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Theda Bara: Topics in Chronicling America

Theda Bara, a silent film actress, mystified audiences as one of Hollywood's first sex icons in her portrayal of a "vamp." This guide provides access to material related to "Theda Bara" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.

Introduction

"Theda Bara in One of Fifty Different Egyptian Dresses." November 17, 1917. The Washington Times (Washington, DC), Image 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

Famous silent film actress, Theda Bara, was one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols. Playing a femme fatale “vamp” (vampire woman) in the 1915 film "A Fool There Was," she mystified audiences, falsely claiming to be the Parisian daughter of Arabian and French artists. One newspaper review tagged her vamp character as “the most fascinating though revolting female character ever created.” Bara repeated the vamp role in other Fox films, most notably as the star of 1917’s Cleopatra—reportedly the most expensive movie ever made up to that point. But when Fox failed to review her contract in 1919, she essentially retired from acting, marrying director Charles Brabin in 1921. Tragically a 1937 fire in the Fox film vault destroyed most of Bara’s films, including "Cleopatra." Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.

Timeline

1915 Fox releases "A Fool There Was" in January. It continues to play in theaters across the US until the end of year and makes Bara a bona fide star.
1915-1916 Bara’s follow up role in the film Carmen hits theaters in late 1915 and early 1916. Reports erroneously claim she originally played the role on stage in Paris
April 1916 Bara begins a series of columns in the Day Book in Chicago.
January 1917 Reports surface of Bara signing a bizarre, restrictive contract with Fox.
October 1917 Cleopatra, a grand and expensive film production, premieres in October and plays into 1918.
1919 Reports appear of a contract dispute between Fox and Bara.
1921 Columnists continue to write about the popularity of the vamp look, crediting Bara as its originator.
July, 1921 Bara marries film director Charles Brabin.