Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tragic Stars: Alma Rubens

There is no shortage of tragic star stories from Hollywood, but few stars ever get to write of their own dramatic demise. 

Alma Rubens is remembered not for her successful (but short) time as a movie star, but for the drug addiction that cut her career and her life short.
In a serialized autobiography, published in several newspapers and magazines in 1930 - 1931 and called “Bright World Again,” silent star Alma Rubens told her harrowing tale to the public. Beautiful, talented and married to sexy heart-throb Ricardo Cortez, Alma seemed to have it all. How could this stunning and successful girl go from glamorous star to pathetic addict in just a few short years?

Alma Rubens: Her face was her fortune

Alma's story starts with a poor but loving childhood in San Francisco. From the beginning, her mother was the one constant and stabilizing force in her life. But Alma was a wayward girl. She had a strong sense of adventure and was easily tempted to stray off the path she knew was safest.  In order to help her family, Alma needed to work, but clerical or retail jobs were not for her. Her pretty face and form got her noticed and, by 1916, she was in the movies. An early marriage to the much older star, Franklyn Farnum, lasted only a month or so, with Alma claiming he dislocated her jaw. Poor little Alma, she seemed so gentle, but was always getting into scrapes.

Alma worked her way down from San Francisco to Hollywood, managed a contract with W.R. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures and married her second husband, Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, doctor and prominent film producer.  In Hollywood, Alma began to live a lavish life style, with beautiful clothes, furs and jewels.  However, Alma was restless. And sneaky.  Like other stars (notably Wallace Reid), Alma’s drug troubles started when she was treated for an injury. Her addiction was swift and Alma spares no one, not even herself, in her harrowing tale of her swift and painful decline.

The sweet and sophisticated look of Alma Rubens

At the beginning of her addiction, Alma managed to maintain her career, divorce the doctor and marry Ricardo Cortez (in 1926). Meanwhile, she was very adept at finding doctors to provide her with more and more morphine, her initial drug of choice. As she became increasingly dependent on the drugs, she became unreliable, unprofessional and unable to work. Her contract with Hearst was dissolved. She worked for a while at Fox and Columbia, but mainly kept very busy selling her personal possessions to feed her habit (notably some silken undergarments to a drug-dealing maid). Mother and husband tried to help her.  She was admitted several times to private sanitariums, but Alma proved to be an unwilling patient. Several times she escaped, even wounding a doctor with a knife. Finally, her family had enough and committed her to Patton Institute, surely the model for any psychiatric horror story every filmed.  Truly, the Snake Pit would have been an improvement. At Patton she suffered, and suffered greatly. Her awful story has to be read to be believed. Her dignity and sanity were compromised. But, after 7 months, she was released and she swore she was done with dope.

Alma and hubby, Ricardo Cortez
But, Alma never could stay away from it very long. Truly, this woman’s appetite for drugs was astounding.  In an effort to jump start her career, Alma and her husband went to New York and appeared together in a Vaudeville act in 1930. It seemed that the public liked Alma and she always got good reviews for her work. So much more the shame that she just could not kick her habit. In New York she and Cortez split (although they did not divorce) and Alma sunk into the depths of depravity, going to drug parties,  giving into random sexual encounters and running from the cops. She sold everything she owned, including furs and the last of the expensive lingerie, and ended up rooming with other ladies who shared her struggle.

Alma loved being a movie star
Time and time again Alma tried to kick the habit, but her addiction was too strong. In 193- she penned her story as a cautionary tale (and a bid to make some much needed money) and set off across the country to go home to California and her mother. She and a friend were travelling by car and she knew in her heart that if she didn’t leave New York and return home to her mother she would die. Her story ends with the hope that she will be able to achieve her dream.
Alma's lovely profile
Sadly, by the time Alma’s story was printed, she was dead. Arrested in San Diego on the suspicion of smuggling dope from Mexico she was jailed. Her mother came to her rescue, but by then, Alma had developed a cold that worsened into pneumonia. Her system, so weakened by abuse, could not combat the infection and on January 21, 1931, she was dead. It was confirmed that, at the time o her arrest, she was drug free.

Sadly, Alma’s screen achievements are largely forgotten. Her one foray into sound films, 1929’s “Showboat” (as Julie), is in tatters, with the sound missing.  Her fame rests on her tragic tale.

With John Gilbert in 1928's "Masks of the Devil"
Alma’s story in her own words and a brief biography can be found in Gary D. Rhodes' and Alexander Web's “Silent Snowbird.”

