Monday, January 10, 2011

Vamp, or light shining from a dead star

The most poignant line from Eve Golden's biography of Theda Bara, titled Vamp, is about a fan magazine popularity contest that Bara placed highly in. The magazine called it "The Contest to End All Contests". Golden notes the view of the results that history provides, with notables such as Charlie Chaplin faring poorly while others, today, "are nothing more than obscure names in a faded fan magazine." I think that's the real story of Theda Bara.

Golden had a formidable challenge in writing this biography. Her subject had been dead for decades. She had no children, nor did the sibling to whom she was closest. Bara's spouse had also been long on the other side of the veil when the book came out in the mid-90s. This would be bad enough, but the bulk of Bara's films, including most of her best work, was lost to vault fires long ago. To top it all off, much of what was originally published about Bara in fan magazines...well, it had me re-thinking my stance that PR work is not a creative profession.

She does an admirable job, despite the fact that reliable source material about film's first sex symbol is exceedingly thin on the ground. Unfortunately, though, Golden was left with a skeleton. Much of the book is devoted to recounting the plots of films that have long since burned to a crisp (including big-budget epics "Cleopatra" and "Salome": according to Golden, anyone who could recover a copy of either of those films would never have to work again), and explaining how they were received. How Bara felt about those films, we are clueless. What her experiences were in the dawn of a medium that came to dominate everyday life, we get only sketchy information. (I can surmise it for you: one worked a great deal, did their own hair and makeup, and had their life stories scripted by people who make JK Rowling look unimaginative). Golden tries to build around the concept of the "vamp," but didn't really do it forecfully enough.

This book didn't really give me a lot, but I enjoyed it anyway, despite the fact that I prefer scandalous and tragic Hollywood tales to ones about people who work a lot, then get married and retire from pictures. There's something forlorn about Theda Bara from our perspective. Ninety years ago, she had it all. She was on top of the world, making tons of money, renowned by everyone. Today, her pictures are gone and all that's left of her is the shadowy concept of the "vamp", some remarkable still photos (this book is worth a checkout for the pictures from her epics alone), and the Teddy Bara character in Disney's Country Bear Jamboree.

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