This is a piece that will start with me going on about Shakespear’s Sister yet again, before it will turn into something else, and that will be the main thing to feature. Since I got into Shakespear’s Sister again (and you should remember why by now), I wanted to discover as much as I could about them, and I tried to put as much together as I could from old interviews, online articles, and so on.
I found an article where people were reminiscing about the chart-topping “Stay”, and someone said about the famous video “Fahey’s acting style really is like someone stepping out of a black-and-white German Expressionist film from the mid-20s”. Now I thought this was an interesting comment. Firstly, I couldn’t imagine many other pop groups from recent years who would’ve been influenced by such a thing, and also because this was a genre that I knew nothing about, so I wanted to find out about it.
I knew that their videos were influenced by the films Cat-Women Of The Moon, Sunset Boulevard, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, but I don’t know if they were interested in silent films. I knew a little about some famous actresses from that era, including Louise Brooks and her terrific hair (OMD paid tribute to her career with their 1991 Top Ten hit “Pandora’s Box”), and Clara Bow, “The It Girl”. So I decided to do a search online for silent film actresses, and see if there was anyone else interesting would could’ve been an influence, and someone jumped right out at me.
After finding out more about her, once again words like “mysterious” and “spooky” kept being used, and I was fascinated, so I thought I’d tell the story. Theodosia Goodman was born in July 1885. There had been various stories about her childhood, but it turned out that she was not as exotic as it first seemed, and was born in Cincinnati. By the time her film career launched, her name had changed to Theda Bara.
Her first film in 1914 was in a minor role, but in 1915 her second film A Fool There Was transformed her right away into one of the biggest stars on the scene. She soon became known as “The Vamp”. Theda went on to star in many other films, and as they were silent, she really worked hard on her facial expressions. Her most famous is arguably Cleopatra in 1917. This was a very expensive film for the time, and some of the costumes are remarkable, but this one no longer exists. Some of her performances shocked people, although things that were once innovative now seem more tame.
Theda continued to star in films, and tried to play various roles, but she felt that she had become typecast as a vamp-type character, and she practically left the business in 1919, just five years after her breakthrough. To think that the pinnacle of her career is over a century ago now really is remarkable. Theda did appear in two more films in the 1920s, and tried to get into theatre work, but her moment had passed. She never went on to star in a talkie film, surprisingly few silent stars made the transition, a lot of careers were scuppered by actors thinking that their voices wouldn’t be suitable to filmgoers.
Only two audio clips of her speaking are known to exist, she was surprisingly well-spoken, and in magazine interviews she always came across as a very charismatic and determined woman. Theda married a director of some of her films, lived her later years almost forgotten by film enthusiasts, and died in April 1955. She made 42 films, but only six are now known to exist in full, and many feel that these don’t feature the best examples of her abilities.
This means that a lot of her work has been lost in the mists of time, and the chances of more being recovered is very small. Lots of pictures of her exist though, they’re the only proof that most of this happened now. I was really drawn to her remarkable eyes, and I don’t know if she really was an influence, but with her heavy make-up and long black hair, there was a time when she did look very similar to Siobhan, I’d be surprised if it was a coincidence.
It’s also interesting to read that Theda has been described as “America’s First Goth”, almost six decades before such a movement existed. She is still startling today, and although there have been biographies written about her career, she deserves something of a reappraisal, her image mustn’t fade. Theda has turned up in a few places in more recent years though, including a TV Times cover in January 1980, an advert for a song in Number One in 1986, and on the cover of The Lumineers’ chart-topping album “Cleopatra” in 2017.