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Actress Theda Bara in an iconic pose from one of her most famous roles as Cleopatra for the 1917 silent feature. Only 20 seconds of fragments of the epic production survive. (Photo illustration by Angel Hernandez)

ITHACA, NY -- Just over 100 years ago, Theda Bara (1885-1955), the world’s first international movie sex symbol, came to Ithaca, New York, to film parts of the feature romance “Kathleen Mavourneen” for the William Fox studio. The global superstar alighted down the steps of a train from New York City in June of 1919 and took the small city by storm.

“With her company, … [Bara] is filming her new William Fox feature, 'Kathleen Mavourneen,' because the Finger Lakes in their picturesque wildness are the nearest in America like the Lakes of Killarney,” Ireland, noted the Ithaca Journal at the time of Bara’s arrival.

For the production, the Fox company rented the Wharton brothers’ Ithaca movie studio located in Renwick (now Stewart) Park at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. Director Charles J. Brabin (1882-1957) also planned to shoot many exteriors in the Ithaca area, making use of Ithaca’s early summer environs to simulate the glens, fields and waterways of old Ireland, where the movie’s story is set.

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Autographed and inscribed photograph of Theda Bara, 1919.

Photography studio credit: Hoover Art Co.

While Bara’s role — and the movie itself — would become the subject of violent controversy when the film was released to theaters in the fall of 1919, all was bucolic during production in Ithaca. Even love was in the air for the Ithaca-made picture, as the star first worked with director Brabin, the man who would soon become her devoted husband. 

Theda Bara the Vamp

At the time of her arrival in Ithaca, Bara was near the peak of her global fame. She had gained worldwide notoriety playing exotic, sexualized characters known as “vamps” (short for vampire — the seducing sort, not the undead blood-suckers). The term “vampire” for a seductive woman was derived from a well-known 1897 poem, “The Vampire,” by Rudyard Kipling. 

Between 1915 and 1919, Bara played numerous vamp roles depicting seducers using their sexual attractions to exploit men, in movies such as "The Devil’s Daughter” (1915), “Carmen” (1915), “The Eternal Sapho” (1916), “Cleopatra” (1917), “Salomé” (1918), “The She-Devil” (1918) and many more.

Bara had come to the movie business at age 30 — rather late in life for the period — and some critics thought her too old to play romantic or sensual leads. She proved them wrong when she created an indelible image of the vamp who could ensnare any man with her wiles.

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1915 — Theda Bara, epitome of the vamps, in a scene from "Carmen." —Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

She was born Theodosia Goodman in 1885, a Jewish girl in Cincinnati, the daughter of Bernard Goodman, a prosperous Jewish tailor from Poland, and Pauline Louise Françoise de Coppet, a Swiss woman of French descent. 

Theodosia would graduate in 1903 from Cincinnati’s prestigious Walnut Hills High School — where she was active in school theatrical productions — and matriculated at the University of Cincinnati for two years of higher learning, before the family moved to New York City.

Bara made her Broadway debut (credited as “Theodosia De Cappet”) in 1908 at age 23, in a play entitled “The Devil.” Here, for her stage name, Bara used a variation of her mother’s French maiden name. It was not unusual at the time for entertainment folk, especially Jews, to use a professional name to hide their ethnic origins. 

By chance, one of Bara’s young costars on the boards in “The Devil” was actress Marguerite Snow. Like Bara, Snow later made the transition from stage to screen and became a silent movie star. Snow appeared in two movies made in Ithaca by the Wharton brothers, both in 1918 during World War I: the 20-episode serial “The Eagle’s Eye” and the fund-raiser short film “Mission of the War Chest.”

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Theda Bara in a 1917 photograph by Albert Witzel. 

Becoming Theda Bara

When Bara began in movies in 1915, studio owner William Fox promptly had his press agents change Theodosia Goodman’s name and origins. Rechristening her “Theda Bara” (pronounced THEE-da BARR-a), the publicity department proclaimed her name was an anagram for “Arab Death.” 

The press agents touted Bara as being born and raised in Egypt in the shadow of the Sphinx, the daughter of a French artist and his Arabian mistress (sometimes it was an Arab sheik and a French woman, other times an Italian sculptor and a French actress). For the record, Bara never set foot in Egypt nor was ever cooled by a breeze in the shadow of the Sphinx. In 1917, though, Theda and the entire Goodman family (parents, brother, and sister) did legally change their surname to Bara.