In 2015, Patton opened a museum, a record of the horrors of the treatment of addicted and mentally ill patients in the early 20th century.  By 1930, over 2,000 patients who died at Patton were buried on an on-site cemetery. The cemetery was full in 1930. The unclaimed bodies of those who died after that date were donated to science.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Italian Vamps: All For Love

This is my entry in the Anti-Damsel blogathon, hosted by Movies, Silently and The Last Drive In. Click HERE for more great posts about the great, strong women of film. This post also serves as the second part of the 3-part series on Vamps. Click HERE for the first entry about Theda Babra and Nita Naldi. 

The Vamp, the term for ladies who, in the early days of the 20 th century, liked sex, was a potent antidote to the virginal heroines of the silent screen.  The cure for too much Mary Pickford might be “take a Theda Bara and call me in the morning.” Too much Lillian Gish? A shot of Nita Naldi might cure what ails you.

During these vamp-ish times, a trio of Italian divas tore up the screen and added an element of suffering and passion on a grand, operatic scale. They made Theda look positively sedate. They were never damsel s in distress in the strict sense. No, the overwhelming passion and were usually the cause of the distress of their own making.
Lyda Borelli

Beautiful and fashionable, Lyda Borelli was an Italian stage and screen actress of great influence. Lyda was born in 1887 into a family of actors. By the time she was 18, she had already made a name for herself on the Italian stage, based on her beauty, talent and fashionable appearance. Her looks, mannerisms and clothing were copied by her many admirers.  Young women who copied her looks were said to have dressed in the “borellismo” style.

In 1913 she made her first film (“Everlasting Love”). It was a smash and her success now extended beyond the Italian stage to the world of screen. She was the epitome of florid romance, desire and sensuality.  Her characters emotionally operatic and usually ended up at the wrong end of a bottle of poison or a dagger (her fate was death in more than half of her films).

She continued her highly successful film career through 1918, when she married a count and abruptly retired. At her last theatrical performance the audience wept and pelted her with flowers, so great was her enchantment.   Lyda spent the rest of her life caring for family and living the life of a countess until her death in 1959. Clearly, the drama was for the stage and screen only.

Francesca Bertini

Francesca Bertini (born in 1892) was also the child of an actress. Like Lyda Borelli, she got her start on the stage, but unlike Lyda, she moved quickly into the new art of the silent films.

She began her movie career in 1913 and quickly established herself as a strong, elegant and talented performer. Her fame quickly spread beyond the borders of Italy. By 1915 she was earning more than Mary Pickford. While her roles included the heavy-duty characters of Odette, Tosca and Camille , her acting was considered to be more natural and understated than that of the typical vamp. She suffered, she loved, but she did it “naturally.”

Bertini was able to move into sound films with limited success, but the Italian film industry took a nose dive starting in the 1930s and during World War II. She was offered a Hollywood contract by Fox, but she had retired after the war, enjoying her life with her wealthy Swiss husband. She had made but a handful of films from 1930 – 1943. She appeared for Bernardo Bertolucci in is 1976 film “Novecento (“1900”) and consented to an interview in 1982.  Francesca passed away at age 93 in 1985.

Check out this fabulous diva in all her glory. What a woman.

Pina Menichelli

Think decadent, think bodice-ripping, think hand-wringing and eye-popping and you pretty much have the acting style of silent screen  vamp Pina Menichelli, known as  "our lady of spasms."

Like her sister-vamps, Pina was born into a theatrical family and acted as a child, but unlike Lyda and Francesca, she was a passionate off-screen as on. After a failed teenage marriage to an Argentine gent, Pina began her Italian film career in 1913 at the age of 23. Critics took notice and she soon entered the rarefied queendom of fellow divas Borellia and Bertini. She attained international stardom in "The Fire" and "Royal Tiger," 2 films whose names aptly describe Pina's ardent, florid, and dangerous persona.

Pina maintained her stardom through 1923, when she retired. Although she was estranged from her first husband, he would not divorce her. Upon his death in 1924 Pina was free to marry again and, like the true diva she was, she destroyed all physical evidence of her great film career and never spoke of it again in public for the rest of her life. Pina Menichelli passed away at age 94 in 1984. 

Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini and Pina Menichelli- divine divas and vamps who were larger than life and definitely bellisima!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Keeping up with the Barrymores: If Reality TV Was Around Then!

This is my contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click HERE for more great posts about this Royal Family of stage and screen.

Kardashians? Nah - if I am going to spend reality time with a Hollywood family, Id much rather spend it with a clan like the Barrymores. Now there's a family worth following!

