Theda Bara – manufactured stardom

Let us go back in time, back to when we didn’t need dialogue, we had faces! Let us celebrate for a brief moment a great star, whose career is unfortunately all but forgotten, lost in a cloud of smoke caused by the highly flammable nitrate film of yesteryear. Many a masterpiece have been lost that way.

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Theda Bara was born on July 29 1885. Unfortunately most of her films have been lost, but this only adds to the mystery surrounding her persona. She was two different people: Theda Bara (anagram for Arab Death), born in the Sahara Desert, under strange circumstances and possessing supernatural powers, and Theodosia Burr Goodman, born in Ohio, daughter of a Polish tailor.

Not letting truth get in the way of a good story, the studios capitalised on her newly formed image as “the vamp” after her first starring role in A Fool There Was (1915). More similar roles followed, establishing her persona as a beautiful temptress, epitomised perhaps with 1917’s Cleopatra, of which only production stills remain, showing the incredible costumes she wore and giving an idea of the larger than life presence she commanded on screen.

She was the first Vamp in the history of cinema, sizzling with sensuality and mystique in a time when cinemagoers were used to nubile and virtuous onscreen heroines like Florence Lawrence, the first movie star, and later Mary Pickford, America’s first sweetheart. Some would say there has never been anyone like her on the silver screen and who’s to argue? She made panda eyes look incredibly sexy!

Theda Bara, and her conventionally manufactured unconventional persona, was one of the first in a great series of studio-made film stars. Her career would be short-lived, like that of the first studio movie star – Florence Lawrence, but her image as the first temptress of the silver screen remains in the annals of film history.

The studio wheels were now in motion. What started with Florence Lawrence and a PR stunt, continued with Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Rudolph Valentino and others. The first stage of movie stardom began: a time of gods and goddesses, a time of undying adulation of extraordinary faces that could transport us outside our own world and into their make-believe one.

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