Each one of us has a vision of our self as a particular archetype of seduction; a sort of erotic character we imagine embodying and reiterating in our own unique way. Be it the cheesecake pinup girl next door, the rosy cheeked and ripped bodice romantic, the fierce cosmopolitan supermodel or the sophisticated glamour queen, from time to time it's fun to indulge in fantasizing about ourselves as these paradigms of female sexuality. If you have ever thought of yourself as the dangerous femme fatale or exotic vamp type you have silent film star Theda Bara to thank for authoring this role.
Born in 1885 to a family of Jewish immigrants, the Cincinnati native moved to New York in 1908 to pursue acting. After briefly working on Broadway and spending a few seasons touring with a traveling theater company, Bara, real name Theodosia Burr Goodman, made her way into the early silent film world. In 1915 she landed the starring role in William Fox's A Fool There Was. Bara was a huge hit and the film's success gave Fox the necessary funds to start his film corporation which exists today as 20th Century Fox.
Bara skyrocketed to fame, making over 40 silent films in a career that spanned only 12 years. Much of her success can be contributed to Fox Studio's aggressive publicity campaign promoting the actress as an exotic seductress, an image that couldn't have been farther from the Bara of reality. Bara's agents crafted a Scheherazade story, claiming she was the daughter of an Italian sculptor and French actress, hinting she was raised in Egypt in the shadows of the Sphinx, and staging her press interviews in elaborately decorated suites that oozed with Oriental mysticism.
Above, a macabre publicity still underlining Bara's dark side. Below, the Vamp in the film Sin.
This exotic persona went hand in hand with the characters Bara played. Typecast from the very beginning, Bara's roles nearly always portrayed her as the "vampire." Not necessarily a vampire of the caped and fanged variety, but rather an enigmatic enchantress capable of luring men to their doom with her beauty and powers of seduction. On set her smokey eye makeup and darkened pout earned her the nicknamed "the Vamp," a term that became 20s slang for a dangerous and attractive woman.
Despite being one of the top billed actresses of her time, only six of Bara's films have survived to this day. Her legendary Cleopatra was lost in a 1937 vault fire that destroyed many of Fox Studio's silent classics. Only photo stills and publicity shots remain. The picture below shows Bara in one of the many opulent and scandalous costumes of Cleopatra.
In 1936 Bara married British director Charles Brabin and retired from the limelight, avoiding any of the scandal or sensationalism endemic to A-list movie stars. Nonetheless, her exotic intensity and dark sensuality continue to inspire modern tastes just as they did in her own time.
Cleopatra's snake bikini puts Princess Leia's to shame. No wonder she was one of the very first sex symbols!