Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What the Nitrate Gave Me: Life Lessons from the Silent Stars

Jennifer at Flappers Flickers & Silent Stanzas and I are swapping posts this week. She has graced "A Person in the Dark" with this wonderful article about Theda Bara. To read my post on Charlie Chaplin, swing on over to Jennifer's beautiful site at Meanwhile, get your vamp on and read up on Theda!

It might seem odd to think of gleaning wisdom from silent film, but in learning about the stars, both on and offscreen, I’ve found a message that each can teach us. 

Part I – Theda Bara

It’s only proper to start with the woman who was my gateway into silents: Theda Bara, Miss Arab Death herself.  I discovered her while researching something else online; her dark eyes and smoky stare intrigued me.  Who was this mysterious woman?   Onscreen, as The Vamp, she chewed men up and spit them out without so much as a hint of conscience.  Her offscreen life was just as decadent and dangerous; her studio bio said she was “born in the shadow of the Pyramids”, and enjoyed surrounding herself with the exotic, the occult.  

One of my favorite stories comes from VAMP: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden.  It’s her first big interview for the press, and her hotel room is “draped in Egyptian trimmings, sprayed with perfume, and bedecked with lilies and roses”.  She answers their questions while lounging in velvets and furs, the very picture of foreign allure…until they all leave, and she runs to the window “gasping ‘Give me air!’ in perfect mid-American”. 

As most of you already know, Theda was just Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati, a pretty but naturally quiet woman disposed to reading.  Everything about her public image was carefully constructed by the studios; not one scrap of her was genuine.  It was par for the course then, to invent a backstory to account for aspects in a performer’s life that they wanted to promote (or sometimes to hide), but Theda, being one of the first, was one of the most thorough cases.  Every word she said or step she took was scripted by Fox in order to preserve the integrity of her story. 
What I learned from Theda is to never let others define you.  She was not a bad actress!  She could’ve transcended her typecast vampire image, if only she had been allowed to be Theodosia and not a caricature of a type that became obsolete quickly.  Sure, it was successful for a while, but it wasn’t long before it swallowed her whole, exhausting her and leaving nothing left.   That’s no way to live your life.

So Ms Goodman, thank you for teaching me to always be myself.  It’s the most important lesson anyone could ever learn. 

If you would like to read more in this series, stop on by Flapper Flickers & Silent Stanzas at



Diane said...

"Theda was amazing and its wonderful that she can still teach us things."
That was a wonderful post. I really enjoyed it.

FlickChick said...

Agreed -Jennifer did a great job!

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

Thanks so much, guys! I'm looking forward to posting more in this series. :)