Haven’t we all been intrigued by Theda Bara since we were kids? I remember the first time I stumbled across a photo from Cleopatra – I think it was in Encyclopedia Britannica – the intense, heavily made-up eyes, the snake bra…this was not the wholesome, cute, boring little thing that we were expected to like and try to emulate, no Gidget or That Girl. THIS Cleopatra made Liz Taylor’s look boring! Theda was a different kind of icon, the likes of which my eight year old self had never encountered before.
In real life, she was different: a hardworking girl who never actually drained a man of his resources and vitality, or lured him to his doom. But she had people believing in the persona:
“…her popularity was unstoppable. In 1915 alone, she starred in eleven pictures. Labeled “Hell’s Handmaiden,” she received two hundred letters a day, including over a thousand marriage proposals. Adoring fans named their babies after her. Her movies ran continuously, sometimes playing six times a day.
“Some fans failed to distinguish Bara from her fictionalized roles. One bitter moviegoer wrote, “It is such women as you who break up happy homes.” Bara replied, “I am working for my living, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.” Another, a criminal defendant, claimed that he killed his mother-in-law after viewing one of Bara’s films.
Bara defended her role: “The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. You see, I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feministe.” But she also worried about the image she perpetuated: “I try to show the world how attractive sin may be, how very beautiful, so that one must be always on the lookout and know evil even in disguise.” Besides, she added, “Whenever I try to be a nice, good little thing, you all stay away from my pictures.”
– Source: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bara-theda
And another article, with some outstanding photos: Cinema’s First Sex Symbol was also America’s First Goth
I have only seen her early film, A Fool There Was, and her comeback attempt, The Unchastened Woman. In the former, she’s predatory, rapacious, and unencumbered by ethics. In the latter, she’s a wronged wife and her vamping is justified. Both films could use some TLC and restoration. Almost nothing survives. I’m not sure that there is anyone left in this world who remembers seeing the others. We have little but her first starring role, tiny fragments of film, and the still photos. We don’t get to see her develop as an actress. We don’t have her Cleopatra. We will never get to see her read the cards in Carmen:
But somehow, she is still having an impact. The Vamp type is alive and well, still luring men to their doom in contemporary media. People still emulate her look, or emulate someone while unaware that the person whose look they copied was emulating Theda.
So when it was announced that there would be an entire Tarot with Theda on every card, I had to check it out. Warily, at first, since so many theme Tarots go horribly wrong.
I need not have worried. This description at the website drew me in – I HAD to have this deck.
“For the major arcana, the text is taken from ‘The Symbolism of the Tarot’ by PD Ouspensky published in 1913. This book consists of pen pictures describing a journey through the 22 cards of the majors.
“For the VAMP majors, snippets of this text can be seen intertwined with the image so that only certain words can be seen, and I have found that depending on the question, different words make themselves apparent to me.
“For the minor arcana, the text is taken from the 15th century tarot poetry of Count Matteo Boiardo. He proposed a 78 card tarot deck with the minors being split into suits based on the Four Passions of Fear, Jealousy, Hope and Love. The VAMP tarot deck uses these minors which are well suited to the themes of Theda’s films dealing with such passions and emotions.
“Boiardo wrote a three-line poem for each card, and these are shown in their entirety on each minor card in the deck.”
I’m normally not a fan of renamed suits, but these are so flawlessly done. I ABSOLUTELY make an exception for this deck! And the text – these are not bland little affirmations and useless new age promises of getting things just by thinking happy thoughts. This is a roadmap for life. Some examples:
The Four of Fear:
“Fear keeps four horses at the service of a chariot
Under a cane, tied to a yoke
It also keeps many in servitude, whom I do not excuse.”
The Three of Love:
“Love, the end and final goal of your earnings
Is a continuous sighing until you die;
And he who laughs one day, cries thereafter for a year.”
The Four of Jealousy:
“Jealousy, when it comes,
it is better not to think that you can fight it,
Because it wins everyone:
But it is good to be able to tolerate it.”
The Four of Hope:
“Hope, when it comes together with reason
Is the sweetest food for the heart that wears it;
If it comes another way, it brings more suffering.”
One would expect a theme deck about an actress to be shallow and kind of dumb. That is emphatically NOT the case here. This deck is deep. There are references to mythology – it would be fascinating to read alongside the Grand Jeu AstroMythological Lenormand (it’s one of those rare decks that could definitely hold its own with that one.) Or just by itself.
The calligraphy and photos are exquisite. You get a unique hand crafted box and accordion-style booklet. The card backs are in the style of the early 20th century Art Deco Egyptian Revival that was so popular in Theda’s time.
I can’t find a single thing to criticize about this deck. I can’t put it away. I may have to get a backup copy.
And I am on tenterhooks waiting for their wet plate collodion process deck! http://jooktarot.com/wet-plate-process
Jook Art is a father – daughter collaboration, Steve and Katherine, and they are superbly good. You can get a copy of the Vamp Tarot here: https://www.etsy.com/listing/694810115/vamp-the-theda-bara-tarot-self-published?ref=shop_home_active_1&crt=1
You can watch or download A Fool There Was here https://archive.org/details/A_Fool_There_Was
Or just watch right here. 😉
And The Unchastened Woman