A Femme Fatale is a French phrase for “fatal woman”. She is the archetype found in literature and art as a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.
One traditionional view portrays the femme fatale as a sexual vampire; her charms leach the virility and independence of lovers, leaving them shells of themselves.
From the American film-audience perspective, the femme fatale often appeared foreign, usually either of indeterminate Eastern European or Asian ancestry. She was the sexual counterpart to wholesome actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford.
Theda Bara, 1915 via
Theda Bara (1885–1955) was one of the most popular actresses of the silent era, and one of cinema’s earliest sex symbols. According to the studio biography her name was an anagram of “Arab Death”, and she was born in the Sahara to a French artiste and his Egyptian concubine and possessed supernatural powers. In fact, her father was a Cincinnati tailor. The film that made Bara a star was A Fool There Was (1915). The film took it´s title from the popular Rudyard Kipling poem “The Vampire” – the poem was even used in the publicity for the film. Kipling had taken inspiration from a vampire painted by Philip Burne-Jones, to write his poem. The poems refrain: “A fool there was…”, describes a seduced man. So, in the American slang of the era, a femme fatale is a vamp, short for vampire. And the femme fatale roles earned Bara that nickname – The Vamp.
Louise Glaum via
American actress Louise Glaum (September 4, 1888 – November 25, 1970) was called “The Spider Woman” or “The Tiger Woman” as one of silent screen’s most infamous and exotic vamps. She was credited with giving one of the best characterizations in her early career. Her first role as a “vamp,” was as Mademoiselle Poppea in The Toast of Death (1915).
Valeska Suratt via
Valeska Suratt (June 28, 1882 – July 2, 1962) was dubbed “The Vampire Woman” on the silent screen. In 1915 Suratt signed with Fox. and like fellow Fox contract players Theda Bara and Virginia Pearson, Suratt was marketed as a “vamp” and was cast as seductive and exotic characters. During her years on the stage, Valeska was noted for the high fashion clothes she wore on stage. She was sometimes called the “Empress of Fashions”. She began on film after being noticed by producer Edward Edelston as she was walking down a hotel staircase one evening wearing a provocative backless gown. Her name became synonymous worldwide for lavish gowns. In the late 1920s her fame waned and she quickly disappeared from public view, never to return.
Jeanne Roques (23 February 1889 – 11 December 1957), better known by her stage name Musidora, was a French actress chiefly famous for her work under the direction of Louis Feuillade: the serials Les Vampires as Irma Vep (an anagram of “vampire”) and in Judex as Marie Verdier. Les Vampires was not actually about vampires, but about a criminal gang-cum-secret society inspired by the exploits of the real-life Bonnot Gang. Her vamp persona has been compared with that of Theda Bara. Her mystique was accentuated by large, dark eyes and a habit of wearing a black leotard, hood and tights while on the set. After she retired from acting, she became a journalist and a writer on cinema.
Pola Negri via
Pola Negri (January 3, 1894 – 1 August 1987) was a Polish stage and film actress who achieved worldwide fame during the silent and golden eras of Hollywood and European film for her tragedienne and femme fatale roles. She was the first European film star to be invited to Hollywood, and become one of the most popular actresses in American silent film. She also started several important women’s fashion trends that are still staples of the women’s fashion industry. Her varied career included work as an actress in theater and vaudeville; as a singer and recording artist; as an author; and as a ballerina.However, three things conspired to end her career in Hollywood. The display that she put on at the funeral of Valentino in 1926, changed the public mood towards her. The Hays Office codes which would not allow filming the very traits that made her a sex-siren European star. And finally, her thick accent would not play in the sound pictures that were coming into vogue.
Myrna Loy via
Myrna Loy (August 2, 1905 – December 14, 1993) trained as a dancer and started her career at the end of the silent era. She was originally typecast in exotic roles, often as a Theda Bara-like femme fatale or a woman of Asian descent. Fortunately, she was rescued by the advent of the sound picture, where she was recast in the role of the witty, urbane, professional woman. She is best remembered for her role of Nora Charles opposite William Powell in six “Thin Man” movies.
Jetta Goudal via
Jetta Goudal (July 12, 1891 – January 14, 1985) left World War I era devastated Europe in 1918 to settle in New York City, where she hid her Dutch Jewish ancestry, generally describing herself as a “Parisienne” and on an information sheet for the Paramount Public Department she wrote that she was born at Versailles on July 12, 1901 (shaving 10 years off her age).
In her glorious Hollywood heyday, she was a star rivaling that of Gloria Swanson and fellow vamp Nita Naldi.
Goudal appeared in several highly successful and acclaimed films for DeMille, who later claimed that Goudal was so difficult to work with that he eventually fired her and cancelled their contract. Goudal filed a lawsuit for breach of contract against him and DeMille Pictures Corporation. Because of this and her high-profile activisim in the Actors’ Equity Association campaign for the theatre and film industry to accept a closed shop, some of the Hollywood studios refused to employ Goudal. In 1932, at age forty-one, she made her last screen appearance in a talkie, co-starring with Will Rogers in the Fox Film Corporation production of Business and Pleasure.
Helen Gardner, 1912 via
American film actress Helen Gardner (September 2, 1894 – November 20, 1958), is considered the screen’s first vamp and is known for her portrayals of strong female characters. She predates both Theda Bara, Valeska Suratt and Louise Glaum. She was also a writer, editor, producer and costume designer. Her first production was Cleopatra (1912) which was one of the first American full-length films, playing for many years in the US and abroad.
Olga Petrova via
Olga Petrova (May 10, 1884 – November 30, 1977) was an American actress, screenwriter and playwright. Born as Muriel Harding in England, she moved to the United States and became a star of vaudeville using the stage name Olga Petrova. Petrova starred in a number of films for Solax Studio sand was Metro Pictures first diva, usually given the role of a femme fatale. During her seven years in film, Petrova appeared in more than two dozen films and wrote the script for several others. Most of her films are now lost.
Virginia Pearsson via
Virginia Pearson (March 7, 1886 – June 6, 1958) made fifty-one films in a career which extended from 1910 until 1932. In her silent heydayn she was known as “the screen’s heretic”. She was promoted by William Fox of Fox Film Corporationfor for strong vamp parts and she reigned along with Theda Bara, Louise Glaum and Valeska Suratt as Hollywood’s most notorious vamps. Among her movies is Blazing Love (1916), Wildness of Youth (1922), The Vital Question (1916), Sister Against Sister (1917), The Red Kimona (1925), Wizard of Oz (1925), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). She went out of style after WWI and by 1924 had to declare bankruptcy. Thereafter she was reduced to extra parts and was forced to live with her husband, former actor Sheldon Lewis, in a small Hollywood Hotel room.