On This Day in 1936: Silent Vamp Talks of Revamping

Well, it can be cruel. It can be tempting and frustrating. It may be doing something for you—but it can also be your undoing. And just when you think you’ve caught up with and mastered it, it dashes off and kicks the dust of your futile endeavours straight into your bloodshot eyes. Technology, I mean—the vamp that demands constant revamping. As a blogger and tyro podcaster, I am not sure whether I reproduce myself by means of technology or whether I am myself the product of technology. These perhaps overly binary reflections were brought on, at least, by an encounter with Elbot (whose wit, I learned today, is inspired in part by an episode of the old-time radio thriller anthology Quiet Please). Apparently, even a supposedly outmoded medium like radio can continue to be regenerative. A consummate tease, radio enjoys being turned on by receptive minds.

Rather counting on that garrulous generatrix was Theda Bara, cinema’s original vamp, who, on this day, 8 June, in 1936, was media savvy enough to grab a microphone and announced to the world (or some western region of it) that she was back in business. Oh, but how that business had changed since the queen of silent melodrama last tempted audiences, anno 1926.

In Hollywood, a ten-year hiatus is a one-way ticket to oblivion. And when your metier is quite dead, a comeback is just about out of the question. Bara was nonetheless asking for a return engagement. She could count on an audience of millions—the “public” she was in hopes of recapturing—when she stepped inside the Lux Radio Theatre for a chat with motion picture director W. S. Van Dyke. “Woody” Van Dyke admitted to having “admired” Bara “from afar when she was doing such magnificent spectacles as Cleopatra” and he was “just an extra.” Considering that Van Dyke had the voice of a gruff senior, that must have sounded a lifetime ago even then.

Reminiscing about that role, Bara talked of the challenges of silent moviemaking. Yes, Hollywood entertainment had “developed amazingly” since Cleopatra was released in 1917; but film is an actor’s medium, and dedicated performers like herself could do and did much to turn nickelodeon thrills into cinematic art. Preparing for that role, Bara claimed to have worked for months with a curator of Egyptology at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Now that silent movies were treated like the ancient history she once studied, it may have been too late to excavate her own career.

Her bold announcement that she was “going to do some motion picture work” was followed by a more tentative explanation: “I am considering an offer now, running through scripts and ideas. Oh, I just hope everyone will be as happy about another Theda Bara picture as I am. The public has been very good to me in the past.” The public—good, bad or indifferent—never heard her emote on the screen thereafter.

Ms. Bara, as you may hear in my next podcast, had a charming voice, quite capable of delivering lines of sophisticated comedy. She would have done well on the air, even as the lines in her face might have argued against her reappearance in sizeable movie roles. Perhaps, producers were not willing to see the vamp in any other way. When confronted by the narrow minds of big business, dazzling technology has the tendency to turn into a mute siren. She isn’t tamed, mind you. She is just not turned on by the calculating kind.

2 Replies to “On This Day in 1936: Silent Vamp Talks of Revamping”

  1. It was interesting to read this take on Theda Bara – which now opens up a whole world of radio pleasures that never came into existence. Thanks also for the kind mention of Elbot. I\’m a big OTR enthusiast, so aside from the direct inspiration of Elbot\’s mis-mah, from Quiet Please, there are probably a lot of subliminal influences, perhaps the feel for how to write conversational dialogue. Not that I can do that, but I\’m sure the feeling from listening to so many OTR series has been a good school.

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  2. Perhaps, thinking about what radio might have been is to play in the ultimate \”theater of the mind.\”Yes, web journalists can learn a lot from old-time radio language. No graduating top of my class here!

    Like

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