talboys Lost film
1915 The Two Orphans Henriette Lost film
1915 Sin Rosa Lost film
1915 Carmen Carmen Lost film
1915 The Galley Slave Francesca Brabaut Lost film
1915 Destruction Fernade Lost film
1916 The Serpent Vania Lazar Lost film
1916 Gold and the Woman Theresa Decordova Lost film
1916 The Eternal Sapho Laura Bruffins Lost film
1916 East Lynne Lady Isabel Carlisle
1916 Under Two Flags Cigarette Lost film
1916 Her Double Life Mary Doone Lost film
1916 Romeo and Juliet Juliet Lost film
1916 The Vixen Elsie Drummond Lost film
1917 The Darling of Paris Esmeralda Lost film
1917 The Tiger Woman Princess Petrovitch Lost film
1917 Her Greatest Love Hazel Lost film
1917 Heart and Soul Jess Lost film
1917 Camille Marguerite Gauthier[19] Lost film
1917 Cleopatra Cleopatra Approximately 20 seconds exist
1917 The Rose of Blood Lisza Tapenka Lost film
1917 Madame Du Barry Jeanne Vaubernier Lost film
1918 The Forbidden Path Mary Lynde Lost film
1918 The Soul of Buddha Priestess Story
Lost film
1918 Under the Yoke Maria Valverda Lost film
1918 Salomé Salome Lost film
1918 When a Woman Sins Lilian Marchard / Poppea Lost film
1918 The She-Devil Lorette Lost film
1919 The Light Blanchette Dumond, aka Madame Lefresne Lost film
1919 When Men Desire Marie Lohr Approximately 17 seconds exist
1919 The Siren's Song Marie Bernais Lost film
1919 A Woman There Was Princess Zara Lost film
1919 Kathleen Mavourneen Kathleen Cavanagh Lost film
1919 La Belle Russe Fleurett Sackton/La Belle Russe Lost film
1919 The Lure of Ambition Olga Dolan Lost film
1925 The Unchastened Woman Caroline Knollys
1926 Madame Mystery Madame Mysterieux Short film
1926 45 Minutes from Hollywood Herself Short film

Cultural references

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.[20]

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.[21]

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 and in "Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story" by Clive Barker.

A photo of Theda Bara as Cleopatra is the album artwork for The Lumineers record Cleopatra (album) released in 2016.

In May 2016, A memoir (McFarland) Theda Bara, My Mentor "Under the Wings of Hollywood's First Femme Fatale" by Joan Craig with Beverly Stout was released. Young Joan in the companionship of Theda Bara during the 1940's and 1950's includes tales of her husband Charles Brabin, friends Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Victor Fleming and other significant stars of the past.


  1. "Theda Bara Speaking 1936". Retrieved 7 January 2011.
  2. 1 2 3 "Theda makes 'em all Baras". The New York Times. November 17, 1917.
  3. Ronald Genini (1996). Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmography. McFarland. ISBN 9780786491612.
  4. "Marque Bara", Newport Daily News (Newport, Rhode Island), April 26, 1954, p. 2.
  6. Fort Lee: Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry. Arcadia Publishing. 2006. ISBN 978-0-7385-4501-1.
  7. Golden, Eve (1996). Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara. Vestal, New York: Emprise. pp. 204–209. ISBN 1-887322-00-0. OCLC 34575681.
  8. Archived September 1, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. "Cleopatra (1917)". The New York Times. Retrieved May 29, 2011. Film review.
  10. "Famous silent screen vamp Theda Bara dies of cancer". The Montreal Gazette. Associated Press. April 8, 1955. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
  11. "Classic Images – Vol. 250 – April 1996 Issue". Retrieved 2010-08-02.
  12. "Theda Bara Photo Gallery". Retrieved 2010-08-02.
  13. Lorna Innis (February 26, 2012). "Hollywood's link with province long, varied". Chronicle Herald. Halifax.
  14. Archived from the original on April 6, 2012. Retrieved July 7, 2011. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  15. "The Thin Man". Lux Radio Theatre. Internet Archive. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
  16. "The Lux Radio Theatre". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
  17. Thomas F. Brady (January 21, 1949). "De Sylva Working on Movie of Bara". The New York Times. p. 25.; Hedda Hopper (August 21, 1949). The Washington Post. p. L1. Missing or empty |title= (help); Hedda Hopper (October 23, 1949). The Washington Post. p. L1. Missing or empty |title= (help); Thomas F. Brady (December 2, 1949). "Betty Hutton Set for 2 Metro Films". The New York Times. p. 36.
  18. 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.
  19. "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...
  20. About Our Logo The Chicago International Film Festival.
  21. Miles, Barry (1998). Many Years From Now. VintageRandom House. p. 232. ISBN 0-7493-8658-4.

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