Lightness and Dark

Part Four: Being a tale of a heroic stunt queen and the man-eating vamp

Needing to compete with a new slew of thrillers, most notably rival studio Pathé’s Les Mystères de New York, Feuillade threw himself into production of a new serial immediately after wrapping Fantômas. He was going to have to up his game to top Pathé’s output. Pathé had been founded in 1896 (a year after Gaumont) by four brothers: Charles, Emile, Theophile, and Jacques Pathé. Like Gaumont it began as a film equipment company, even acquiring the patent portfolio of motion picture camera pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière. Charles Pathé steered the company toward motion picture production, and soon Pathé struck a deal with American exhibitor Mitchel Mark, who along with his brother Moe opened in 1896 one of the world’s first dedicated movie houses, the Vitascope Theater in Buffalo, New York. Pathé grew rapidly, becoming the world’s biggest motion picture equipment company and opening a string of theaters and production studios around the world. In 1914, at their satellite production facilities in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Pathé entered the serial business, producing two of the most popular serials of the early silent era and creating one of its biggest stars: a vivacious midwestern belle named Pearl White.

Born in Missouri in 1889, Pearl White was on stage as early as age six, performing in a Springfield production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From there, she found herself working an increasingly incredible series of jobs (some say un-credible and that much of her biography was manufactured by the studio, as was pretty common in the day — just ask Pearl’s fellow midwesterner Theodosia Goodman, a Cincinnati native who found herself transformed by the film studio into exotic Arabian man-eater Theda Bara). As the stories are told, Pearl worked as a trick rider in a circus, dropped out of high school, and eventually found herself on stage as part of a theater troupe called the Trousedale Stock Company. She toured through the midwest, through South America, and according to her own telling of her life, even worked as a dancehall queen in Cuba under the stage name Miss Mazee. When her voice began to give out, White decided to try her luck in the movies. 1910 found her in New York, where her athletic energy, all-American good looks, and willingness to put her own physical well-being at risk helped her secure roles. She proved an able physical comedian and willing stunt woman. By 1912, she was headlining shorts. In 1914, she became a superstar when she made the move from shorts to serials and appeared in director Louis Gasnier’s adventure series The Perils of Pauline, which was being financed by Pathé.

Based on a script by Broadway playwright Charles Goddard (whose play The Ghost Breaker had just been adapted for the screen and directed by none other than Cecil B. DeMille), The Perils of Pauline seemed custom-made for Pearl White. Ostensibly it was the story of a young woman who inherits a great deal of money but can only have it after she marries. Not in the mood to settle down, Pauline decides instead to pursue a career as a writer and decides that in order to prepare herself for her chosen profession she should go out and have as many adventures as possible. Unfortunately, the executor of her inheritance wants Pauline’s money for himself and so spends all of his time attempting to murder her by sabotaging whatever adventure she’s on.

The plot is really just a means to deliver a series of more or less unconnected adventures packed with thrills and stunt work, most of which was performed by Pearl White herself. Week after week, the hapless heroine was placed in a series of increasingly outrageous predicaments. It was filmed primarily in New Jersey, where the rocky Palisades provided ample cliffs off which Pearl could hang, and Pennsylvania. The stunt work was seat of the pants and not exactly what one might think of as safe, resulting in more than a few close calls for Pearl. One of the most famous stunts gone wrong occurred when White was in a hot air balloon that got swept away by a fast approaching storm. She was swept away into the sky and blown for miles before she managed to wrangle the balloon back to the ground. Of The Perils of Pauline‘s twenty episodes–one 30-minute episode and nineteen 20-minute episodes–none exist in their original format. All that remains today is a truncated version that compresses the serial into a nine-chapter, 214 minute version released in Europe in 1916.

