Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Vamps - Part 1

A Fool There Was....
Virginia Pearson: a 2nd string vamp with big props

When the flapper exploded into popular culture in the 1920s, women in film suddenly became more complicated. Before the woman of the 20th century appeared, there were usually only 2 types of women depicted in film: the virgin or the vamp. The virgin was good, but the vamp was more fun.

The vamp of the silent screen was a vixen, a temptress and a heartless wench. The term “vamp” referred to Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem “The Vampire”

A FOOL there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair—

(Even as you and I!)
Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)

And did not understand!
A fool there was and his goods he spent
(Even as you and I!)
Honour and faith and a sure intent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant)

But a fool must follow his natural bent
(Even as you and I!)
Oh, the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why

(And now we know that she never knew why)
And did not understand!
The fool was stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—

(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
(Even as you and I!)
“And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand 

It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing, at last, she could never know why)
And never could understand!”

The poem was inspired by this Sir Philip Burns-Jones’ painting of The Vampire.

Allegedly, the inspiration for the woman was famed actress Mrs.
Patrick Campbell, who evidently broke the painter's heart

You can see she was a voracious creature – so unlike Lillian Gish.

As movies became the popular entertainment of choice, the vamp was shown in full flower – heartless, beautiful, a woman of the world who took what she wanted and moved on, leaving her victims broken and bowed.

There were many bad movie ladies in those early days, but 2 ladies notably pushed the vamp-meter to its highest level.

Theda Bara

Watch out!
Even today, the name of Theda Bara is associated with the vamp. Almost none of her films survive, yet the fame still persists.

Struggling actress Theodosia Goodman (of a proper Cincinnati family) landed the part of The Vampire in 1915’s “A Fool There Was” and her fame was sealed. Thankfully, this film does survive and even in the crude technology of the day, her absolute audacity shines through.  Compared to Mary Pickford, this gal was a handful!

Theodosia had changed her name to Theda Bara for the lowly movies (Bara being part of a family name Barranger), but by 1917 the sexpot’s allure was so great that the masterminds at Fox declared it was really an anagram for “Arab Death” and that his mysterious minx was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, possibly the daughter of an Italian sculptor or a Sheik and a French temptress. She was always to appear mysterious in public and never a just the American girl she was. And so the movie publicity machine was born.

Theda was a hot ticket at the box office from 1915 – 1919, when such blockbusters as Cleopatra and Salome wowed ‘em across the country. Once she left her home studio, Fox, in 1919, she couldn’t keep the momentum going. Being so heavily identified with the vamp, she founds non-vamp parts hard to come by. She tried the stage and a few minor productions, but the world of cinema had passed her by. The truth was, she probably wasn’t much of an actress, but she sure was a terrific movie star.

Sadly, all that remain from Theda's blockbusters are still photos that make the loss of such films especially painful. What would you give to see Theda in action as Cleopatra in these duds?

Theda married director Charles Brabin in 1921 and they remained married until her death in 1955. She always listed herself as available for employment until the day she died.
Nita Naldi

On the heels of Theodosia Goodman came Mary Dooley, better known as Nita Naldi. Nita was a lovely Ziegfeld Girl who, after a few minor films, made a splash in 1921’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore. She and Barrymore became great and lasting pals.

Nita really hit the big time when she was chosen to play Dona Sol in 1922’s Blood and Sand, starring opposite Rudolph Valentino. 

Although she was a New York gal, Nita exuded a continental and exotic appeal that a vamp required. She and Rudy had great screen chemistry and they went on to star in 3 films together. Nita became friends with Rudy and his wife, Natacha Rambova, but when they split, the friendship failed.

Nita as "The Cobra"

As quickly as her star rose, it fell at the end of the silent period. Nita never made a talking film. Unlike Theda, Nita was inable to secure a comfortable retirement. The Depression hit her hard, but she managed to find occasional work and some successes on the stage. She even coached Carol Channing on the ABCs of vamping for the 1955 Broadway musical "The Vamp."

The emergence of a more three dimensional feme fatale put an end to the reign of the vamp. Stars like Garbo, Negri and Dietrich offered the public a more complex woman of mystery. No more skulls and mysticism, but it was sure fun while it lasted.

Next up: The Silent Italian Divas: Vamping with a Vengeance


Inge Gregusch said...

A blogger there was... She showcased sultry sirens, spinning their wicked webs with barely-there costumes, kohl-rimmed eyes and paralyzing stares. Thank you for another look into that dream world of Hollywood, where a simple American girl could become a vamping femme fatale. Oh, to be one of them for just one day!!!

Silver Screenings said...

It's fascinating to see the Hollywood Publicity Machine at work, and Theda Bara is the perfect example. What a great name – and you can just see her smouldering presence in the photos you've uploaded.

This is a great idea for a series. Looking forward to Part II. :)

FlickChick said...

Oh, Inge - you're so sweet. Oh how I would just have loved to see Cleopatra - in color!!!

FlickChick said...

Ruth - you bet they went into overdrive on poor Theodosia! The poor girl could not escape her image.

ClassicBecky said...

Mary Dooley!? Boy us Irish girls can really dig up some great stuff out of our psyches! Her cobra picture is fantastic. And isn't it hard to believe that Theda Bara, so famous, only really had about a 4-year career! I think it's so sad that she always listed herself as ready for employment. Reminds me of Bette Davis's full page ad that she was an actress out of work. Hollywood could, and can, really be a "don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out" kind of place. And Theda holding up her hair -- what a terrific pic! As always, your post was full of great trivia. Loved it, Chick!

FlickChick said...

Hi Becky! Thanks so much for stopping by. And yes - you Irish lasses can really steal the show. I am fascinated by Nita - a really lovely woman.

Unknown said...

I really enjoy your blog and love the Vamps. Nita Naldi in Cobra was fantastic! I'd like to nominate your blog for a Liebster Award. You can find the criteria here: -- Keep up the great posts!

FlickChick said...

Thank you Michele!