Through the power of the cinema and the printing press (in those halcyon days before the invention of radio, television or the internet), an American-born, Midwestern, Jewish tailor’s daughter became known worldwide as an exotic, foreign femme fatale.

From the moment of her first movie with Fox ― the scandalous hit “A Fool There Was” (1915) — Bara was an instant sensation, and a movie legend was born. “A Fool There Was” is one of the few extant films featuring Bara, and it was the first to popularize the word “vamp” and its character type — the femme fatale who causes the moral degradation of the male victims she seduces.

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Theda Bara in an Ithaca field of daisies, playing the role of a young Irish lass in the 1919 feature romance "Kathleen Mavourneen." Upon release, the movie caused violent protests at some theaters in the U.S.

But by the summer of 1919, after playing more than thirty similar movie roles to satisfy her five-year contract with Fox, Bara had her fill of the dark, sinister characters. She made the decision to renounce further vamp performances: “I have walked out, definitely and permanently, on my job as a moving picture vampire,” Bara announced resolutely at the time. “Once and for all, I am through.”

Bara was fed up not only with the typecasting but also with the expectations of the public that she maintain the vamp role in reality. “In fact,” Bara commented, “so identified had I become with the vampire parts on the screen that it got so people thought I was that way in my private life.”

Bara received hundreds of letters a day from fans — 1,200 pounds of mail and 100 pounds of candy each month — and more than a thousand marriage proposals.

“Judging from the letters I have received,” Bara complained, “the popular idea of my home life was indeed a lurid one.”

“I was generally visualized as spending Sundays and holidays undulating snakily about my apartment or whiling away my free time stretched sinuously out on a tiger skin, gazing inscrutably through the smoke of my heavily scented cigarette,” Bara wryly noted.

“The public was actually annoyed that I hadn’t lived up to the legends they had woven about me,” Bara said. “To me, there is nothing so quaintly naive as this inability of the moving picture public to disassociate the screen personality of a star from his or her own personality.”

Playing an Irish Colleen in Ithaca

Bara’s new movie filming in Ithaca was meant to be the first release unveiling her fresh, newly intended direction. In it, she plays an innocent, bright-eyed Irish colleen named Kathleen Mavourneen, a far cry from the exotic, seductive vamp roles which Bara had come to embody.

“You can’t imagine what a grand and glorious feeling it was to emerge from the vamping to play in ‘Kathleen Mavourneen,’” Bara said. “After years of clinging black gowns, of long sinister earrings and slender evil-looking cigarettes, I fairly reveled in the ingenuous peasant costumes, the childish curls, the innocently bare feet.”

“Cinematographically speaking, I am a new woman,” Bara proclaimed proudly.

“Kathleen Mavourneen” was based on the song of the same name written in 1837 (popularized during the American Civil War) and a play by Dion Boucicault, an Irish actor and playwright. The story was adapted to film seven times. First as silent film shorts in 1906, 1911, two different versions in 1913 (one written and directed by Brabin, Bara’s future husband, for Thomas Edison’s studio), and finally a 1914 short titled “Kathleen the Irish Rose.” 

Then came the 1919 Theda Bara silent feature version for Fox (also written and directed by Brabin). A sound feature followed in 1930 — a low-budget musical.

The tale, oft-told, is bleak: Kathleen is forced to abandon her true love and marry the local squire. The squire frames Kathleen’s true love, who is hanged for murder. To accommodate Bara’s new, shinier image, writer/director Brabin transformed the original tragic ending of the play for the 1919 adaptation. 

The horrors of the original story (including the brutal hanging — graphically depicted — of Mavourneen’s loved one) were tempered by Brabin’s new ending. Instead of tragedy, this “Kathleen Mavourneen” tags on a new coda in which Kathleen awakes from a nightmare, discovers the whole story was a bad dream, and is able to marry the man she loves (his gruesome death by hanging vanishes with the waking).

Theda Makes a Splash in Ithaca

During her time in Ithaca, the silent movie actress made a profound impression. The Ithaca Journal crowed in its headline: “Yes, Theda Bara is Here But She Is Not Vamping.” The movie’s astronomical $125,000 budget (millions in today’s dollars) and Bara’s star-power left the locals starstruck.

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Actress Theda Bara and husband, director Charles Brabin, out on the town, circa 1922.

“Miss Bara, accompanied by her maid, and her company, arrived from New York City this morning,” noted the Ithaca Journal in the June 18, 1919 afternoon edition. “She registered at the Ithaca Hotel simply as ‘Miss T. Bara and maid’ and she rather disappointed curious onlookers, who thought that she would appear just as ‘vampy’ as she has in some of her pictures — 'A Fool There Was' — for instance.”

