I get a lot of interesting (and sometimes terrifying) google search terms. As is to be expected, 10% of the whole are some variation of ‘Was Rudolph Valentino gay?’ (no, no he wasn’t) and another 10% are ‘Was so and so gay? (anyone from Mary Pickford to Olive Thomas to June Mathis)’. Sometimes they are interesting though. The other day someone asked, “Could Theda Bara’s films be rediscovered?“ I decided some pondering was in order over that very question.
Theda Bara is without question one of the most famous women ever. Sure Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin ruled the 10s and ruled film much longer than Theda, yet more people would know her face or name than that of Mary Pickford. And its not like she even really had to do anything: Theda passed in 1955, and whether she fretted over her legacy or not I’ve never really seen much evidence that she worked hard to foster it. Yet that vamp, that soul sucking gorgeous sexy woman, lives on. Her Cleopatra, her ‘Vampire’, her dark eyes and wild hair…everyone knows those images. Quite impressive for someone who all but retired in 1919, and who only has 3 feature films still known to exist.
To give you an idea where this falls on ‘normies’ radars I own a Theda Bara print overshirt (you can see it on halapickford.com). I get a lot of compliments over it. One girl near my own age complimented it, and when told it was Theda Bara said, “Oh like from the 30s?” 1915 gave her that ‘does not compute’ look. Yet still I bet if I showed her that image of Theda in her Cleopatra garb she would have recognized it ‘from somewhere’.
How or why Theda’s image has lived on I have no clue. Sex sells I guess. While she wasn’t the first vamp (Helen Gardener took that cake) she was the first to be given that term, and the first to be wildly associated with such a revolutionary sexual image (mind you this was at a time when women couldn’t vote, birth control was illegal, and bare knees were scandalous.) Theda’s vamp came from the theory that women could take ‘vitality’ from men via sex, and if they ever figured it out the male species would be in trouble. Unfortunately for men we did figure it out, and haven’t really looked back since (minus the 50s, but come on it was the 50s! And Elizabeth Taylor has to count for something…)
While Mary’s little girl was so famous it would make Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” look ‘mild’; Theda was one of the first pop icon sensations of her own. The good Edwardian girl existed before Mary. But the Vamp as we know it did not exist before Theda Bara.
So we have this woman, a pop icon that all vamps since have been based on. A woman who could easily be a fashion icon today and millions of Hot Topic kids could and have worshiped. Miss Arab Death is still as mesmerizing as ever. Yet…we can’t see her. We can’t ”get” what she was about…the lost films of Theda Bara are some of the most lamented losses in film history.
So…what happened to begin with? Well Theda’s fame came mostly between 1915 and 1919, when all but her last 3 films were made. She was wildly popular, but this was also in an era of loose distribution and the thought that a film was akin to a newspaper, i.e. you watch it for one run and why would you ever need it again?
Then WW1 happened and Theda fell out of popularity. Rumors of a comeback happened for years but no one seemed to give thought to saving her or other early stars films. She made one last feature and 2 shorts (which we have all of), but then she disappeared again.
In 1934 (as Theda was vowing a talkie comeback) Cecil B DeMille watched her 1917 version of Cleopatra to prep for his own soon to be filmed version. It was the last time anyone would note having seen the film. In 1937 the FOX Vaults exploded and burned to the ground (nitrate had a tendency/still has a tendency to do that) destroying their entire film history. That’s why Theda Bara, Miriam Cooper, Raoul Walsh, and Valeska Surrat have such horrible survival rates: most of their films were made at FOX. And most of FOX’s silents died a fiery death in 1937.
So…by 1937 if anything else existed it would be in private hands. Screenings of “A Fool There Was” took place (mostly as a ‘haha old timers’ thing…like watching Land of the Lost from the 70s now) but no other films of hers seem to be noted. Film preservation was in its infancy and MOMA notoriously destroyed a few films (including “Flaming Youth” and some Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith films. LOC would go on to destroy some Pickford films) not realizing these were the last copies ever. No stories exist of any association destroying Theda films, but who knows what was floating around.
About the same time, circa early 40s, Theda Bara and Charles Brabin had a neighborhood kid they adored and even tried to adopt: Joan Craig. Theda had never given up hopes of coming back (despite being in her 50s by this time) and as horrible films based on silent stars lives were all the rage at the moment (Marilyn Miller, Pearl White, Rudolph Valentino and Al Jolson would get the treatment) Theda decided she’d join in.
A film version of her life was planned a few times but always scrapped. Theda adored Joan and decided to train her to play herself in said film (much like Mary Pickford’s own wishes about Shirley Temple…I’ll give you a moment to process that). Brabin and Theda had kept their own film archives in the basement of their Beverly Hills home. Why worry about the 1937 explosion when they had their own archive?
