actress, Ballard MacDonald, Billy Wilder, Broadway, Charles Brabin, Cleopatra, drugs, femme fatale, George V. Hobart, Gloria Swanson, J. Gordon Edward, J.C. Huffman, James Noble, John Willard, Leta Vance Nicholson, murder, New York Public Library, Norma Desmond, Shapiro Bernstein & Co, sheet music cover, silent film, Sunset Boulevard, The Blue Flame, theatre play, Theda Bara, theme song, vamp, W.H. Gilmore, William Frederic Peters, Woody Herman
Often called the first sex symbol of the silver screen, American silent film actress Theda Bara got tired of playing scantily clad vamps (femmes fatales) in film upon film, and decided to try her luck at theatre acting again. However, in The Blue Flame, the 1920 production she picked to return to the stage, she played yet another femme fatale, this one a seductress who dies and is resurrected. Theda’s career on the other hand, was not brought back to life by the endeavour.
Theda Bara (born Theodosia Burr Goodman, 1885–1955) is one of the most famous completely silent film stars; her career ended in 1926 and she never appeared in a sound movie — two radio interviews, one from 1936 (which can be heard in the video below), and the other from 1939, are thought to be the only recordings of her voice ever made.
In the clearly scripted 1936 interview, Bara speaks of returning to film acting, but nothing ever came of those plans. Her formal and affected tone (‘picdjurss’) brings to mind Gloria Swanson’s performance as the fictitious faded silent film star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard.
Alas, most of the forty films Theda Bara made between 1914 and 1926, the span of her film career, were destroyed in fires at the Fox film studios in 1937 and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Only six of her forty movies survive in their entirety. Of her most famous film, J. Gordon Edward’s epic historical drama Cleopatra (1917), only a few very short fragments survive (see video above), along with many photographs of an exotically attired Theda in the title role.
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When Theda’s contract with Fox film studios expired in 1919, she took on the lead part in The Blue Flame, a four-act Broadway play directed by J.C. Huffman and W.H. Gilmore. The producers commissioned composer William Frederic Peters and lyricist Ballard MacDonald to write The Blue Flame Theme Song.
It appears Theda Bara did not sing the song in the play or anywhere else, and there seems to be no recording of it; the sheet music was at the time merely sold as a publicity tool for the actress’ first Broadway production so people could play the song on their piano at home.
The Blue Flame was viciously panned by critics, and Bara’s acting on stage was deemed severely below par. In The New York Times, theatre critic Alexander Woollcott made fun of the dialogue and mentioned one line in particular: ”I’m going to be so bad, I’ll be remembered always.” Woollcott wrote that Bara was bad, but not bad enough to be memorable…
Other bits of supposedly serious dialogue that made audiences laugh, included phrases like, ”Have you brought the cocaïne?” and ”You make my heart laugh and I feel like a woman of the streets.”
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The production still drew big crowds on the power of the starring actress’ enormous movie fame alone and even went on a tour across the U.S. after 48 Broadway performances. It was however, the last Broadway play in which the actress would appear. After The Blue Flame closed, the already floundering film career of the once legendary-in-her-own-time silent film star went in as steep a decline as her stage career, until she was all but forgotten by the time the femmes fatales started talking in movies.
In 1921, Ms. Bara married film director and screenwriter Charles Brabin (1882–1957) after which she starred in two more films before retiring from acting in 1926. Theda died from stomach cancer at the age of 69, having spent the last thirty years of her life in relative anonymity. Still, her legendary status as one of the greatest silent film stars has since been restored, even if it took several decades.
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The Blue Flame is a four-act play written by George V. Hobart and John Willard, who revised an earlier version by Leta Vance Nicholson. Ruth Gordon, the main character, is a religious young woman who dies and is revived by her scientist fiancé as a soulless femme fatale. She seduces several men and involves them in crimes, including drug use and murder. In the final act, her death and resurrection are revealed to be a dream.
Soulless, femme fatale, seduction, several men, crimes, drug use, murder, dreams, death, resurrection? Somebody please put this show back on! Including the apparently ridiculous dialogue. And please use the theme song – it’s not on YouTube and I would love to hear it. Thank you.
Tasio Ferrand © March 30, 2018
Ps, Here’s a totally unrelated Blue Flame song, an instrumental by clarinetist, saxophonist and band leader Woody Herman and his Orchestra, recorded in 1941. The slow, haunting foxtrot was composed by James Noble and, again, has nothing to do with the 1920 Theda Bara stage production described above.