director Hugh Munro Neely
The story of Theda Bara is truly one for the ages. One for the ages of cultural, feminist, and film studies and one for pure film history too.
The Woman with the Hungry Eyes is a solid, pretty straightforward documentary that gets to a lot of meat of its subject. Theda Bara, born Theodosia Burr Goodman in Cincinnati, OH in 1885 became one of American cinema’s first superstars, gave unto us the public the term “vamp”, and launched Fox Studios into as one of the major film manufacturers and eventual media conglomerates in the world.
And what’s funny is how this mid-Western Jewish girl with a dream of being an actress was utterly transformed and created by the sly, keen, and audacious PR system at Fox. Theodosia Burr Goodman may have been born in Cincinnati but Theda Bara was created, given a backstory of having come from Egypt, a mixed-race maneater, tailor-made for the role that shot her to celebrity, 1915’s A Fool There Was, which was adapted from a play, which came from a painting, which came from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. And though a barely metaphorical vampire, vampire she was, and vamp she became.
Her legend was purely fictional at the time, and apparently, most people knew that. She was a huge, huge star and made dozens of movies in about 10 years time. But part of her modern, present-day legend is that most of her films are lost in a 1937 fire at Fox. So the legend of Theda Bara is limited to a handful of films that represent to us now her entire career.
She is known to us in stills, as the film makes note. This image of “the Vamp” is one for the ages, this modern eternity of images worth thousands and thousands of words, that suggest things, films, performances we may well never know.
Molly Haskell is among the main group of talking head interviewees, who cast considerable, interesting light on Bara. Director Hugh Munro Neely’s film has the style of a sort of pre-Ken Burns documentary, but the substance of a well-researched and a deeper portrait than simple biography. It’s truly worthwhile.