A bulbous nose, an overbite and a definite squint

Theda Bara

Theda Bara, from http://film.guardian.co.uk

This excellent piece by Kira Cochrane in The Guardian has been doing the rounds, but no reason why it shouldn’t turn up here as well. Its subject is the mysterious allure of some silent screen stars, and why you really have to see them on a screen for their undying magic to work…

If looks could kill

It’s mean to say it, but here goes: one of the things that has always fascinated me about the actors of the silent era, especially the sex symbols, is just how plain, ordinary, even ugly, many of them are. Francis X Bushman, for instance, star of the original 1925 Ben-Hur, may have gloried in publicity pegging him as “The Handsomest Man in the World”, but photographs suggest he was in fact a baggy-eyed bloke with bushy eyebrows and an improbably long nose. Rudolph Valentino, the man whose untimely death from peritonitis in 1926 caused mass hysteria and fainting among his female fans, wasn’t actually all that much of a looker. I’m not saying he was ugly. But gorgeous enough to cause two women to commit suicide on news of his death, as was alleged? It’s debatable.

The silent star who fascinates me the most in this respect, though, is Theda Bara. In a short career, largely played out between 1914-19, Bara became a massive star, her popularity at one stage second only to Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. But unlike Pickford (America’s fresh-faced sweetheart), Bara’s success was based on her reputation as a “vamp”, a woman so cruelly attractive that she could ensnare any man, exploit him, trample him, and walk away with an enormous grin on her face. Bara became so synonymous with the term that she is now referred to as the original on-screen vamp, the woman who made performances such as that of Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction possible.

I have read biographies of Bara and pored over her still photographs, and found it hard to fathom her appeal. Her figure isn’t bad, though it could most accurately be described as “matronly”. She has a bulbous nose, an overbite and a definite squint (she was extremely short-sighted). Just what was it that so enraptured audiences?

I found out this week, while watching one of Bara’s only surviving films, A Fool There Was. Released in the US in 1915, this was the first major screen outing for the woman who, until then, had been a minor stage actor. A Fool There Was is based on a variety of sources, including an 1897 painting by Philip Burne-Jones, which shows a woman looming over a man who is either dead, passed out or really very sleepy; and a hokey poem of the same title that Burne-Jones’s cousin, Rudyard Kipling, wrote for the exhibition catalogue. The film tells the story of a wealthy, married diplomat who sinks in horrific decline after submitting to the attentions of “The Vampire”, played by Bara.

The minute Bara arrives on screen, it becomes obvious why she was so popular – why she went on to have songs written about her, children named after her, a perfume and even a sandwich (minced ham, mayonnaise, sliced pimento and sweet pickles on toast – served warm) created in her honour. The first scene shows the diplomat smelling a couple of roses and smiling wistfully. The second scene is Bara, glancing around shiftily, picking up those same roses, smelling them, smirking, ripping off the petals, crushing them in her hands, and laughing. On screen, that face comes into its own – so much so that when you learn that her character’s malevolence has led one man to jail, another to beggary, and her most recent victim to a very public suicide, you believe it. Rudolph, eat your heart out.

Another major factor in the film’s huge success was the groundbreaking publicity machine that whirred around it. A Fool There Was was made by William Fox’s fledgling studio, which employed two wily PR men – Al Selig and John Goldfrap – both determined to ensure this latest film was a hit. In Vamp, Eve Golden’s punchy biography of Bara, there is a description of the outlandish press conference set up by the men to showcase Fox’s newest star. The fact that Bara (real name Theodosia Goodman) was the daughter of immigrants from Cincinnati, was irrelevant. Instead, they claimed she was the child of a French actress and an Italian sculptor, raised in the shadow of the Pyramids, who had gone on to become a huge stage success in Paris, before escaping to America on the brink of war. The story was ridiculous, and the journalists who gathered in the Egyptian-themed room where Bara was presented to them, amid choking clouds of scent, knew it. But it worked. While the end of 1914 had seen Fox Studios in debt, in 1915 Bara’s huge popularity helped them rake in $3m.

Thus, Bara was put to work, cranking out 40 films for Fox over the next four years. Like many ambitious actors, she was anxious not to be typecast, always pushing for a range of roles and occasionally rewarded. In her 30s, she was cast, for instance, as the young, virginal female lead in Romeo and Juliet, a well-received production now most notable for its key innovation: Juliet briefly rising from the dead to share the final scene with Romeo. Bara also played Cleopatra in a series of raunchy costumes, including a bra fashioned out of a coiled snake, ruby-red eyes placed suggestively in the centre of each breast. But most of the time she played a vamp, in films such as The Devil’s Daughter, the publicity material for which described Bara as “The Wickedest Woman in the World”.

But by 1919, Bara’s career was on the rocks. This wasn’t due to the advent of the talkies: there is no suggestion that her voice was especially reedy or ridiculous or wretched. Fox had another star on its books, however – cowboy hero Tom Mix – and a new kind of skinny, youthful sex symbol was growing popular in the shape of the flapper. Then there was the scandal prompted by one of Bara’s late films, Kathleen Mavourneen, in which she played a poor Irish girl. As Golden describes it: “The Friends of Irish Freedom and the Central Council of Irish Associations violently objected to the depiction of poverty in Ireland (although castles and middle-class towns were also shown). Other groups … objected to a ‘Jewess’ portraying a beloved Irish heroine. Stink bombs were rolled down the aisles.”

Abruptly, Bara’s career was all but over. Over the next decade, she appeared in a few films, but never regained her star status. She must have taken some comfort from the fact that she had fallen for the writer/director of Kathleen Mavourneen, Charles Brabin, who often styled himself as a knight and a lord but who was actually a Liverpudlian butcher’s son. The pair married, and Bara saw out her days as a popular Hollywood matron.

Watching A Fool There Was – seeing just how magnetic Bara was in motion – makes you realise how ill-served those early silent stars have been. Around 80%, or even 90%, of silent films have now been lost, partly through neglect, partly due to the recycling of nitrate film, and partly because nitrate is more flammable than a matchstick. Only four of Bara’s films survive, after a Fox storage facility exploded in 1937. Martin Scorsese has been banging on for years now about the need to preserve silent films, to ensure we have something to go on in the future other than still photos. And he’s right. After all, as Bara has made me realise, when it comes to understanding the allure of silent film stars, photos only count for so much. It’s all about the movies, stupid.

A Fool There Was is screening at the Barbican in London this Sunday, live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.