The success of The Perils of Pauline led to Pathé producing a follow-up that same year called The Exploits of Elaine but released in France as Les Mystères de New York. It was based on the literary series Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective by Arthur B. Reeve. Reeve’s series was famous as an early example of the use of scientific investigation in a detective story–fingerprinting, chemical analysis, that sort of thing. The Exploits of Elaine was similar to The Perils of Pauline in that the entire point seemed to be to put Pearl White in some sort of horrible danger or have her perform some daring stunt every week. The thing that made it different was the Clutching Hand, a mysterious villain that became the archetype for on-screen hooded fiends and lent the otherwise straightforward series a slightly more sinister affair in much the same way mystery writer Edgar Wallace infused his mystery novels with an otherworldly air by trotting out so many outlandish masked criminals. In France, The Exploits of Elaine/Les Mystères de New York proved to be a blockbuster series for Pathé. Louis Feuillade and Gaumont countered with a new thriller that was both competition for and inspired by Les Mystères de New York and Pearl White, whose adventurous heroines were one of the first examples of and one of the earliest subversions of the “damsel in distress.” It’s true that both Pauline and Elaine frequently found themselves in need of rescuing, but just as often, they did the rescuing, or escaped from the predicament of the week by her own cunning. She was also young, unmarried, and without children and not suffering as a result of it.

While Pearl White was hanging off cliffs and jumping onto moving trains, another young actress was busy making her mark in the burgeoning Fort Lee cinema scene, a woman altogether unlike Pearl or anything Americans had seen anywhere other than their darkest fantasies. The air around this woman, Theda Bara, was thick with exotic incense. She was a raven-haired beauty from the mysterious East, the daughter of a French actress who had been seduced by an Italian sculptor “beneath the shadow of The Sphinx.” Reporters who were granted access to this strange, alluring woman, would find her reclining languidly amidst silks, curtains, and all the accoutrements of Orientalism that Westerners imagined comprised the East. Scattered amongst these artifacts was a scattering of occult and Spiritualist ephemera: a crystal ball, a tarot deck, perhaps even a human skull (if not the entire skeleton). Canny reporters even realized that her name was an anagram for “Arab Death” (after, of course, Fox PR flacks pointed it out to them).

Satan Was A Lady

If Pearl White was the blond haired, vivacious face of a new, can-do America, Theda Bara was its shadow. Dark, mysterious, dangerous. If Pearl could pluck you out of the jaws of death, Theda was the woman who would sacrifice you to it. Her dark, kohl-smeared eyes enticed you, and she laughed as you willingly destroyed yourself for her. America loved her as much as they feared her. Pearl White bucked traditional notions of feminine helplessness and subservience, but Theda actively attacked it, preyed on male weakness and exploited it, never with the altruistic sense of adventure and do-goodism as Pearl. For a young film industry that needed a foil, and a way to capitalize on the popular interest in Spiritualism, the Orient, and in particular Egypt, Theda Bara was perfect. There was only one problem: it was all bullshit. Theda Bara was actually Theodosia Goodman, a midwestern blonde from a nice, normal Jewish neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio.

From an early age, Theodosia wanted to perform on stage. Accounts of her early life have her assembling neighborhood kids as an audience for her one-woman show featuring her favorite stock character, the “Dirty-Faced Brat.” Acting being an art and a craft that respectable people view to be cultured but never pursue as a career, Theodosia’s mother curbed her daughter’s craving for the stage, eventually sending her off to college. It didn’t stick. Before graduating, Theodosia had packed her bags and, like so many others, sought the bright lights of the big city. Broadway. New York. And like many other hopefuls, she found it rough going. She occupied herself with minor stage roles until William Fox, having just started his own movie studio, started shopping around the New York area for some stars around which he could build his fledgling company. Fox was a Hungarian immigrant who, by some accounts, was tricked into entering the motion picture business. This claim revolves around his purchase in 1903 of a Brooklyn theater, a transaction he might have been swindled into. Whatever the case, Fox was canny enough to seize on the new medium of motion pictures, and by 1907 he owned fifteen movie houses and founded the Box Office Attractions Film Rental Company, marking his entry into film distribution as well as exhibition. Then he fought a war against “the Wizard of Menlo Park,” inventor and litigious filer of patents Thomas Edison.