Well turns out they hadn’t taken their films out in awhile. Theda had decided Joan should watch her old films to get into character. When the vault was opened Theda and Brabin found their films had turned to dust: can after can was opened only to be mush or dust. Needless to say she was devastated. Now if anything existed it was in private hands somewhere.
Silent film seen a resurgence of popularity in the 60s and 70s as the hippies realized these old stars were all about to die off. Theda had been long gone but her image was extremely popular with the younger crowd. Mind you this was in the days before DVDs and even VHS. If you owned a film you owned a reel. Silent film collecting became popular, and for awhile it flowed well…until studios tried to bust people for ”bootlegging” these films from the 20s. Even Mary Pickford referred to that resurgence as ‘bootleggers’ in her interview with Kevin Brownlow, despite the now obvious view that those very people were the last to keep silent film alive.
A few collectors were prosecuted or fined, and all of a sudden everyone seemed to go quiet. A lot of these types tended to hoard or be secretive anyways, and for the sincere film fans the fear they could be prosecuted didn’t exactly open them up to selling or trading, even when VHS and Laserdisc came around. Even now Brownlow’s “Hollywood” (an epic documentary about silent film complete with clips and interviews) can’t legally be released on DVD, the studios want royalties for these films they tend to forget exist and for the most part they will never make money on (and never intend to really make money on.)
So that means since Theda’s death there are 4 possible survival methods. 1) A hoarder/collector has some of her films and either is unaware of it or does not wish to share. 2) Some collector somewhere has some of her films and is either fearful or wants lots of money. 3) Some studio or archive has her films somewhere unmarked and unknown…waiting for their big reveal. Or 4) Her films are somewhere random in this world (such as an attic or under a pool or building or landfill) and have yet to be found.
The hoarder/collector method is one people pray on the most. “Beyond the Rocks” was thought lost until a crazy old rich guy died and his random film collection was given to the Dutch Film Institute. Its unclear if he knew what he had or if he wanted to keep it for himself. Either way it was ‘refound’ and re-released in 2005. Many Olive Thomas films have also been found this way (Olive’s film fame took place the same time as Theda’s, however she was not signed with FOX).
While collectors can be an odd bunch the ‘fearful’ method seems insane in this day and age. All Theda’s films are public domain, and all her lost ones were made before 1923 and are thus automatically public domain. Nobody would have a copyright claim to them so thus no one could be prosecuted for owning or releasing them. As for money this could go back to the crazy hoarder theory, and it is a popular wish as well. The George Eastman house owns the few seconds of Cleopatra that still survives (literally a head turn). For this few seconds of film they charge $10,000 to use it in any media such as a documentary or film. So far only one thing has used it, the documentary “The Woman with the Hungry Eyes” which has not yet seen a DVD release.
Number 3 could be perhaps the most likely scenario of all. Film archives all over the world are severely underfunded. The big ‘New Zealand Find’ wasn’t really a ”find”…the 75 films were already in New Zealand’s archives. But New Zealand’s archive is underfunded and thus they have been ordered to only restore their own native films, and do a ship out deal for any others (which is exactly what they did with those 75). It appears they were not aware just what rarities they had until it was pointed out.
Add to this many film archives are secretive, continuing that great collector tradition. Certain unnamed archives (national ones at that) are thought to be extremely secretive and possibly hiding the knowledge of holding a film, particularly one of Theda’s as hers are the most sought after. This could either be extremely crazy, or extremely dead on. Either way no one knows for sure. Camille was thought to be in this circumstance until it was found to be Clara Kimball Young’s version instead. Rumors that a certain archive has “Madam Du Barry” still run rampant; though the archive claims its Pola Negri’s version.
Whether some secretive hoarding is going on or not, the ‘there but not found’ scenario is the most likely. Many Olive Thomas films have also been found this way. A lot of these archives just don’t know what they have, and they don’t have the money to figure it out let alone restore everything. “Cleopatra” could be languishing in some unknown tin somewhere in some archive right under our noses…but until the archives get some funding or donations we’ll never know.
Finally the 4th option is in a similar vein with similar probability. MANY silent films have been found in the damndest places, including under a swimming pool and in attics. Why? Lord knows. A lot of these reveals happen in Canada, random European countries, and Australia. Many of these were the ‘last of the line’ distribution channels and orders were to throw the films away when done with them. So they were buried or done away with; if not kept by a crafty projectionist (and thus going to attic infamy.)
