One of America’s first movie stars, Theda Bara was unique in that she was completely invented by the studio publicity department; she was an intriguing phenomenon whose films returned more money per dollar of investment than those of any other actress of her time. As the legend goes, Theodosia Goodman became Theda Bara when she was given a screen test in 1915. Despite having no experience, she was selected. William Fox, the movie mogul and founder of Fox, told author Upton Sinclair how it all came about: One day it was conceived in our publicity department that we had every type of women on the screen except an Arabian. [Our publicity director] conceived a story that Miss Goodman was born in Arabia . . . So we took Arab and spelled it backwards to make Bara and shortened her first name from Theodosia to Theda.‚14
Bara herself reportedly encouraged the campaign: When Fox asked where she was born, she reportedly responded, It wouldn’t be exciting to say Cincinnati, would it? Suppose we say the Sahara Desert instead?‚ When she was first introduced to the press, she was told not to talk in order to maintain the illusion that she couldn’t speak or understand English. The gamble paid off, and the press announced the next day that Fox had discovered the greatest living actress of all time.
The unveiling of Philip Burne-Jones’s painting The Vampire in 1897, which depicted a pale, dark-eyed woman with a male victim at her feet, introduced the idea of the vampire to the general public, along with Rudyard Kipling’s poem (inspired by the artwork) and Bram Stroker’s Dracula, which was published the same year. Together, they created a vogue for the female vampire or vamp‚ the irresistible but deadly being that heartlessly sucks the love and life out of men. This character was embraced by Hollywood and was a precursor to film noir’s femme fatales. At this time, the movie industry began developing roles for women that were not exactly nuanced. Generally, there were just a couple of types: Vamps and Flappers, both with their hair and makeup style signifying their type to audiences, especially pre-talkies.
Bara’s face was the epitome of vampishness: Intense and sensual with heavy-lidded, kohl-rimmed eyes, she soon became famous everywhere. As film makeup departments were just coming to grips with the demands of early black-and-white orthochromatic film, which was oversensitive to blue and thus made Bara’s eyes look pale, it’s reported that Bara asked Helena Rubinstein to formulate a special intense kohl to help make her eyes appear more expressive on film Rubinstein later commented, the effect was tremendously dramatic . . . it was a sensation reported in every newspaper and magazine.‚15 Her appearance and femininity were so exaggerated and her movie plots so outlandish that she really presented no threat to conventional morality and the average woman, and her popularity among female moviegoers helped enormously to make the use of cosmetics acceptable. As Bara herself observed, The vampire I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. I have the face of a vampire but the heart of a feminist.‚