• Industry

Forgotten Hollywood: Theda Bara, Queen of the Vamps

In 1918, there was a sensational court case in Hollywood in which a man, Guadaloup Martinez, was on trial for flinging his wife Rosa out of a window to her death. Actress Theda Bara was subpoenaed by the defense to give expert testimony that Mrs. Martinez had ‘vampiric tendencies’ that caused her to jump off her own volition. Bara did not testify ultimately as the DA said he would oppose her testimony, and a charge of manslaughter was ultimately brought against Martinez.

That Bara was called to testify was because the roles she played in her silent films epitomized vampires, the evil women who led men to their doom. Back then, a ‘vampire’ had a different meaning. It referred to predatory women who metaphorically sucked the ‘life force’ out of men and ruined their lives. (The word was then shortened to ‘vamp.’)


The ‘vamp’ persona played by Bara was a studio creation in 1915. She was advertised in an orchestrated campaign by the Fox Film Company to be “The Queen of Vampires,’ ‘Purgatory’s Ivory Angel,’ ‘The Wickedest Woman in the World’ and ‘The Devil’s Handmaiden.’ A glamorous bio was created for her as a wild child who was born in the Sahara Desert ‘in the shadow of the Sphinx,’ the daughter of a French actress and Italian artist, her stage name, an anagram of ‘Arab Death.’  In reality, Theodosia Goodman was an unknown Jewish girl from Cincinnati, Ohio who was transformed into this exotic creature to publicize her first film A Fool There Was in which she was cast as a femme fatale. Bara was signed by Fox to a five-year contract at $150 per week. The role was dramatically different from the personas presented by the reigning box office queens of the day — Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish or Gloria Swanson — and the unknown actress became an overnight star.

Bara was all in for the creation of her image. Her eyes were always kohl-rimmed in photographs. She posed with skulls and animal skin accessories. Her costumes were always skimpy with snake brassieres, veils, and exotic jewelry. She claimed to be interested in the occult. According to her contract, in real life, she was only allowed out at night and had to wear a veil in public. She was forbidden to use public transportation. From her film debut in 1915 in which she was an immediate success, to 1919 when her career dwindled, she appeared in 40 films, the most well-known being The Serpent, The Galley Slave, Salome, When a Woman Sins, The Tiger Woman, Sin and Cleopatra, most of which are now lost due to a fire in a Fox warehouse in 1937. There still exist photographs of Bara dressed as Cleopatra, and a sound recording of a radio interview in 1936 miraculously preserved lets us hear about her work habits.

“Before pictures grew up and started to talk, we had to translate all emotion into pantomime,” she says to the interviewer. “We had to express jealousy, hate, love or devotion, all in pantomime. And at the same time keep pace with the director who guided us with a one, two, three, four, just as a metronome guides a pianist . . . We worked awfully hard making those pictures. For instance, in making ‘Cleopatra,’ we had no research department at the studio. I worked myself for months with the curator of Egyptology at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was very fun, though.” By the time she made Cleopatra, Bara was earning $4,000 a week.



Goodman was born in 1885 to a family of humble means. She attended college for a couple of years; then with her family, she moved to New York at age 18 to conquer the stage. She toiled in obscurity for years until she was offered a shot at the silver screen by director Frank Powell in a small role in The Stain as a nun; he then cast her as the lead in the aforementioned A Fool There Was, one of her few films that still exist today. She was 30 years old by then. A reviewer from the New York Dramatic Mirror wrote: “Miss Bara misses no chance for sensuous appeal in her portrayal of the Vampire. She is a horribly fascinating woman, vicious to the core, and cruel. When she says ‘Kiss me, my fool,’ the fool is generally ready to obey and enjoy a prolonged moment, irrespective of the less enjoyable ones to follow.”

Bara generated tons of controversy for her roles. Her films were condemned by groups across the country, clergy, and militant women. But men loved her. She received innumerable marriage proposals, children were named after her, songs were written for her and she was inundated by fan mail. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “One bitter moviegoer wrote, “It is such women as you who break up happy homes.” Bara replied, “I am working for my living, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.” Another, a criminal defendant, claimed that he killed his mother-in-law after viewing one of Bara’s films.”

Bara told columnist Hedda Hopper in 1951 in one of her last interviews: “To understand those days, you must consider that people believed what they saw on the screen. Nobody had destroyed the grand illusion. Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them. Why women kicked my photographs as they went into the theaters where my pictures were playing. And once on the streets of New York, a woman called the police because her child spoke to me.”



By 1919, Bara had had enough of these roles. In an essay in Vanity Fair in October of that year entitled “The Ex-Vampire – Turning to the Right in the Moving Pictures” she wrote, “Fired with the scarlet spirit of the times, I have been emboldened to organize and carry out a little private strike of my own – a strike which has resulted in a complete victory for the striking party. I have walked out, definitely and permanently, on my job as a moving picture vampire. Once and for all, I am through . . . I have asserted my rights as an American citizen and a free-born moving picture actress. No longer do the dark reels of my movie past throw their gloom over my life. Cinematographically speaking, I am a new woman.” She went on to explain that her name and vampires were seen as synonyms and that no matter what different roles she played, her character was always branded that way. She described the kind of letters she would receive from fans about her private life. “I was generally visualized as spending Sundays and holidays undulating snakily about my apartment, or whiling away my free time stretched sinuously out on a tiger skin, gazing inscrutably through the smoke of my heavily scented cigarette.”

Fox did not renew her contract after 1919. A couple of non-vamp films later and a brief stint on the stage, Bara retired from movies and married director Charles Brabin in 1921. She never appeared in any talkies. But it’s a testament to her legacy that despite the fact that most of her movies never survived, she is still considered a bright star in the Hollywood of the day.

Bara and Brabin stayed married until her death in 1955 of cancer. She was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, and got a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.