One thing I wonder is just how likely this is for Theda Bara in particular? No one mentions what kind of foreign distribution FOX had. And even worse 1915 to 1918 was basically World War 1 for most of Europe. While our films did get overseas, this was surely a trying time. More than anything everyone writes of Theda’s popularity in the US, never in foreign markets. I kinda think the chances her films are somewhere random in Australia or Russia is slim to none. Of course they could have made their way after the War. Or they could have been literally bootlegged. Or they could be buried in some attic right here in the US. Films do indeed turn up in the damndest places.
So…Could Theda Bara’s films be rediscovered? Well there is always the chance in hell. And any of the above scenarios could very well play out. But…is it likely? Will we have an amazing Theda Bara rediscovery…ever?
Theda was wildly popular for her 4 years. And she made many important films including “Romeo and Juliet”, “Cleopatra”, “Carmen”, “Salome”, and “Madam Du Barry”. Many prints were out there, but it was at such a random time in film history. Given the absolute explosion in 1937 those stray prints from 1915 to 1919 are all that may still be. And they would have had to survive 2 World Wars, natural nitrate issues, and probably improper storage. Its possible (hell a Pearl White film was just found as was a 1914 Mabel Normand film), but the odds are not high.
I think the only way we’ll ever even HOPE to find a Theda Bara film is to put a priority out. Some organized group would have to raise funds for film archives and make a very big publicity splash that ‘Hey seriously…we’ll give you money for Theda films!’ Sure collectors know they could get a huge price for a Theda Bara film, but it does no good if the film is unmarked in a random archive or buried under a swimming pool somewhere. And while film buffs know to mourn the loss of such films, Average Joe doesn’t. Average Joe didn’t know films used to be in black and white, let alone silent…even if he knows the face of Theda Bara.
I have a lot of praise for Hugh Neely’s “The Woman with the Hungry Eyes” which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. I also have praise for Eve Golden’s Theda Bara biography, “VAMP“. But both also make me horribly sad, and should make every film and fashion fan horribly sad. Theda Bara is so lost to us. Her story and her films. By the time anyone cared enough to think about it, most people who knew her were gone. In fact no one knew of Joan Craig until “The Woman with the Hungry Eyes” came out in 2005, Craig had a random encounter with a woman who had seen the documentary. She had no clue how priceless her Theda Bara story was. Not much has been heard since then, though there was an auction of some of her Theda costumes and valuables (Theda gave her most of her film possessions before her death) that took place in 2008. Craig is probably literally one of the last people to have actually known Theda in more than passing. Sadly as said no biographies or documentaries have been updated since the discovery of Joan Craig. “VAMP” is good, but very very thin. Its all that could be found in 1996.
While we can appreciate the images of Theda Bara (and there are many) we can’t even begin to grasp her importance without her films. Of her surviving films only the very beginning of her career (“A Fool There Was” and “East Lynne) and very end of her career (“The Unchastened Woman”, “Madam Mystery”) still exist. You can see there was a progress from the girl with the falling strap and confusion over the camera in “A Fool There Was” and the mature and comedic matron of “The Unchastened Woman”. While “A Fool There Was” is iconic and important to her history (even though she’s barely in it), it is by no means a really good judge of her screen image or acting. It’s too static even for 1914. But its all we have. Its really the only ‘vamping’ we have of a woman known for vamping. And frankly her vamping is fantastic in it.
But everything iconic is gone. “Cleopatra” influenced everyone from DeMille to Elizabeth Taylor to Marilyn Monroe. “Salome” was said to be even sexier. And personally I mourn for what I am sure is the kitsch of “Madam Du Barry” and “Kathleen Mavourneen“. Theda could be freakin Marilyn Monroe iconic if we just HAD SOME OF HER FILMS! Sure they could be stiff or horrible or dated even for their dates (FOX was known to be cheap and rush her in B pictures when not doing super productions as the above)…but we’ll never know unless they’re found. A recreation with stills only goes so far. And even those are sparse (one is being done for Cleopatra, nothing else seems to be out there.)
And I think that’s what we mourn the most of Theda Bara. We mourn the lost youth and films that Louise Brooks could have had, had she not been such a stubborn bitch. We mourn the films we could have had, had Rudolph Valentino not gone on strike in 1923, or died at the height of his superstardom. And we mourn for the infamously lost films of Lon Chaney. But for all 3 of those we have the jist. All 3 have decent survival rates, and their most iconic films still exist and can still be enjoyed today.
But not Theda Bara. Her career ended when she grew tired of vamping and her popularity waned with the soon to be flapper filled world. She made 43 films, 41 of those are features. 7 of those films are iconic classics, yet only 1 of the 7 exists. Her only sin was being famous during the 1910s and working for FOX, something that would unforeseeabley wipe her legacy clean.
“Could Theda Bara’s films be rediscovered?” Maybe. But its not very likely. I need a drink now…