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.