Episode One:  Dramatic Beginnings

Herbert Arthur Chamberlain Blythe (1849-1905), the son of a surveyor for the British East India Company, here's the call of the theater and adopts the stage name Maurice Barrymore to spare his respectable family the shame of having a child on the stage. He made his way from India to England to Broadway, where he met, fell in love with and married the actress, Georgiana Drew (1856-1893). Georgiana came from acting family, John and Louise Lane Drew. Louisa was a thrice-married woman, quite scandalous at the time. 
The Dashing Maurice Barrymore
I'm sure there was much chatter about that over the mutton chops.
The Lovely Georgiana Drew Barrymore
Georgiana and Maurice had three children (Ethel, Lionel and John) and were happy at first, but, alas, hubby possessed a wandering eye and the marriage became yet another unhappy theatrical venture.  His rumored amours were: Helena Modjeska, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Lillian Russell and - gasp! - Lily Langtry. Take that, George Clooney!! Poor Georgiana died of tuberculosis at age 36, leaving her children in the care of her mother in Philadelphia. Maurice, who had limited contact with his children until their teens, continued to act. At the time of his death (from syphilis), he was playing vaudeville. 
Georgie with children Ethel, Lionel and John.
There are no known photos of Maurice with his 3 children.
Juicy, no? Stay tuned for Episode 2 of Keeping Up With the Barrymores! 

Episode 2: Oh those kids!

While mama and papa Barrymore were colorful characters, they couldn't hold a candle to their world-famous progeny. Bursting with intelligence, talent beauty and and unsurpassed thirst for life, Lionel, Ethel and the great John Barrymore made sure that their famous name would never be forgotten.


Lovely young Ethel began working on stage while still in her teens. Before long she was the toast of London and soon men were falling at her dainty feet. One famous suitor was Winston Churchill and, while Ethel decline to marry him, she maintained an intimate "friendship" with old Winnie for the rest of her life. 

The lovely young Ethel: no wonder the boys were mad for her

Her fame abroad paved the way for a triumphant return to the states and a deserved reputation as a great Broadway star in the early part of the 20th century. While she dabbled in silent cinema, she is chiefly remembered by film fans for her later roles in such films as "The Spiral Staircase" (1946) and "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932) in which she appeared with brothers Lionel and John. 
The Great Lady of the Theater
Ethel also dipped her dainty toes in radio and TV, but lest you think this lady a bit of a prig, she was a Barrymore by blood and that meant she was a lusty lass. Besides Churchill, she raised quite a romantic rumpus across pond, breaking the hearts of a Duke and several famous actors. She finally married Russell Colt (of the Colt firearms fame) in 1909. It was a rocky marriage that ended in divorce in 1923. While she never remarried, it is hard to imagine Ethel being lonely. She passed away in 1959 at age 79, her reputation as a great lady of the theater carved in stone.


Big brother Lionel was the non-glamorous Barrymore. He began his career on the stage, as all good Barrymores do, but Lionel took to the new medium of film with gusto. From the earliest days of silents with D.W. Griffith to the golden age of the big studios, Lionel Barrymore was a distinguished and reliable (if sometimes grouchy) presence.

An intense Lionel Barrymore
Although Lionel was a talented actor, artist and composer, his private life was a little tame compared to his flamboyant family. He did enter into a squabble with brother John over the "honor" of his wife, actress Irene Fenwick. It seems Irene had dallied with wild brother John before she settled down with Lionel for a happy marriage in 1923 that lasted until her untimely death in 1936. 

The meanest man in town
Later in life Lionel suffered from health problems that caused him to suffer great pain while walking and eventually landed him in a wheelchair from the late 1930s until his death at age 76 in 1954.


The best known Barrymore, the best looking, the greatest star of the family and by far the biggest hell raiser, the legend of John Barrymore is larger than life. His reputation as a great actor is well known, but if this reality show is going to make it to episode 3, we need to follow JB on his off-stage and off-screen exploits. 
The Great Profile: a heart throb of the stage and screen
Already an alcoholic as a teenager, his reputation as a carouser and a ladies man was epic. As the baby of the family, John was a handful and the apple of his grandmother's eye. It seems women could not resist him from the start. He thought he might like to be an artist, but the lure of the stage was too great for him to resist. Before his great stage success, an early important love was the notorious and beautiful Evelyn Nesbit. 

Once Barrymore turned his attentions full-time to the theater there was no denying his beauty, presence and talent. He was the matinee idol deluxe, but decided to marry socialite Katherine Corri Harris in 1910. He soon described the union was a "bus accident." Katharine said he drank too much. The couple divorced in 1917.

During this time John began dividing his time between the stage and silent films. While the stage claimed his heart, films were a good source of much needed income. He also found time to romance the married writer, Blanche Oelrichs, who published poetry under the name "Michael Strange." Blanche became pregnant in 1920 and she managed to divorce her husband and marry John 6 months before daughter Diana was born.

