What imagery from Fort Lee’s days as the birthplace of the American motion picture industry has the most staying power today in the 21st century? Could it be our iconic cliffhanger star, Pearl White? Perhaps Madame Director Alice Guy Blache of Solax Studio? Certainly D.W. Griffith, William Fox, Carl Laemmle or a dozen other names associated with the start of the industry could lay legitimate claim to being recognizable to at least film historians.
Truth be told, it is none of the above. I haven’t done a national survey, nor have I conducted any polls. My proof lies in viewing HBO one night and seeing a recent film, a rather good one starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, called, The Kids Are All Right, released in 2010. Toward the end of the film, there is a scene that takes place in the teenage daughter’s bedroom. As the family is in crisis mode, my eyes were drawn to a poster that appears on the daughter’s bedroom wall, a poster of Theda Bara!
What defines the staying power of Theda’s image on film? First we must define Theda Bara, and for that, we have to discuss Theodosia Goodman.
She was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on July 29, 1885. She was the oldest of three children and grew up in a comfortable household. After attending the University of Cincinnati for two years, she dropped out and moved to New York to pursue a career on the stage. Theda took the stage name of Theodosia DeCoppet and lived in a flat near Washington Square in Greenwich Village.
There is a story from prolific film director and screenwriter Preston Sturges that recounts a chance meeting he had with a young Theda in Paris when Sturges was a child and Theda was staying with him and his mother. Sturges describes a mystical woman in black who spoke to him through the midnight hour. That mysticism would soon capture the attention of millions of movie fans around the world.
Theda was pushing 30 and still looking to break out as a star on stage. Her break came not on stage, but rather in a film shot for Pathe, The Stain (1914). Theda played a bit part for director Frank Powell. Powell saw something in Theda that he liked, and he put her close to the camera to see how she photographed.
1914 also was the year William Fox came to Fort Lee and opened his Fox Studio on the corner of Main Street and Linwood Avenue. His first film was not a hit and he needed to buy a property that would sell to the masses. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem, “The Vampire,” as a tribute of sorts to a painting by Philip- Burne-Jones, Kipling’s cousin. The painting depicts a white-skinned, black-haired woman above a prone young man.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula inspired the painting. Kipling’s poem inspired a play titled “A Fool There Was.” Fox purchased the film rights to the play, and in 1914 hired Frank Powell to direct the film, which would be shot in Florida and the Fox studio in Fort Lee. Powell suggested that Fox view the film The Stain and look at Theda Bara. Fox liked what he saw and interviewed Bara, and soon he signed her to a five-year contract.
Prior to filming, they needed a new name for Theda. Fox took the name Baranger from Theda’s family tree and shortened it to Bara, and she kept Theda. Her nickname as a child, and to close friends, was Teddy.
Once the film completed shooting, Fox geared up his publicity machine to create mystery around his soon-to-be star. Fox’s publicity men, Al Selig and John Goldfrap, created a media campaign that was legendary in scope. They claimed Theda Bara to be of Arabian-French descent. The publicity men noted that the name Theda Bara as an anagram of Arab death. By the time the film opened, Theda was already a star from the publicity she received. And Theda was the first film star to go from unknown to superstar based on one film appearance. Fox knew he had gold, and he would milk it dry over the course of the next several years.
Theda grinded out film after film on the Fox lot in Fort Lee, and each one made millions of dollars for William Fox and established his studio as a major player among American studios of the day. Theda was placed in a Riverside Drive apartment overlooking the Hudson River. The apartment was decorated with heavy curtains, and incense filled the room in which snakes were on display. All of this, as Theda rolled with the punches and with the aide of William Fox’s publicity machine, became "The Vamp," the first American sex symbol of the silver screen. Of course, under her breath and to her friends she laughed and insisted she was just a nice Jewish girl from Ohio.
Theda was not a diva by any means. Raoul Walsh, who started as a Fox director in Fort Lee and who would go on to fame and fortune in Hollywood as a director, said Theda was always one of his favorite actresses. Walsh recounted how he was directing Theda on the Fox lot in Fort Lee in the 1915 film Carmen. They were rushing through the production because they were racing to beat anther studio to the punch as there was another Carmen shooting for release. At one point during the production on the backlot, Theda fell into a pond on set, and her hair and costume were drenched. Rather than play the diva and scream at the director and crew, Theda let loose with a hearty belly laugh and won the hearts of the crew and the director; so much so that decades later, Walsh smiled as he recalled Theda and said she was a game girl.
From 1915 through 1919, Theda made her name on the Fox lot here in Fort Lee. She continued to work for Fox in Hollywood, and there she made what probably is her greatest film, Cleopatra.
century. Google these images, and you can see that Madonna and Lady Gaga are truly the granddaughters, in a fashion sense, of Theda Bara.Unfortunately we can only glimpse a few seconds of that film as most of Theda’s films were destroyed in 1937 in the Fox film vault fire in Little Ferry, NJ where all her films were stored. Only a handful of Theda’s films exist today. What we are left with are the wonderful production stills – literally thousands of images of Theda in outrageous and provocative gothic costumes, which combined with her dark, smoky looks produce magic and influence fashion right into the 21st
Theda and Fox parted company by 1920. She made only one more film, a short comedy, Madame Mystery (1926) for Hal Roach. Theda married film director Charles Brabin in 1921 and remained married to him until her death in 1955. Unlike many American sex symbols to follow, Theda lived a happy life and died of natural causes. Though she and her husband had no children, there are stories that indicate Theda made cookies for the neighborhood kids around her Los Angeles home.
On Friday, April 20, at 8 p.m., the Fort Lee Film Commission will screen the rarely seen 2006 documentary Theda Bara the Woman with the Hungry Eyes at the Museum theatre off Hudson Terrace. Narrated by actress Dana Delaney and produced by Timeline Films, this documentary pieces together Theda’s life and career and the time she spent between 1915 and 1919 at the Fox Studio lot in Fort Lee.
Some of the images in our current exhibit are on loan from film historian Joe Yranski, and they include photos from Theda’s personal scrapbook. The museum is open to the public and located at 1588 Palisade Avenue.
So next time you pass Theda Bara Way on Main Street and Linwood Avenue here in Fort Lee, think of a time when a lady of mystery, a scantily clad gothic goddess would be nearby on the long gone Fox Studio backlot creating a potion of magic that would explode on the silver screens of the world and make that nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati the most famous face of the silent film era. Truly a 20th century Fox that still captures our imagination in the 21st century.