Fox Archives: Iconic Theda Bara films turning 100 in 2017

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During the 1910s, Theda Bara became one of the biggest stars in the film industry. This year, the Fox Archives is celebrating the 100th anniversary of three of her titles: “The Darling of Paris,” “Cleopatra” and “Madame du Barry.”

At the height of the studio system, it was common for a studio’s publicity department to manufacture images for their talent, inventing names, appearances and personalities for them. Ms. Bara’s career was an early example of such an invention; while she was born Theodosia Goodman in Cincinnati, Ohio, the actress rose to fame after appearing in films under her stage name, Theda Bara. In this case, the Fox Studio publicists wove a tale of the mysterious Theda, born in Egypt to a French actress and an Italian sculptor. Many sources describe how Theda would do publicity appearances shrouded in perfume and veils to lend credence to her backstory. This façade later gave way to the truth of her American origins1, but all of this styling and speculation over her personal life served to bolster Theda’s image as the exotic, alluring woman she so often played on screen.

The Fox Archives has preserved photographic stills from these three films, as well as other Theda Bara titles, and even boasts a window card that dates back to the original 1917 release of “Cleopatra.”

“The Darling of Paris,” released Jan. 22, 1917:

Filmed while Fox Studios was still located in Fort Lee, New Jersey, “The Darling of Paris” is loosely based on Victor Hugo’s novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Esmeralda the dancing girl, played by Theda, is the focus of this interpretation. In spite of her many admirers’ treachery and wickedness, Esmeralda ultimately winds up happily married to Quasimodo. As the photographs indicate, Theda thoroughly embodied the exotic image that the studio created for her.

“Cleopatra,” released October 1917:

The filming of Cleopatra marked Theda’s move from New York to California to continue her successful career with the newly relocated Fox Studios. Theda’s Cleopatra is a mysterious temptress who manipulates men with her dark beauty before her ultimate demise.  

This is her most infamous role, for good reason: scenes of an overtly amorous nature and revealing costumes conflicted even with pre-Hays code sensibilities. The Chicago Board of Censors, for example, made many cuts to the film based on Theda’s costumes and the scenarios depicted.2 Pictured below, the Cleopatra window card from the film’s 1917 release features one of the many risqué costumes Theda wore.

“Madame Du Barry,” released December 1917:

Playing the title role, Theda appears in “Du Barry” as the Maîtresse-en-titre (courtesan) of King Louis XV. In the film, the advent of the French Revolution puts an end to her decadent lifestyle and she is at last put to death by guillotine, a scene which provoked censorship at the time of its release. The events of this lush historical piece feature Theda in a rather familiar light as a glamorous but ultimately immoral woman whose downfall feels justified, a theme which is explored further in Eve Golden’s book “Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara.”

With plot, sets and costumes all setting the stage for her to play up her “vamp” image, these three titles represent the types of roles that made Theda a star of the Silent Era.3

Notes:

  1. Golden, p. 87
  2. Exhibitors Herald, p. 29
  3. Golden, p. 125

Sources:

Exhibitors Herald. (1918). Official Cut-Outs Made by the Chicago Board of Censors, p.29. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/exhibitorsherald06exhi#page/n522/mode/1up

Golden, E. (1998). The rise and fall of Theda Bara. Lanham, MD: Vestal Press.

Longworth, K. (2014). Theda Bara, Hollywood’s First Sex Symbol. You Must Remember This. Retrieved 15 May 2017, from http://www.youmustrememberthispodcast.com/episodes/youmustrememberthispodcastblog/ymrt-17-theda-bara-hollywoods-first-sex-symbol

The Fox Archives is mandated to collect, catalog, preserve and make accessible the following assets of the 20th Century Fox studios: props, set decoration, photographs, art department and publicity materials from our film and television productions, and from the 20th Century Fox studio itself. We work primarily with internal Fox groups but also from time to time with outside organizations such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.