2/19/21: Long Gone And Forgotten

By Fred Muenz

At a time when movie audiences believed that an actor’s screen persona was a reflection of his or her real life, the studio’s publicity department claimed that “The Vamp” was the Egyptian- born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. The story continued that having been raised in the shadow of the Sphinx, she finally moved to France to become a stage actress. In reality, Theodosia Goodman, aka Theda Bara, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in July, 1885, the daughter of a Jewish tailor and his wife. She had become interested in the theater as a teenager, and after two years of working in theater productions at the University of Cincinnati, she dyed her naturally blond hair black, and left home to follow her dream. Arriving in New York, she made her Broadway debut in 1908, in a small supporting role in The Devil. Joining a touring company, she spent the next years perfecting her craft, before returning to New York in 1914. At that time, the film industry was still centered on the East Coast, primarily in New York and New Jersey. She made her film debut as an extra in THE STAIN (1914), and by the following year was the leading lady in A FOOL THERE WAS (1915), and “The Vamp” character was born. By 1917, the film industry had begun moving to California, and she was forced to relocate to Hollywood for her most famous role, CLEOPATRA (1917). Although a quiet and reserved woman who would rather be in a bookstore than a nightclub, the studio worked hard to maintain the public’s exotic perception of her. Finally, in 1919, hoping to break out of being typecast as a sex symbol, she appeared in the leading role in KATHLEEN MAVOURNEEN (1919), a Mary Pickford type role. The film was a flop, and critics claimed that she was miscast in the role. Worse, several Irish societies were so outraged that a Jewish actress was playing an Irish heroine, that they sent members to set off stink bombs and stone theaters showing the film. Four more unremarkable films followed and, by the time of her retirement in 1926, her eyesight was so bad that she had to memorize the position of furniture and props on the set. A 1937 fire in the Fox film vault, destroyed all but three of her 40 films, and left only fragments and still photos of several others. Virtually forgotten, Theda Bara died of abdominal cancer in April, 1955. She was 69.

He was an actor, director, and screenwriter, called “The Great Lover”, and a rival in popularity to Rudolph Valentino. Born in Logan, Utah, in July, 1897, to a show-business family, John Cecil Pringle, aka John Gilbert, struggled through a childhood of abuse and neglect. His life finally became more stable when the family settled in California and he was enrolled in a Military Academy. By 1915, he was already working as a studio extra and, within two years, was writing and directing as well as playing major roles in films. Signed to a contract with Fox Films, he was quickly converted from a villain to a leading man. His popularity soared and, upon Valentino’s sudden death in 1926, he became the number one actor in Hollywood. Being cast opposite Greta Garbo in three films, created a screen chemistry between the two which led to a torrid off-screen affair. Learning of the romance, the studio publicity department worked overtime to publicize it, and the pair’s upcoming wedding. Garbo, however, got cold feet about marrying him, and he was left standing at the altar. Deeply affected by the affair and by being abandoned by Garbo, he began drinking heavily, and his performances lacked the sparkle they once had. To make matters worse, he had a nasty confrontation with MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, over comments Mayer had made regarding the affair with Garbo. At that time, the industry was converting to sound, and it was feared that his voice would not match the image he portrayed on screen. It was rumored that a vindictive Mayer ordered the sound engineer to purposely alter Gilbert’s voice to make it appear high-pitched. The result was a love scene in HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT (1929), which left the audience howling with laughter. The scene was parodied in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). Several more unremarkable films followed, but his career was virtually over. His health in decline from heavy drinking, he suffered a serious heart attack in December, 1935. Two weeks later, he suffered a second, this time fatal, heart attack. John Gilbert was just 38 years old.

In 1974, ten U.S. commemorative postage stamps, designed by caricaturist Al Hershfeld, were issued to celebrate stars of the silent screen. Included were caricatures of Theda Bara and John Gilbert.

LOOK FOR ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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