Edison had initially assumed the future of the technology he had derived from the early European motion picture cameras would be applied primarily in the form of kinetoscopes, which were single-viewer machines. When it became obvious that projecting moving pictures onto a screen for an audience was going to become the dominate way viewers consumed movies, Edison leapt into action in the way for which he had become famous: by claiming all motion picture projection equipment was derived from his technology, which was patented, and threatening to sue anyone who did not pay up. Not wanting a showdown with Edison in court, most movie studios obliged, forming a collective called the Motion Picture Patents Company. Notable by his absence was William Fox, who elected to take on Edison in court, claiming that the Motion Picture Patents Company constituted an illegal monopoly. The courts agreed, and as part of his victory lap, Fox bought a studio lot in Fort Lee and entered into the motion picture production business. The Fox Film Corporation’s first film, Life’s Shop Window, was released in 1914 to tepid reviews and lackluster business. If he was going to cement his position in the industry, Fox needed something – or perhaps more accurately, someone – sensational.

He didn’t want someone with an established track record or following; no recognizable luminaries of stage or screen. He wanted new faces, faces he could mold into whatever image he wanted without there being an existing biography. Down the road at Pathe, were they were busily cranking out Pearl White’s adventure serials, among other productions, a director by the name of Frank Powell was wrapping up a film called The Stain. In it, Powell had cast struggling actress Theodosia Goodman, now trying to make it in the business for nearly a decade and pushing thirty, the age at which an actress’ bankability, wrong though it might have been (and continues to be), begins to wane. Fox wanted Powell to direct his next feature, a salacious film called A Fool There Was, adapted from a play by Porter Emerson Browne who in turn had based his script on a poem by Rudyard Kipling titled The Vampire. It was what, even by 1915, had become a pretty standard sort of morality play about the dangers of loose and liberated women. Powell agreed and told Fox that he wanted Goodman as his star, the titular vampire (so named because of her tendency to figuratively, not literally, suck the lifeblood from a man). It was a cheap, rushed production shot between New Jersey and Florida. Goodman, her hair dyed black because she thought she might find more roles if she wasn’t a blonde, was thrust into the role of a leading actress without much in the way of preparation. She learned quickly.

But Fox wasn’t going to rely on just tantalizing subject matter and the content of the film. Even this early in the film industry, they knew that success usually required a certain amount of old school carnival-style ballyhoo and PR. To accomplish this, Fox hired newspapermen Al Selig and Johnny Goldfrap. The duo leaned heavily on two things to craft the persona of the woman who became Theda Bara. First, was good old-fashioned PT Barnum style hokum, the sort of transparently overblown carnival barker nonsense that had been parting rubes from their money and luring them into disappointing sideshows since time immemorial. This sort of bait-and-switch razzle dazzle was already part and parcel of the motion picture business, mostly in the form of turgid morality dramas about unexpected pregnancy, prostitution, and venereal disease that were, in defiance of the actual contents of such films, advertised via lurid posters promising unflinching portrayals of wantonness, sin, temptation, and damnation. Films like Traffic in Souls promised moviegoers all sorts of vices and reassured moral watchdogs that the film was a cautionary tale in which all sinners got their comeuppance, so everything was cool. That the film itself, like most such dramas, was dreary and boring, seemed beside the point. This sort of ballyhoo was perfected by the next generation, when men like Louis Sonney, Kroger Babb, and Dwain Esper became the first true mavens of the exploitation film, but the practitioners in the 1910s were already pretty adept at knowing what they had to do.

The second source from which Selig and Goldfrap drew to craft Theda Bara was acclaimed French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. In fact, almost everything they put into Bara was cribbed from Bernhardt. Capitalizing on the European fascination with the East and occultism that sprung up in the late Victorian era, Bernhardt was frequently depicted as couched in the artifacts of esoterica. She had a strange past, a string of wealthy lovers, and even slept in a coffin because, as she claimed, it helped her better understand tragedy. In fact, Selig and Goldfrap actually toned down her weirdness when they borrowed it for Theda Bara. The sort of libertine eccentricity permissible to the most famous stage actress in all the world exceeded what was permissible to a young star of the American motion picture industry. So while they devised the mysterious persona of Theda Bara and draped it in token symbols of the East and the Occult, they were also well aware of the fact that the trend was to sell movie stars as pure and stable, committed to God, America, and family. So they walked the line with Bara, exploiting the on-screen image of her as a depraved, man-eating vamp while, in interviews she conducted, making sure she mentioned that even the vamp just wanted a good husband, lovely children, and a nice home in the country. She made sure to point out that she was not the vamp they saw on screen, even though all the photos for which she posed were designed to sell her as just that.