Barrymore as Hamlet

Meanwhile, Barrymore had hit his stride on stage and screen. The legendary performances as "Hamlet" and "Richard III" wowed the critics and film fans were mesmerized by his "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." As his second marriage began to crumble, Barrymore began an affair with his 17-year old "Beau Brummel" co-star, Mary Astor. However, it was his co-star in 1926's "The Sea-Beast" that won his heart. Falling head over heels in love with beautiful Dolores Costello, Barrymore divorced his second wife and embarked on his third marriage. Sadly, alcoholism destroyed this union, as well.

Beautiful Dolores Costello: John's third wife
and Drew Barrymore's grandmother
Barrymore's beautiful speaking voice made the transition to talking films easy. He was aging, but still managed to play the lover, notably to Garbo in 1932's "Grand Hotel." But his days as the ideal lover were coming to close. The physical deterioration due to alcoholism was becoming increasingly noticable and the great Barrymore now began playing a parody of himself - the washed up has-been. His performance in "Dinner at Eight" is almost too sad to watch. He still managed a home run or two (1934's "Twentieth Century" is still a favorite of classic film fans), but it became well known that he was increasingly unable to remember his lines and was holding up productions. In 1934 he suffered a collapse and Costello was granted a divorce in 1936. By then, Barrymore, the jolly, witty bon vivant, had become a shadow of the man he once was.  

"The Twentieth Century" - one of Barrymore's greatest roles
He continued to work (with the aid of cue cards) as a supporting player in such A-list films as "Marie Antoinette" (1938) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1936), and even managed one last, great starring role in 1939's "The Great Man Votes," but time was running out. With his last wife, Elaine Barrie, he toured in a dog of  play called "My Dear Children." The show was a success primarily because Barrymore, unable to remember his lines, made up new ones every night and freely let the expletives flow. Sometimes he was drunk. The actor who set the theater world on fire with his Hamlet was but a memory.

His final performances were on radio, continuing with the self-parody that had become his stock in trade. In 1942 he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Legend is that fellow hell-raisers Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh stole Barrymore's embalmed body before his funeral to share one last toast with their departed friend. Biographer Gene Fowler denies the legend, but it sure would make for a great show.

Episode 3: The Curse, the Legacy and Hope

Diana Barrymore

Poor Diana Barrymore. The daughter of John and Blanche, she never had a chance. The child of divorce, she did not have a close relationship with her father until she was an adult. Her famous name and her pretty face got her on the cover of a magazine and a role in a play on Broadway. Hollywood wanted her, too, but she had inherited her father's weakness for alcohol. In 1942 she was called the year's "Most Sensational Screen Personality." By 1950 she was broke, depressed, a drug addict and an alcoholic. In 1957 she published her autobiography, "Too Much Too Soon," and by 1960, after 3 marriages, she ended it all with a handful of sleeping pills and an alcohol chaser.

John Drew Barrymore

The son of John and Dolores, John Drew Barrymore was a stranger to his father. His famous name and good look assured his opportunity in film. He was afforded some good roles, but the Barrymore curse followed him as surely as it had his father and his half-sister, Diana. He became better known for public displays of drunkenness and arrests for drug use and spousal abuse.

He managed to find work on television, but by the 1960s his addictions and mental problems were so great that he was unable to function, much less work. Married four times,he had four children. His last child, Drew, cared for him until his death in 2004 from cancer.

Drew Barrymore

Can the curse be broken? Finger crossed, because Drew Barrymore has shown herself to the family member who can beat the odds. A little bit of Ethel and a little bit of Dolores, she's the cute kid who beat the booze and is living the life that can bring some luster and respect back to the Barrymore name. You go girl - you've done it and you never let the world forget you're a Barrymore, a member of the theatrical Royal Family. We are all staying tuned for episode 4!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Tragic Griffith Stars: Clarine Seymour and Robert Harron

Clarine Seymour and Robert Harron in "True Heart Susie"
In 1919, both Bobby Harron and Clarine Seymour were the pets of director D.W. Griffith. Other than super-pet Lillian Gish, no one in the Griffith stock company seemed to have held a more secure place than Bobby. While not in the Lillian category, nor in the same favored position as personal pet Carol Dempster, Clarine Seymour was an up-and-comer who stole the show. Griffith knew a good thing when he saw it. Yet, by 1920, Griffith was attending their funerals.

Clarine Seymour

Not your typical Griffith heroine, Clarine Seymour was feisty where Miss Lillian was fragile, full of personality where Miss Dempster seemed to have none. Youthful and spunky, she was a modern sort of gal who would have made a fabulous flapper.

