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  • Enemy of MenThe Vamps, Ice Princesses and Flappers of the Silent Screens
  • Kristine Somerville

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Asta Nielsen, The Joyless Street (1925), courtesy of the George Eastman House Motion Picture Document Collection

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In 1918, silent screen actress Theda Bara was served with papers at the Fox studios in Hollywood by the Supreme Court of California to testify on behalf of George Martinez, a man who had allegedly pushed his wife, Rosa Aguilar, out of a window. Martinez’s lawyer hoped to get Bara to take the stand as an expert witness and allege that Aguilar was “known as the vampire of Sonoratown” and had committed suicide when her advances on her husband were rejected. Newspapers wrote that “for the first time a screen actress famous for her portrayal has had her knowledge of the part recognized by judicial authorities.” The judge ruled against her appearance on the stand and spared the actress from having to assume her role as vamp for the court. The decision was a wise one. Bara had grown tired of the stereotype, which irked her feminist sensibilities. Toward the end of her career, she said, “For every woman vampire there are ten men of the same type.” Such a seemingly absurd request from the California court suggests the power of celebrity and the popularity of the myth of “the vamp” created and perpetuated by filmmakers of the silent era.

Films illuminated and magnified human nature so successfully that by 1910, twenty-six million Americans went to the cinema. While there had long been famous theater actors and opera singers, as cameras moved closer, movie stars became the new fantasy figures, and their fans wanted a more personal relationship with them. Mass-circulation tabloid newspapers, fan magazines, gossip columnists and the studio bosses eagerly fed their audiences’ voracious appetites, creating a new level of supercelebrity.

With the bounty of new actors and films, press and spin became an art form. Studio publicity departments rushed to fabricate new histories for their emerging stars, many of whom had been poached from theater. Publicists and the press blurred fact and fantasy. Irving Asher, the first press secretary for Warner Bros., said, “I don’t know of any publicity that was truthful in those days. Ninety percent of it was manufactured.” Truth mattered little to the moviegoing public; they wanted glamour, urban sophistication, exoticism and sex.

As film surpassed other artistic media in popularity, the “new woman” was also in ascendence. She cast off the passivity and mores of the Victorian era as she found gainful employment; a political and cultural voice; and, perhaps most unsettling to some, sexual equality. This new disruption in gender roles found expression in cinema. Images of dangerous femininity became a familiar motif, as did male subjugation. [End Page 78] In fact, as far as the studios were concerned, stories of evil women trying to debase weak men were big moneymakers. The icons of feminine malice were born.

Few wanted to see the girl next door, so actresses found themselves pushed into vampire roles, a concept that gained popularity when America discovered Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. Theda Bara’s recurring roles as a predatory female became a joke on set, and the crew affectionately began calling her “vamp.” She mentioned the term to a reporter, and it stuck. She was credited with coining the word, and by 1915 it had entered the American vocabulary to portray a woman who uses her charms and wiles to seduce and exploit men. Variations on the femme fatale—the vamp, the ice princess and the flapper—held a particular fascination for moviegoers, and many actresses found themselves locked in a persona that sold tickets but limited their acting range.

Danish actress Asta Nielsen was one of the first to portray the “new woman” in film. Her early work on screen signaled the empowered, independent model of women that would become commonplace by the end of her career. It also captured the contradiction between a woman’s feelings and the opposing social condition. Many of her films depict a female protagonist who struggles with her confining circumstances: a piano teacher...


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