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Cinema Pioneers: Theda Bara – Hollywood’s First Sex Symbol

Theda Bara

In the beginning, there was the good guy, the good girl, the bad guy and, of course, the bad girl. Cinema’s first bad girl was also it’s first sex symbol. Her name was Theodosia Goodman but probably you would know her as Theda Bara. She was molten sex when the Model T ruled the roadways. While Mary Pickford was America’s sweetheart, dainty, demure and virginal, Theda Bara was dark, mysterious, and a little bit stout. The polar opposite of Mary Pickford, she flaunted her sexuality and her figure.

Theda Bara
Theda Bara as Cleopatra Photo by Fox

Even though she usually portrayed a vixen or a loose woman on screen, Bara was the first femaleto be in total control. One could rightly argue that Bara’s career was most noteworthy for the fact that she played a woman and not a gamine, as was the case of most of the early silent film actresses.

William Fox, who founded Fox Studios (This was before they merged with 20th Century) knew a money maker when he saw one. Consequently, he made sure Bara was under contract. According to Wikipedia –

“At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week. She was one of the most popular movie stars, ranking behind only Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.

Theda Bara’s biggest role would come in the film Cleopatra, probably history’s first Femme Fatale. It became her defining role. Sadly, unless a miracle happens, it might fade from memory. After a fire at the Fox studio in 1927, all that remains of Bara’s legacy are two films. The lavish Cleopatra film was one of the victims. As a result, all that remains of it is an extensive series of costume tests.

In conclusion, though we lament the loss of her films, it seems fitting for the mysterious Theda Bara. She remains as the studio would want us to remember her, mysterious.

Theda Bara
1917: American actor Theda Bara (1890 – 1955) poses in costume as Cleopatra in a promotional portrait for director J Gordon Edwards’s film ‘Cleopatra’.
  • Spike

    Wow. Some risque photos/costumes. But then, maybe this was before the whole studio concession/film rating thing started.

    Anyways, she doesn’t look mysterious to me. More like chubby and kinda scary.

    • Yes, there was a loose production code in effect but it was never enforced. There were a couple of other guises trying to get a uniform code. The code that you are probably thinking of came in 1934. Fox actually developed a whole fake biography for Bara. Looks wise, Bara was actually blonde and don’t forget because of the antiquated lighting the actors wore pancake makeup in heavy doses.

  • Spike

    Heh. She mighta been cuter blonde. And lighting for those films must have been a real beach, I’m sure. Just trying to imagine incandescent lighting (did they have anything else?) ever being enough to flood a shot, and I can’t.

    • Remember, that in Bara’s time frame they were just starting to make feature length films.