Theda Bara: The Mother of
All Sex Symbols

by Anthony Puccinelli

The mother of all sex symbols in the age of celebrity is Theda Bara. Eve Golden's entertaining book, Vamp, is the first full-length biography ever written on cinema's first sex symbol. What makes the book surprising is that its subject is practically a phantom: the first twenty-nine years of her life take up all of nine pages, as does her twenty-nine year post-film career. Though she was born Theodosia Goodman in 1885, in a sense she exploded into existence when she chose the screen name Theda Bara (an anagram for "Arab Death"), and became a star in 1915. Theda contributed to her own legend by pretending to be someone other than a shy, Jewish girl from Ohio, and now that shy, Jewish girl cannot be reclaimed, even by her biographer. What's left is the star.

In only one of Bara's four surviving films does she play the vamp role for which she was acclaimed. Released in 1915, "A Fool There Was" was an instant sensation, and exploited the Victorian idea that sexual activity drains one's life force. As the seminal vampire, Theda slouches past one haggard wreck of a man after another. Since she is never shown sucking their blood, the implication is clear: all are plainly victims of her omnivorous sexual appetite. In the film's most famous scene, a jealous, abandoned lover draws a pistol to shoot the vampire. Imperious and unafraid, Theda commands: "Kiss me, my fool!" Unable to shoot her and unable to live without her, he blows his brains out. In the film's climax, the wife of a diplomat brings her daughter to see her father. He hugs his child passionately, but then Theda appears at the top of the stairs, one ghostly white arm dangling over the banister like the snake of temptation in the garden of Eden. Helpless, the diplomat embraces his humiliation as his humiliated wife and daughter leave the den of iniquity.

Plainly, the wife and child are stand-ins for the social order. They are the face of social responsibility, and function as witnesses to how far the diplomat will go in his quest for sensual satiation. Therefore, their rejection is a rejection of the social order, and their humiliation is not only suggestive of Theda's thrilling appeal, but part of her appeal. As Golden writes, one of Theda's costumes for "A Fool There Was" was a one-piece bathing suit at a time when "women were still being arrested for indecent exposure in many towns for wearing these garments." The scene featuring the suit was censored, as was the scene in a later film where Salome kisses the decapitated head of John the Baptist. In defense of her vamp roles, Theda said, "Believe me, for every woman vampire, there are ten men of the same type."

Theda is heavier than the sex symbols of today, and her acting may appear florid and overblown to modern eyes. Inevitably, standards of beauty and styles of acting change over time. Perhaps a hundred years from now, Jennifer Lopez's name will also have faded slowly and inexorably from humanity's memory. Or perhaps, like Theda, she will be caricatured on a United States first class stamp and immortalized in collector's albums forever.

In the introduction to Vamp, film historian Robert Brichard writes longingly: "Oh, how I wish I could see Theda Bara in Cleopatra! As Eve Golden recreates the opening scene in words, the intense black-rimmed eyes of Theda Bara rivet me to my theatre chair, and again work their magic." This man's desire is truly refined torture, since all that remains from the lost film Cleopatra are a few stills showing Theda in her "snake-bra: a halter-top consisting of two intertwined snakes with rather impolite rubies serving for eyes." As Golden notes, the costumes worn by Theda in Cleopatra bear a startling similarity to those adorning Madonna in her racier videos, but obviously Madonna would never be able to provide Brichard the satisfaction Theda could, because a component of his desire is its unattainability. Decadence has been defined as a beautiful thing that's dying. In this sense, worshippers of silent film are the truest decadents of all, since more than 80% of American films made during the first twenty-five years of cinema are lost forever. At this moment a nitrate print of Cleopatra may be languishing in a collector's attic or a film vault, slowly crumbling to dust.

Watching A Fool There Was in this context is a multifaceted experience: historical and heartbreaking, sensual and silly, pathetic and profound. One responds to Theda's impact as sexual being supreme with a simultaneous awareness of her death, made vivid by the encroachment of time in the flickering print. Part of the appeal of old records is the hiss of the years, the sound of elapsed time in the grooves. Similarly, watching Theda, one draws closer to the screen to try to see her more clearly, but the image becomes diffuse, like a Seurat painting up close. She is ever evasive, eluding us as surely as she does her biographer. And therein lies the poignance, for in trying to embrace her -- in trying to preserve her image, awaken her memory, and reanimate her appeal -- we reject the void that awaits us all. Vamp is a celebration of Theda Bara, and therefore a monument to both the ephemeral and the eternal: the mortality of man and woman and the immortality of desire.

©2001 by Anthony Puccinelli

An independent filmmaker in love with all genres, Anthony Puccinelli hopes to make every imaginable type of movie. His current motto: "Follow your desire as long as you live; do not lessen the time of following desire, for the wasting of time is an abomination to the spirit." Ptahhotpe, Egypt, 24th century B.C.

Theda Bara image courtesy of

  Home Contributors Past Issues Favorites   Links  Guidelines About Us

Subscribe to the Slow Trains newsletter