Telling Quotes from Silent Cinema Starlets on Playing the Vamp

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The enticing and often deadly female archetype of the vamp was popularized in the 1915 saucy silent A Fool There Was , which starred the legendary Theda Bara in her third film, playing a ruthless seductress.

In the era of silent cinema, the vamp represented the exotic and mysterious woman, heartless enough to steal your world fortune, and sexy enough to get you to hand it over to her willingly. Stars like Mary Pickford were America’s sweethearts, but the vamps got to have all the fun. Still, it wasn’t always easy playing the bad girl. Vamps like Tallulah Bankhead, who started in the silents (and would have celebrated a birthday this weekend), were typecast throughout their careers. But other actresses enjoyed playing the bewitching temptress on and off-screen.

In a collection of quotes from some of silent cinema’s greatest femme fatales, we discovered what the starlets really thought about playing the provocative vamp and how it affected their personal lives and careers.

Theda Bara

“To be good is to be forgotten. I’m going to be so bad I’ll always be remembered.” —Theda Bara

“I have already learned that the fewer appearances you make, the more they will talk about you. All you have to do is to say you want to be alone — and the whole world thinks you are exotic and glamorous. It never occurs to them that you are simply tired.” —Pola Negri

“It is vital to be photogenic from head to foot. After that you are allowed to display some measure of talent.” —Musidora

“We were all as blind as bats. Theda Bara couldn’t see a foot ahead of her and poor Rudy [Valentino] groped his way through many a love scene, and I really mean groped. They all used big reflectors to get extra light from the sun — that’s how we acquired that interesting Oriental look. We didn’t have any censors in those days, but we did have our own bosoms and our own eyelashes . . . and we never took ourselves seriously.” —Nita Naldi

“I came here as a foreigner: I had not been married or divorced: there was no scandal attached to my name. They had to say something about me, so the publicity departments wrote stories of their own fantasy and called me temperamental and hard to handle. They ended up believing their own creations.” —Jetta Goudal

Olga Petrova

“I am a feminist. By that I do not mean that women should try to do the work of men. They should merely learn to do their own work, live their own lives, be themselves, with all the strength that is in them.” —Olga Petrova

“I finally got fired because they ran out of hussies to play.” —Myrna Loy

“My part in The Ten Commandments brought me an avalanche of offers and, somewhat astounded, I accepted the most money, playing in a succession of independent productions. I was too easy-going, too content with the things that were coming my way again — clothes, good living, a luxurious background. I love comfort.” —Estelle Taylor

“I did not use your sort of make-up and had to be taught how. I was living in an unaccustomed daze.” —Greta Garbo

“I am not a myth.” —Marlene Dietrich

Louise Glaum

“I’m the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn.” —Jeanne Eagels

“When I went to Hollywood in 1927, the girls were wearing lumpy sweaters and skirts… I was wearing sleek suits and half naked beaded gowns and piles and piles of furs.” —Louise Brooks

“A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.” —Clara Bow

“The first thing I knew about being a ‘vamp’ was when I woke up one morning to read a newspaper notice calling me ‘the peacock woman’ and a ‘vampire.’ The term wasn’t used in titles, sub-titles or advertising, but was probably invented by eastern critics. I didn’t mind the ‘peacock woman’ part of it, as I wore the first peacock gown on the screen, I think, and I have one in this picture, and I love peacocks.” —Louise Glaum

“It was an invention of my publicity, dahling.” —Pola Negri on rumors she was born under a Gypsy curse

Valeska Suratt

“The reason good women like me and flock to my pictures is that there is a little bit of vampire instinct in every woman.” —Theda Bara

“I was glamorous because of magicians like George J. Folsey, James Wong Howe, Oliver Marsh, Ray June, and all those other great cinematographers. I trusted those men and the other experts who made us beautiful. The rest of it I didn’t give a damn about. I didn’t fuss about my clothes, my lighting, or anything else, but, believe me, some of them did.” —Myrna Loy

“Marriage is a career itself. It requires full-time. When I do fall in love the career must go.” —Lili Damita

“The women I now portray are bad to start with, but there are always that kind in real life — people who make a mistake, do wrong, but later atone for it. They are not vampires — women entirely bad. If a woman just makes a mistake unintentionally, I don’t believe she should be condemned for it. That’s what makes life interesting — people changing, characters developing.” —Louise Glaum

“It’s my personality that wins for me. I’m no singer. Heaps of people can beat me dancing. Precious few of them, though, get the salary I do. Why? Because I’m me!” —Valeska Suratt

Margaret Livingston

“I am not going to get married. I am going to be in the movies.” —Margaret Livingston

“Love is a publicity stunt, and making love — after the first curious raptures — is only another petulant way to pass the time waiting for the studio to call.” —Louise Brooks

“Glamour is what I sell, it’s my stock in trade.” —Marlene Dietrich

“No matter how hard you try, you find that you cannot possibly please everyone. Hollywood has always reminded me of the old Aesop’s fable about the old man, his young son, and their donkey. They were criticized when the old man rode and the song walked — and vice versa; they were blamed for waste when they both walked, and for brutality when they both rode. No stardom carries with it too much grief to be worth the battle.” —Clara Kimball Young

“Life’s too short and fate too funny to get upstage, Today they may be showering us with roses on Broadway and tomorrow some fool director who used to be a waiter may be rejecting us as atmosphere in a five reel five cent feature.” —Olive Thomas