Movie Stars: Bara, Theda–Hollywood’s First Sex Symbol

Theda Bara (born Theodosia Burr Goodman; July 29, 1885–April 7, 1955) was one of the more popular actresses of the silent era and one of Hollywood’s early sex symbols.

Her femme fatale roles earned her the nickname “The Vamp” (short for vampire, a seductive woman), fueling the rising popularity in “vamp” roles that involved exoticism and sexual domination. The studios promoted a fictitious persona for Bara as an Egyptian-born woman interested in the occult.

Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but most were lost in the 1937 Fox vault fire. After her marriage to Charles Brabin in 1921, she made two more features and then retired from acting in 1926, never appearing in a sound film.

Jewish Origins

Bara was born Theodosia Burr Goodman on July 29, 1885 in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Ohio. She was named after the daughter of US Vice President Aaron Burr. Her father was Bernard Goodman (1853–1936), a prosperous Jewish tailor born in Poland. Her mother, Pauline Louise Françoise (née de Coppett; 1861–1957), was born in Switzerland. Bernard and Pauline married in 1882. Theda had two younger siblings: Marque (1888–1954) and Esther (1897–1965), who also became a film actress under the name of Lori Bara.

Bara attended Walnut Hills High School, graduating in 1903. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she worked in local theater productions.

After moving to New York City in 1908, she made her Broadway debut the same year in The Devil.

Most of Bara’s early films were shot on the East Coast, where the film industry was centered, primarily at Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Bara lived with her family in New York City during this time. The rise of Hollywood as the center of American film industry forced her to relocate to Los Angeles for the epic Cleopatra (1917), which became one of Bara’s biggest hits. No known prints of Cleopatra exist, but photos of Bara in costume as the Queen of the Nile have survived.

Between 1915 and 1919, Bara was Fox studio’s biggest star, but tired of being typecast as vamp, she allowed her five-year contract with Fox to expire. Her final Fox film was The Lure of Ambition (1919).

In 1920, she turned briefly to the stage, appearing on Broadway in The Blue Flame. Bara’s fame drew large crowds to the theater, but her acting was savaged by critics.

Her career suffered without Fox Studios’ support, and she did not make another film until The Unchastened Woman (1925) for Chadwick Pictures.

Bara retired after making only one more film, the short comedy Madame Mystery (1926), for Hal Roach. Directed by Stan Laurel, she parodied her vamp image within the film.

Highest Paid Actress

At the height of her fame, Bara earned $4,000 per week (over $60,000 per week in 2021 adjusted dollars). Bara’s better-known roles were as the “vamp,” though she attempted to avoid typecasting by playing wholesome heroines in films such as Under Two Flags and Her Double Life.

She appeared as Juliet in a version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Although Bara took her craft seriously, she was too successful as an exotic “wanton woman” to develop a more versatile career.

The origin of Bara’s stage name is disputed; The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats says it came from director Frank Powell, who learned Theda had a relative named Barranger, and that Theda was a childhood nickname.

In promoting the 1917 Cleopatra, Fox Studio publicists noted the name was an anagram of Arab death, and her press agents, to enhance her exotic appeal to moviegoers, falsely promoted the young Ohio native as “the daughter of an Arab sheik and a French woman, born in the Sahara.” In 1917, the Goodman family legally changed its surname to Bara.

Studio Publicity Machine

Bara was known for wearing very revealing costumes in her film, outfits that were banned from Hollywood films after the Production Code (the Hays Code) started in 1930 and then strongly enforced in 1934. It was popular to promote an actress as mysterious, with an exotic background. The studios promoted Bara with massive publicity campaign, billing her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. They claimed she had spent years in the Sahara desert under the shadow of the Sphinx, then moved to France to become a stage actress. (Bara never had been to Egypt, and was in France only for a few months.).

They called her the “Serpent of the Nile” and encouraged her to discuss mysticism and the occult in interviews. Some film historians point to this as the birth of two Hollywood phenomena: the studio publicity department and the press agent.

A 2016 book by Joan Craig with Beverly F. Stout chronicles the lives of Theda Bara and Charles Brabin, revealing great dichotomy between Theda Bara’s screen persona and her real-life persona. Included are Bara’s surprised responses to the critical reactions to her screen portrayals. The author was befriended by Theda Bara and Charles Brabin beginning when she was a young girl. Craig’s memory paints a picture of how they lived, where they lived, and what they said and did, describing in great detail most of the rooms of their house. The book describes how Bara, who learned pattern making and wig making from her mother and father, designed and created most of the gowns she wore in her films, including the striking costumes in Cleopatra.

Bara married British-born American film director Charles Brabin in 1921. They honeymooned at The Pines Hotel in Digby, Nova Scotia, Canada, and later purchased a 990-acre property down the coast from Digby at Harbourville, Nova Scotia, overlooking the Bay of Fundy, eventually building a summer home they called Baranook. They had no children. Bara resided in villa-style home in Cincinnati, which served as the “honors villa” at Xavier University. (Demolition of the home began in July 2011._

In 1936, she appeared on Lux Radio Theatre during a broadcast version of The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy. She did not appear in the play but instead announced her plans to make a comeback, which never materialized. She appeared on radio again in 1939 as a guest on Texaco Star Theatre.

In 1949, producer Buddy DeSylva and Columbia expressed interest in making a movie of Bara’s life, to star Betty Hutton, but the project never materialized.

On April 7, 1955, after a lengthy stay at California Lutheran Hospital in Los Angeles, Bara died of stomach cancer. She was survived by her husband Charles Brabin, her mother, and sister Lori. She was interred as Theda Bara Brabin at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.


Bara often is cited as the first sex symbol of the film era.

For her contributions to the film industry, Bara received a motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Her star is located at 6307 Hollywood Boulevard.

Bara never appeared in a sound film. A 1937 fire at Fox’s nitrate film storage vaults in New Jersey destroyed most of that studio’s silent films. Bara made more than 40 films between 1914 and 1926, but complete prints of only six still exist: The Stain (1914), A Fool There Was (1915), East Lynne (1916), The Unchastened Woman (1925), and two short comedies for Hal Roach.[citation needed]

A few of her films remain in fragments, including Cleopatra (few seconds of footage), a clip thought to be from The Soul of Buddha, and a other unidentified clips featured in the documentary Theda Bara et William Fox (2001). Most of the clips can be seen in the documentary The Woman with the Hungry Eyes (2006). As to vamping, critics stated that her portrayal of calculating, cold-hearted women was morally instructive to men. Bara responded by saying “I will continue doing vampires as long as people sin.” Additional footage has been found which shows her behind the scenes on a picture. While the hairstyle has led some to theorize this may be from The Lure of Ambition, this has not been confirmed.

In 1994, she was honored with her image on a U.S. postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The Fort Lee Film Commission dedicated Main Street and Linwood Avenue in Fort Lee, New Jersey as “Theda Bara Way” in May 2006 to honor Bara, who made many films at the Fox Studio on Linwood and Main.