The Vampish A-list Sex Symbols of the 1920s

The Vampish A-list Sex Symbols of the 1920s

Our amazing retrospective programmers, Kelly Robinson and Ingrid Stigsdotter, give us some insight into some of cinemas first celebrities and most alluring vamps.

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Greta Garbo

At a time when complaints about our celebrity-obsessed society seem to be everywhere, it is worth reminding ourselves that sensationalism has played an important part in film culture for a very long time. Among the actresses celebrated in this retrospective, Greta Garbo (The Temptress) is perhaps the one name that almost everyone still seems to recognise, but during the silent era, several of the stars in our programme were A-list celebrities.

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Theda Bara

Theda Bara (A Fool There Was) was the first actress to establish a vamp persona on film and the first publicity-created star. Although Bara was American she was presented as an exotic French-Italian who had spent her childhood near the Sphinx in Egypt.

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Alla Nazimova

The private life of acclaimed Russian actress Alla Nazimova did not need publicity inventions to become colourful – she was a liberated woman and flamboyant lesbian who expressed then radical views about motherhood and had affairs with many of Hollywood’s famous, including Dorothy Arzner, who began her film career as a script girl on Nazimova’s productions. In Nazimova’s weirdly wonderful Salome, described by a contemporary critic as ’a hot-house orchid of decadent passion’, the 44-year-old actress plays a teenage Salome in micro-mini dresses and gets away with it – just! Writing under the name of Peter M. Winters, Nazimova adapted the screenplay from Oscar Wilde’s play, co-directed and produced the film. An assertive businesswoman, Nazimova ran her own production company, overseeing virtually every phase of production. She often collaborated with other women, including the prolific screenwriter June Mathis and the set designer Natacha Rambova.

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Louise Brooks

The American star Louise Brooks is still recognised as a 1920s style icon by many people who have never seen her films. The German film Pandora’s Box is one of the films that made the two of us fall in love with silent cinema.

The German actress Brigitte Helm is today mainly known for her double role as the sublimely beautiful robot/woman in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but when we discovered Alraune in the BFI archive we were amazed that this film is not more widely acclaimed.

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Brigitte Helm

Watching Alraune for the first time on a steenbeck in the BFI’s basement our jaws dropped as we witnessed some of the film’s more risqué elements: ‘Surely not!’, ‘Oh my god!’, ‘No, they’re not going to…’ At the festival, we will be screening the uncut version of Alraune. British audiences in the 1920s would have seen A Daughter of Destiny, a heavily censored version of the film that left much of its power on the cutting room floor.

The films in this programme deal with themes that were extremely controversial when they were first released – not just multiple lovers and affairs but rape, murder and some really screwed up older man/younger girl relationships, sometimes with incestuous undertones. You might expect the controversy to fade with the years but the films continue to shock and thrill today. In fact, they appeal to contemporary sensibilities in many different ways. For instance, Salome with its casting of drag queens and gay subplot can today be appreciated as a great example of high camp.

It is easy to wax lyrical about Brooks’ magnetic energy, Helm’s statuesque beauty or Garbo’s incomparable face, but the visual delight is also a question of mise-en-scène and camerawork. An art cinema framework could help films with sordid subject matter through the censors, allowing critics to celebrate their ‘artistic’ and ‘unconventional’ qualities while audiences flocked to the cinemas attracted by the scandalous content.

Enjoy all these fabulous vamp films as part of our SCREEN SEDUCTRESSES: Vamps, Vixens and Femmes Fatales retrospective at the BFI Southbank, March 6-12th. All films will be accompanied by specially commissioned live scores from contemporary female musicians.

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