When it comes to the silent film era, there is a widely held assumption that every career which abruptly ended during that time, was because of "The Talkies". But it was not so for the original vamp, Theda Bara. In fact, it was an unfortunate tale of type casting with disastrous results.
Although Bara was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to a Polish father and Swedish mother, the studios promoted her as an Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and Italian sculptor. The exotic background, albeit false, captivated the public's attention and in doing so, the studios built a persona that gave Bara a career as the vamp of the silver screen.
Since most of her films were lost to unfortunate studio fire, from what we know of Theda Bara are her photographs. And from what we see in those photographs is that Bara had an undeniable "je ne sais quoi" about her. There still is a timeless sensuality and mystery in her face and her poise. When we hear "Theda Bara", one image comes to mind. The Egyptian couture with the Cleopatra-inspired hairdo and make-up. Every inch of her is imagined as the Vamp. It is no wonder that she was the first sex symbol of film. She is well-known for wearing revealing costumes in her films. Some were reportedly so revealing that the could potentially still push the boundaries of risque.
But Bara didn't want to be remembered as The Vamp. She wanted to be remembered for an extensive and diverse career. The ambitious actress began to fight the studios for non-vamp roles and they did cast her in some films, but they were of no great importance. Her fans tastes were changing. They wanted to see her as a vamp of but "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford was sweeping into their hearts as well. Pickford was Bara's competition and she stuck to her convictions that she could be a diverse actress, if only the right role came along.
In anticipation for her next movie, "Kathleen Mavoureen" (1919), Bara published a piece in Vanity Fair titled, "The Ex-Vampire: Turning to the Right in the Moving Pictures". In the piece she wrote that in a time of change and unrest, "I have walked out, definitely and permanently on my job as a moving picture vampire." Although grateful for the vamp roles that gave her a career, Bara noted that she was under a vampire's curse and that the public was dissatisfied when they saw her in public and not acting vampy. She expressed gratitude for upcoming picture, "Kathleen Mavourneen" because she believed it was the role she was looking for.
She was to play the title role of Kathleen, who was an Irish girl engaged to be married to her neighbor Terrence O' Moore. When she is kidnapped by the Squire of Tralee and she is forced to marry him instead. But it is in fact a dream and Kathleen and Terrence live happily ever after. This role was supposed to strip her away of her previous persona.
But the film's release came with a epidemic of violent protests around the country. Irish and Catholic groups were upset with the film's depiction of Ireland. They were also not happy with Theda Bara, who was Jewish, portraying an Irish girl. There was a few recorded riots in movie theaters where the film was shown and reported bomb threats. Fox Film was forced to pull the film from theaters. And that was the end of Bara's experiment with other film roles.
She returned to vamp roles, "La Belle Russe" (1919) and "The Lure of Ambition" (1919). But fans weren't flocking to see her anymore and it looked as though Bara's retirement from motion pictures were in sight. It is said that her husband Charles Brabin, who was also the director of the ill-fated "Kathleen Mauvoreen", did not like the idea of his wife having a career, let alone film career. Her last film appearance was "The Unchastened Woman" (1925).
One does wonder what would have happened if Bara kept fighting for the roles she wanted and was able to move past "Kathleen Mauverneen." What would have happened if she continued her career into the "Talkies"? Because after all, Bara did lend her voice for the Lux Theatre radio production of "The Thin Man" in 1936 starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.
But maybe her legacy should be more than just her photographs. Maybe her legacy should be of a woman who tried to fight the studio systems and for the right to conduct her own career. She may have lost, but Theda Bara set the foundation for future actresses to do the same, only with more satisfying results.