Almost immediately, reporters recognized it all as a load of bunk. Her phony French accent, her fluid biography, the camp faux-Oriental setting. It didn’t take much digging to discover that Theda Bara was just a gal from Ohio. Some magazines called it out. Other played along, if with a tone of knowing irony. Theda Bara was, in many ways, like a magician’s trick. You know the magician can’t actually teleport, that the woman wasn’t actually sawed in half. But for the duration of the show, it’s more fun to play along, to let yourself be deceived in the name of entertainment. And as over-the-top and obviously fake as Fox’s publicity around Theda Bara was, it worked. By the measure of the day, A Fool There Was was a shoddy production. This was 1915, after all. DW Griffith had just made the controversial but groundbreaking epic Birth of a Nation while in Italy director Giovanni Pastrone had more or less invented the big-budget spectacle with Cabiria. Charlie Chaplin was America’s biggest movie star (if not the world’s), Lillian Gish was established, and “America’s sweetheart” Mary Pickford was on the verge of ascending to her eventual role as the most powerful woman in show business. Compared to these films and these stars, A Fool There Was is a decidedly cheap, amateurish film. Small in scope, stiffly acted, and containing scenes that look more like rehearsals than finished takes.

The story was like so many other morality movies: a vamp (Bara) has left a trail of broken men in her wake. One is in prison, another is a shattered husk of a man hustling for spare change down at the docks. Another, her current victim, has gone from promising young man to feeble-minded drunkard as she strings him along and drains him of his money. When she learns about a well-to-do diplomat traveling to Europe, she ditches her current drunk and sets her sights on this new prey. And he is prey. There is a scene in which Bara’s vamp almost supernaturally senses her quarry’s arrival on a ship. She sniffs the air like a predator scenting blood, her chest heaving like someone in the throes of passion or bloodlust. Less a seductress and more a beast. She might not be a vampire in the mold of Count Orlock or Dracula, but there is something in her performance that strongly anticipates the animalistic portrayal of supernatural vampires, especially in Christopher Lee’s Dracula. When the vamp’s spurned lover tracks her down before the ship disembarks, she reacts to his shoving a gun in her face with icy cool, tempting him, taunting him, uttering the immortal line, “Kiss me, my fool.” When he instead turns the gun on himself, she simply laughs, much to the horror of a ship’s steward, as the man takes his own life.

As crudely made a picture as it is, director Frank Powell manages to tap into a certain bestial vitality, thanks largely to Theda Bara. Her very first appearance sets the tone not just for her character, but for her entire career. A man steps on screen, romantically sniffing a rose. When he places the rose on a pedestal, Theda Bara enters the scene, picks up the rose, laughs, and crushes it. Although the Edwardian vetements on the women are more conservative than what would become the norm during the 1920s, Bara still manages to exploit her curves. Where other women are wrapped in stout, conservative dresses and coats, Bara’s vampire is draped in close-cut clinging silks and satins or in a nightgown that puts little effort into not slipping off her shoulder and constantly threatening to expose a bare breast. Although her character is inarguably meant to be the villain, a warning to men against the temptations of a wild and wanton woman, it’s hard from a vantage point in the 21st century not to root for her just a little bit. The lives in which she is meant to stand in stark contrast are, as depicted, so exceedingly dull, so drearily reserved and Victorian.

