The character type of the vampire, vamp for short, was prevalent in early Hollywood films. Typified by actresses like Theda Bara, Helen Gardner and Virginia Pearson, the vampire challenged gender and sexual norms by manifesting a sexualised and predatory triumph over masculinity. Heralding the modern woman of the 1910s, vamp films were especially popular amongst young female viewers.
Vamp actresses like Theda Bara present some of the earliest and most interesting examples of stardom to emerge from American film culture in the early 20th century. Sadly the character type is often overlooked when it comes to the study of film, most likely because so many of the vamp films are missing today. Instead, our contemporary vision of the vamp is largely shaped by the iconic publicity portraits and production stills that remain. Thankfully some key films like Bara’s A Fool There Was (1915) are widely available today and fan magazines of the 1910s also offer a fascinating look at the vamp.
Whilst on my vamp research, I came across this article from the June 1917 issue of Film Fun. It basically features campy vamp tips from Virginia Pearson, Olga Petrova, Theda Bara and Charlotte Burton. What I find most fascinating about the vamps is the complete typification of the actresses’ on and off screen personae, as well exemplified by the article. Instead of softening the “real” persona, making them appear more accessible or traditionally feminine, the actresses are depicted as real life vampires who are after male tears – both on and off the silver screen.
Spring Styles in Vamping
By ESTHER LINDNER
From Film Fun, June 1917
For a long time the leading heroes, heroines, juveniles and ingenues have been telling the public all about themselves, and divulging freely, both verbally and in print, the secrets of their popularity and beauty. They keep nothing to themselves. “If you would have eyelashes like mine,” kindly and unselfishly offers a lovely star, “brush the eyes with ‘Lashcurl’ three times daily”; and, “Boys, I smoke Turkish Delight cigarettes and chew Peptoneen gum,” some well-known screen actor tells the boys who write to him for advice on “How To Become a Motion Picture Star – in Twenty Reels”. True, there are some who contend that said stars have their palms well crossed with the currency of the realm before offering such advice, but – well, we are wandering. The fact does remain that they have been open and aboveboard.
Not so the ladies who form the third side of the triangles of which one man is the base, the unknown quantity of every screen equation – in short, the vampire ladies of the screen. They have maintained an unbreakable and inscrutable silence. Quietly and secretly they have gone on their way, luring the hearts of men from the paths of righteousness and duty, leaving destruction in their wake, sowing the seeds of discord and dissension wherever their shadows have been cast. They have successfully evaded all the attempts of prying persons to inquire into the secrets of their power; they have avoided being interviewed and questioned. But Film Fun has been persistent – and at last has been privileged to enter the inner sanctum where the potent charms are brewed, and to hear from the lips of the enchantresses themselves the secret of their marvelous power.
To begin with, I must admit that it was with some misgivings that I set out upon this examination of the age-old secrets of Eve. We are all more or less well-oiled machinery, but we are human, and, therefore, susceptible. With swift-beating heart I entered the boudoir of Virginia Pearson. Miss Pearson was seated with her chin resting in the hollow of her hands, her lustrous brown eyes gazing unseeingly into space. “You will excuse me if I do not rise,” she began. “This is a favorite pose of mine. Do you know, there is something about space that awes me. There is so much of it, and it is free – the only free thing there is left in this country of ours, I think. That is what makes it so much fun to gaze at it. I advise all girls who would be vampires to cultivate the trick. It has the advantage of helping one to remain quite silent, which alone, if it is a woman, smacks of the mysterious and unexplainable. There is one other point. All vampires should wear pearls. Pearls suggest tears – heaven knows they cost enough money to make anyone weep – and what is a surer way of winning a man than to suggest tears, and still not redden the nose with them? A man can forgive anything except a woman with a red nose. My methods are very quick. I never waste time. When I see what I want, I go after it, and I usually get it.” I shivered. I fled.
Still trembling, I went to visit Mme. Olga Petrova. Mme. Petrova is the possessor of a perfect figure, and her face is classical in its beauty. She smiled a slow, sweet smile and gave me the full benefit of her lovely profile. “I rely upon personality,” said she; “personality and dress. For one cannot dress well unless one has personality, and personality without dress I have also found unadvisable, since people no longer have any soul for true art and must have their amusement censored. I practice no tricks, and I never deliberately try to lure anyone on. ‘Take your time’ is my motto. I believe that the vampire is the best friend the exhibitor can have. Leads and pretty ingenues draw, yes; but when a vampire is announced, the ‘Standing Room Only’ signs come out.” I tore myself away – figuratively speaking – and went to where that greatest of vampires, Theda Bara, gazed into a crystal ball.
“I cannot tell you anything about anything,” she breathed. “For I am a mystery, even to myself. Never understand yourself, for if you do not, no one else will be able to understand you either, and there is nothing in this world that attracts as a mystery does. I am always wondering about myself, and consequently I have always something to think about, and I am happy. To prevent the contingency of my ever understanding myself, I have hired an excellent corps of publicity writers. They turn out new stories about me every day. I am a reincarnation of Cleopatra, the Serpent of the Old Nile. My coming was foretold by Rhames, High Priest of Sett. I am a quite modern advocate of suffrage, and my acting is caused by self-hypnosis. It is fascinating not to understand one’s self.”
My final visit was to pretty Charlotte Burton. ”I am the sulky type of vampire,” she began, resting her arms on a table. “Men say there is murder in my eye. No soft, winning ways or mysterious appeals for me. I am changeable as an April sky. I am the thunder and lightning, the brooding clouds of summer. I am harsh and violent. If I don’t get what I want, I yell. There’s nothing like a good yell to bring ’em around.”
You see, there is no formula. Either you are born a vampire, or you are not, that’s all.