YMRT #17 Theda Bara, Hollywood's First Sex Symbol / by Karina Longworth

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Theda Bara might be the most significant celebrity pioneer whose movies you’ve never seen. She was the movie industry’s first sex symbol; the first femme fatale; the first silent film actress to have a fictional identity invented for her by publicists and sold through a receptive media to a public who was happy to be conned; and she might have been America’s first homegrown goth.  She was one of the three biggest stars in Hollywood during her heyday — the other two being Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford — but by the early 1920s, the Victorian sexual panic she represented was way passé, thanks to the rise of the flapper, and Bara couldn’t get a job. Today most of her films are lost, and culturally she’s all but been forgotten. In this episode, we’ll trace her life and brief, bright career, and talk about what it was like to be a working actress, one of the most famous women in the world, and the embodiment of an intentionally scary fantasy during the very first days of Hollywood.

Show Notes!

There are two biographies on ThedaBara. Both of them (kind of weirdly) were published in 1996. Eve Golden’s Vamp is the livelier read, and it seems to pop up in a lot of bibliographies. But there is also ThedaBara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmographyby Ronald Ginini. Vamp has one of the most famous photos of Bara on its cover; I believe that photo was one of the ones taken by Jack Freundlich, as discussed in this episode. A great source on Fruendlich’s work, with Bara and beyond, is Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography by David S. Shields. Still was an important background resource for my own book on Hollywood still photography, Hollywood Frame by Frame

Here is a link to all of the Richard Avedon photos of Marilyn Monroe as former Hollywood sex symbols, and this is the Theda shot:

Other sources I consulted while working on this episode include Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By; Louise Brooks’Lulu in Hollywood; and Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

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