Although subsequent readings of Theda Bara and the vamp archetype cast her as a sort of proto-feminist rebellion against a fast-withering patriarchal tradition that prescribed for women a subservient and domestic role, such subversion wasn’t necessarily the intention of A Fool There Was, even if it was the actual outcome. Like the press that cast Theda at once as the exotic vamp and the demure woman longing for domesticity, A Fool There Was is a film of mixed messages. But one thing was clear: by the time the film ends – a shocking ending, in which Bara’s vampire laughs as she stands triumphant over the husk of her latest, dying conquest, blithely tossing flower petals on what is sure to become his lifeless corpse very soon, the vampire having suffered no consequences or comeuppance for her sin – Theda Bara had arrived and brought the whole of Fox with her. The film was a smash, and Theda Became Hollywood’s first overnight superstar, joining the ranks of Pickford and Chaplin as one of the most popular cinema stars of the 1910s.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last. And unfortunately, today almost none of what made Theda Bara a star can be seen. After A Fool There Was, she starred in two of Fox’s most opulent productions, both times playing “historical vamps,” first in 1917’s Cleopatra then in 1918’s Salome. Both are considered lost films, not seen in nearly a century. Similarly, almost every film in her catalog – films with tantalizing and scandalous titles like When a Woman Sins, The Vixen, Siren of Hell, and The She Devil as well as historical dramas like Romeo and Juliet, Carmen, Madame Du Barry, and Camille – are gone. Film preservation was not a priority in the early silent era, with films frequently being destroyed to recycle the stock or because nitrate was highly flammable and tended to explode (much of the early Fox library was lost in a massive fire). As such, almost nothing of Bara’s career exists in any form other than stills.

Luckily, the publicity machine around her was so intense that many photographs of her in costume and on set still exist. Not only did she terrorize morality as a vamp, she also did it wearing some of the skimpiest and most salacious costumes of the era. The relative costuming conservatism of A Fool There Was, not to mention the cheap production values, was made quaint by Salome and Cleopatra, in which Bara was clad, barely, in costumes that exposed as much flesh as possible and set her slinking through a number of lavishly appointed interior sets. Fox was more than willing to court controversy as long as it brought in money. And for the latter half of the 1910s, Theda Bara did just that. Undressing her in costumed dramas meant they could hide behind a veneer of theatrical authenticity, once again framing Bara not just as a screen starlet, but as a giant of the legitimate theater, the cinematic equal of the similarly strange and mysterious Sarah Bernhardt. Nonsense, of course, but that didn’t matter. Until it did.

Bara’s star fell almost as rapidly as it rose. A number of thing contributed to the demise of her career. By 1920, what had been sensational in 1915 looked old-fashioned. The dawn of that decade also saw the rise of a new kind of woman, dubbed in the press as the flapper, who brought with her a new attitude and new style. Slimmer, younger, wilder, and clad in flashier clothes, suddenly Theda Bara looked dowdy, matronly even. Cautionary tales of female empowerment gave way to women who were actually empowered, fighting for property rights, establishing businesses, seizing the right to vote. With so many men devoured on the two fronts of the First World War, women stepped into new roles, enjoyed new freedoms, and they were not willing to let go of them once the war was over. Additionally, by the end of the 1910s, the vamp as a character in general and as played by Theda Bara in particular had been squeezed for all it could give. Audiences were tired of vamps, or demanded more complex, sophisticated portrayals of vamps than the soulless destroyers cackling at the demise of weak-willed men.

From Vamps to Les Vampires

Bara herself was as weary of playing the vamp as audiences were of seeing her do it. Alas, her attempt to break out of the role might have been what did in her career for good. In 1919, Bara thought an adaptation of the poem Kathleen Mavourneen would be her ticket out of the vamp trap. By then, her fictional biography had been debunked from top to bottom, and her real background was more or less common knowledge. And that is, according to many, what sunk Kathleen Mavourneen, what turned it from her second coming into the final nail. At issue was the fact not that a midwesterner was playing a beloved Irish character, but that a Jew was playing her. The backlash against the film – Irish and Irish-American organizations also objected to the portrayal of Ireland as an impoverished country full of peasants – was intense, and Theda Bara’s reinvention of herself crashed and burned, taking her entire career with it. The one comfort she could take from the debacle was that the director, Charles Brabin (who also directed What Happened to Mary), became her husband in 1921. They remained married until Bara’s death in 1955.

