The enticing and often deadly female archetype of the vamp was popularized in the 1915 saucy silent A Fool There Was, which starred the legendary Theda Bara in her third film, playing a ruthless seductress.
In the era of silent cinema, the vamp represented the exotic and mysterious woman, heartless enough to steal your world fortune, and sexy enough to get you to hand it over to her willingly. Stars like Mary Pickford were America’s sweethearts, but the vamps got to have all the fun. Still, it wasn’t always easy playing the bad girl. Vamps like Tallulah Bankhead, who started in the silents (and would have celebrated a birthday this weekend), were typecast throughout their careers. But other actresses enjoyed playing the bewitching temptress on and off-screen.
In a collection of quotes from some of silent cinema’s greatest femme fatales, we discovered what the starlets really thought about playing the provocative vamp and how it affected their personal lives and careers.
“To be good is to be forgotten. I’m going to be so bad I’ll always be remembered.” —Theda Bara
“I have already learned that the fewer appearances you make, the more they will talk about you. All you have to do is to say you want to be alone — and the whole world thinks you are exotic and glamorous. It never occurs to them that you are simply tired.” —Pola Negri
“It is vital to be photogenic from head to foot. After that you are allowed to display some measure of talent.” —Musidora
“We were all as blind as bats. Theda Bara couldn’t see a foot ahead of her and poor Rudy [Valentino] groped his way through many a love scene, and I really mean groped. They all used big reflectors to get extra light from the sun — that’s how we acquired that interesting Oriental look. We didn’t have any censors in those days, but we did have our own bosoms and our own eyelashes . . . and we never took ourselves seriously.” —Nita Naldi
“I came here as a foreigner: I had not been married or divorced: there was no scandal attached to my name. They had to say something about me, so the publicity departments wrote stories of their own fantasy and called me temperamental and hard to handle. They ended up believing their own creations.” —Jetta Goudal