Clarine started her career in films as a teenager, moving from Thanhouser to Pathe to Hal Roach. While working for Roach she claimed that she was fired for refusing to do her own stunts. Like the feisty pre-flapper she was, Clarine filed a suit against Roach and was awarded the tidy sum of $1,325 in damages.

Here is Clarine with Stan Laurel in "Just Rambling Along," a film made while she was working for Hal Roach.

In 1918 she crossed paths with Griffith and he paired her with his leading man, Robert Harron, in 1919’s “The Girl Who Stayed Home.” Playing good-time girl Cutie Beautiful, Clarine made everyone sit up and take notice. Clarine seemed the embodiment of fun.
The adorable Clarine Seymour
It wasn’t easy for a gal to find her place in the Griffith stock company, what with Lil and Carol getting the good parts. However, Griffith cast her in a showy supporting role 1919’s “True Heat Susie,” and in “Scarlet Days” and as the lead in 1920’s “The Idol Dancer.” Although the last film was not a favorite of the critics, Clarine again received great notices. She was clearly on her way to stardom.
Getting ready for stardom
In 1920, Clarine was getting ready to play a leading role in Griffith’s classic “Way Down East” when she fell ill and was admitted to the hospital in April. 4 days later she was dead at age 21 of what was termed “intestinal strangulation.” Other than this mysterious description, there seems to be no reliable information regarding her illness and death. However, her former employer, Hal Roach, seemed to think drugs and/or alcohol may have played a part. In an interview with author Betty Harper Fussell for her book “Mabel” (1982), Roach blamed Clarine’s death on Mabel Normand. He said that “Mabel ‘was the wildest girl in Hollywood’ and ‘the dirtiest talking girl you ever heard.’ Roach was not amused, however, because he felt that Mabel and her (friends) had helped destroy younger girls like starlet Clarine Seymour.”

“‘Clarine ran around with these gals for about a year,’ Roach explained, ‘and then kicked the bucket in 1920.’ Some said she died of drugs. Roach blamed Mabel.”

Whatever her cause of death, Clarine Seymour was a bright star whose light never got the chance to fully shine.


Young and innocent Bobby Harron

 Bobby Harron owed everything to D.W. Griffith. At age 14 he began working as an errand boy for the Biograph Studios. He was noticed by Griffith, who began using Bobby in front of the cameras. As a teen-ager he embodied the youthful innocence Griffith loved. Graduating from shorts to feature films, Bobby was cast in some of Griffith’s greatest films: “Judith of Bethulia” (1914), “Birth of a Nation” (1915), and “Intolerance” (1916). It was his performance of The Boy in the modern story of “Intolerance” that elevated him to real and respected stardom. Today, almost 100 years after the film’s release, his performance, along with those of of Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper, remains compelling and heartbreaking.
Harron's greatest performance in "Intolerance"

After “Intolerance,” Harron was Griffith’s leading man of choice in such Griffith productions such as “True Heart Susie” (with Clarine Seymour), “Hearts of the World” (Griffith’s propaganda film for WWI) and “The Romance of Happy Valley.” Although he often partnered Lillian Gish, he enjoyed an off-screen romance with the lovely Dorothy Gish. Things were going well for Bobby Harron, the former errand boy.

Bobby and Lillian  were so charming in "True Heart Susie"

However, youth fades, even when you are only 27, and Griffith found a new preferred leading man in Richard Barthelmess. In 1920, mentor Griffith was done with Bobby and loaned him to Metro Pictures. By all accounts, Harron was deeply hurt.

On September 1, 1920 Harron arrived in New York to support Lillian Gish at the premier of “Way Down East” and to also preview his first Metro picture. While alone in his hotel room he shot himself.   According to all accounts, the gun discharged accidently. Initially he requested a doctor come to the hotel room, but after he had lost too much blood he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. While he was being treated for his wound he was arrested for the possession of a gun without a permit. While rumors began to swirl that Bobby had intentionally shot himself, he and his many friends denied this. He seemed to be on the road to recovery, but on September 5th, four days after the accident, he died at age 27. The name of the New York hotel he had checked into was the Hotel Seymour. The name of his first Metro film (and last film) was “Coincidence”.

so much talent lost

In 1920, Hollywood lost not only Clarine Seymour and Robert Harron, but also actress Olive Thomas and daredevil movie stunt pilot and actor Ormer Locklear. A memorial service was held for all four of these fallen stars on September 26, 1920. The eulogy was delivered by director William Desmond Taylor who would be murdered in 1922.

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