Bara wasn’t the only casualty among the stars of the early silent period. Even the mighty Lillian Gish didn’t fare the transition well. Mary Pickford persevered – on the screen, behind the camera, and in the office as one of the founders of United Artists alongside Charlie Chaplin, director D.W. Griffith, and star Douglas Fairbanks. But then, she was Mary Pickford, and people like her don’t come around very often. Theda Bara made her final feature, The Unchastened Woman, in 1925. In 1926, she appeared in a comedic short called Madame Mystery, directed by Richard Wallace and Stan Laurel and starring Laurel’s long-time stage and screen partner Oliver Hardy. But, for the most part, after the disaster of Kathleen Mavourneen Theda Bara lived a relatively quiet, domestic life – the kind, perhaps ironically, she had always wanted and which her characters had so often destroyed. Feature films belonged to the next generation, to Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo. In 1936, audiences who remembered Theda Bara heard her voice for the first time, when she appeared in a radio adaptation of The Thin Man alongside Thin Man movie series stars William Powell and Myrna Loy (who had been directed by Bara’s husband, Charles Brabin, in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu). Bara never made a talkie. On April 7, 1955, stomach cancer claimed Theodosia Burr Goodman, the woman the world would forever know as Theda Bara.

As for Pearl White and the serials that made her the daring darling of America, she fared little better than Theda Bara, at least on screen. As fate would have it, as White’s interest in serials waned, she signed on as a player for William Fox, same as Theda Bara, with the goal of making features. But a feature film career never panned out for Pearl. She made several features for Fox, but none of them caught fire. In 1922 she returned to stunt serials with Plunder (released in 1923), but the death of her double during a stunt gone wrong not only exposed the widespread use of doubles for dangerous stunts (the studios usually claimed that the stars did all their own feats of daring) and the risks these doubles took, it put Pearl off serials. She traveled to Paris after completing Plunder and ended up remaining there. She made her final screen appearance in the 1924 French production The Perils of Paris. She briefly returned to the stage in 1925, appearing at the Lyceum in London, commanding a whopping $3,000 a week salary. Although no Mary Pickford, it turned out Pearl White was no slouch with the business end of show business. By the time she retired from the screen, she a fortune in excess of $2 million. She bought race horses. She opened a resort and casino. In the company of Greek tycoon Theodore Cossika, traveled the world, even buying a home in Egypt. But health issues plagued her. Medication, including alcohol, she used to manage pain stemming from injuries during her years making adventure serials wreaked havoc with her liver. In 1937, she quietly began setting her affairs in order. In June of 1938, she checked herself into a hospital. On August 3, 1938, Pearl White passed away at the age of 49 and was buried in Paris’ Cimetière de Passy.

Although Theda Bara remains the embodiment of the vamp, she was not alone. Valeska Suratt was another Fox actress whose persona was crafted in a way very similar to Theda Bara’s, right down to publicity photos of her with a skull. Fox also promoted Virginia Pearson as a vamp at the same time. Like Bara, both Pearson and Suratt were midwesterners. Suratt hailed from Indiana while Pearson was born in Anchorage, Kentucky – just a few minutes down the road from the birthplace of D.W. Griffith. Universal promoted their own Louise Glaum as a vamp starting in 1915 as well, 1915 apparently being the year of the vamp. It wasn’t just an American phenomenon. In fact, despite Bara’s position as “queen of the vampires,” it was a woman in France, another queen of a very different sort of vampires, who might have set the template. In 1914, Louis Feuillade set about making a follow-up to Fantômas. Everything he did with Fantômas, Feuillade would outdo with this follow-up. It was bigger. It was longer and more complex. It was most definitely weirder. And where Fantômas was criticized for a glorification of crime it did not exactly deliver, the new serial made the life of a mysterious apache gang seem very attractive indeed, so full is it of drinking and revelry and dangerous women in black silk catsuits.

Feuillade called it, simply, Les Vampires.


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