This is the picture that brought us the movies’ first sex symbol, Theda Bara, the woman for whom the term, “Vamp” was coined. Ironically, because of a fire in the Fox Film vault in the mid-1920’s, most of her pictures are lost. This is the only one on which we can judge her career.
It’s not a good picture. But she is by far the most interesting thing about it.
According to Fox publicity, Theda Bara (there’s something fantastic about actress names in silent pictures) was born to a French painter father and an Egyptian mother in “the shadow of the Sphinx.” She, it was claimed, was exactly the same as she portrayed on the movie screen…the “vampire,” the woman who destroys men who desire her. Her publicists branded her as “The Wickedest Woman in the world.” Her name, it was revealed, was an anagram for “Arab Death.”
It was, of course, a bunch of ballyhooey! In truth, she was Theodora Goodman, a nice Jewish girl from Cleveland, Ohio. And as far as a sex symbol, well being somewhat heavy set and plain-faced, she isn’t what we would call a sex symbol by modern standards. To say she was unattractive is perhaps going a bit far, but I will give her this: in a couple of scenes, when lets her hair down, you can see a certain sexiness to her. But it’s her outrageousness as a character that wins and she plays her part with authority and gusto.
The story is very simple: Distinguished lawyer is appointed to diplomatic post overseas, leaving behind his family. During his travels he falls under the spell of Theda Bara, who has already ruined other men. Besotted by her, he disgraces himself in his post and even after his return Stateside, refusing to part with her, he becomes a shambling drunken wreck and dies. The entire picture unfolds along the lines of the Kipling poem that gives the picture its title.
The fascinating historical context for me was that this picture came out as war was breaking out overseas. The lawyer’s family, good American people are pitted against “that woman” of European lineage whom involvement with leads to destruction. The story seems to suggest that good people should remain on-guard and strong lest they be weakened by temptation and lust represented by the Old World. Even more fascinating, there is no happy ending here. Despite attempts by the virtuous wife and pesky brat of a daughter to entice the lawyer back to his family through prayer and wifely devotion, there is no reconciliation. The lawyer cannot break away from Theda and seems to relish his destruction at her hands. That is the message…we will all be destroyed by the world if we are not careful…but for a picture in 1914 its strong and brave stuff.
The best scene in the picture, actually, is the last one. The lawyer, dying after having all of his vitality drained from him by the female “vampire,” lies there while Theda Bara, with a knowing look of cruelty on her face, showers him with rose petals. It’s a chilling shot and in an unfortunately unmemorable movie, clearly memorable and truly demonstrates what Theda Bara was supposed to be all about.