“But she didn’t look that way at all,” the Journal commented, “for Miss Bara was dressed plainly but stylishly, and she was as unostentatious as any guest at the hotel.”

Despite the quiet arrival day, Bara couldn’t help but turn heads. Another front page newspaper headline read: “Theda Bara, in Bathing Suit, Awes  Ithacans.” Bara and company happened to be in Ithaca during Cornell University’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of its founding, and Bara made a splash (pun intended) at the university’s Cayuga Lake festivities on the shores of Renwick (now Stewart) Park.

“Barefoot and attired in a bewildering bathing suit,” the papers reported, “Theda Bara, vampire exponent, is astonishing the thousands of visitors at the semi-centennial celebration at Cornell University at Ithaca on Cayuga lake.”

Another publication reported that Bara “startled the throngs attending the Cornell [celebration] by appearing barefoot and clad only in a smile and a bathing suit.”

She enthralled and shocked the gathered crowds. “For Miss Bara is present in the flesh with charms which have awed even on the screen,” the papers glowed.

Director Charles Brabin in Ithaca

The writer and director of “Kathleen Mavourneen,” Charles Brabin, was a British native who made a theatrical life for himself in the U.S. He was born in 1882 in Liverpool, England, and emigrated to the U.S. as a young man in the early 1900s. Brabin, who held down odd jobs while trying acting gigs, made his Broadway debut in 1904 at age 22. From the stage, he made his way to Thomas Edison’s movie studio in the Bronx around 1908, first acting, and by 1911, working his way into writing and directing.

While at Edison, Brabin wrote and directed a 1913 short film version of “Kathleen Mavourneen,” so he was quite familiar with the material at hand.

It was at the Edison studio in 1908 that Brabin met and befriended the older, already established director Theodore Wharton (1875-1931), who would later invite Brabin to film at the Wharton studios in Ithaca.

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Silent film stars Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne at the Fall Creek gorge in Ithaca, New York, filming "The Adopted Son" (1917). The 6-reel feature Western, directed by Charles Brabin and shot entirely in Ithaca, was produced for Metro Pictures, the forerunner of MGM.

From 1914 to 1919, Theodore Wharton and his brother Leopold (1870-1927) owned and operated a bustling silent movie studio, Wharton, Inc., in Ithaca. The brothers first welcomed Brabin to film in Ithaca in 1917 when Brabin directed silent movie stars (and Ithaca acting alums) Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne in “The Adopted Son” (1917). The Western feature was produced by the Metro company (the forerunner of today’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM). Brabin “has a number of friends in Ithaca, particularly Theodore W. Wharton of Wharton, Inc.,” noted the Ithaca Journal in 1919.

For the 1919 “Kathleen Mavourneen” production, the Wharton brothers rented their Ithaca studio to the William Fox company (the forerunner of the enduring 20th Century-Fox studio, now known as 20th Century Studios and owned by the Walt Disney Company). The Wharton brothers also ensured that Brabin had access to all the natural landscapes he needed to make Ithaca’s native beauty replicate Ireland.

Brabin formed a troupe of cast and crew to bring “Kathleen Mavourneen” to life. He brought in his best friend, actor Marc McDermott, to play the villainous squire (McDermott had played the same role in Brabin’s 1913 short production of the same story at the Edison studio). Two short years later, McDermott would serve as best man at Brabin and Bara’s wedding in 1921.

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Theda Bara spinning in a scene from "Kathleen Mavourneen" (1919). Note the farm animal in the house. These depictions of abject Irish poverty would cause riots when the movie was released.

Brabin hired Irish-American actor Edward O’Connor to play Kathleen’s father. The Irish-born O’Connor had already acted in a number of Wharton movies made entirely in Ithaca, including some of the 14-episode serial “The New Adventures of J. Rufus Wallingford” (1915) and two feature films, “The Lottery Man” (1916) and “Hazel Kirke” (1916) featuring movie star Pearl White.

O’Connor’s performance in “Kathleen Mavourneen” drew praise from the trade journals: “Edward O’Connor as Kathleen’s father repeats one of those fine impersonations of Irish character for which he is noted.”

Click here for Part II

(1) comment

Aaron Pichel

For European readers unable to access the online article and those interested in footnotes, a digital version of this article with footnotes included is available upon request. Email the writer at: ap44@cornell.edu

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