Theda Bara gave the world the Vamp, but precious few people seem to remember. She was one of cinema’s earliest stars and most of her work has perished; only two of her films remain, along with a collection of impressive stills. If her reputation as Hollywood’s first sex pot still lingers, it is also partly thanks to the formidable press department of the nascent Fox studio, which dreamed up her back story.
"History is slipping away," said director Hugh Munro Neeley at the screening of his recent documentary The Woman With The Hungry Eyes at the MoMA in New York. "She gets misidentified a lot." No wonder, since ‘Theda Bara’ is an anagram meaning Arab Death, a curious name for the middle-class Jewish college student Theodosia Goodman from Cincinatti, Ohio. Her huge, kohl-rimmed eyes formed the basis of her exotic persona that was created by her employer, claiming she was born in the shadows of the pyramids to a French artist and his Egyptian concubine and possessed supernatural powers.
After years of pursuing an unsuccessful theatre career, the 30-year old Goodman made her celluloid debut as the Vampire in A Fool There Was (1915). Using mostly 19th century gestures to convey her emotions, she was apparently a very convincing Vampire, popularising the word ‘vamp’ to signify man-eating female predators with limitless pools of lust and greed. According to lingering Victorian morals, men possessed only a limited supply of vital energy, which would diminish with each time they had sex. So a vampire’s lust was a very threatening phenomenon indeed for any ambitious man.
Theda Bara was an instant hit; her exoticism played up in the days before the moguls decided that blonde, corn-fed shiksas would be the object of the theatergoer’s desire, instead of moody, dangerous and dark women of unclear ethnic origins. Bara and Fox mined the success of the vamp with around forty feature films, almost of all of which would tragically perish when a Fox archive burned down in the ’30s. When she wanted to try different roles, other dark-looking actresses like Pola Negri stepped in to take her place.
In 1915 it was just her hungry expression that radiated sex, but judging from the stills from the sadly perished Cleopatra (1917), her costumes had become a major contributing factor to her image as a vamp. Translucent fabric, generously tailored slits and embellishments either revealed her breast or accentuated her crotch. To today’s jaded viewer, it is perhaps not the amount of bared flesh, but the degree of exposed fat that is shocking. Rolls and rolls of the stuff are falling out of Bara’s costumes. It makes one wonder whether such opulent revelations were standard fare at the time or not. After all, it was a big deal when she revealed an ankle to her victim in A Fool There Was. Two years later, as Cleopatra, she reveals a lot more than that. A director’s sarcastic wife, who perhaps felt threatened by having a Vamp at her dinner table, cattily commented on her supposed coarseness and her generous figure.
The documentary is well made, supported by interviews with film historians, solid research and a creative use of stills and sound. Neely and his producer Andi Hicks have specialised in making documentaries about the early days of cinema and its forgotten stars. Hugh M. Hefner has been gracious enough to support the project financially. Their narrative thread is chronological, hopping from one film to the next, which gets a bit predictable after a while. It would have been interesting to find out whether Cleopatra was considered the cinematic equivalent of Playboy at the time.
Although the notion of Victorian sex is discussed at great length, the film does not explain how Hollywood so suddenly shed those 19th century morals for the blatant eroticism of Cleopatra two years later, foreshadowing the Roaring ’20s. Was that considered scandalous at the time, or merely another exotic blockbuster from the Hollywood dream factory? It charts Goodman’s quest to obtain more serious roles, which seemed to result in her getting dropped by the Fox studio, which is never properly explained. Her subsequent film and theater projects and later projects about her never went off the ground, which is also not explained in the film. Theodosia Goodman is portrayed as an intelligent and well-balanced woman, so it is surprising she did not get anything done after Fox dropped her. Of course, the filmmakers depend on the available material, but it does leave the viewer wondering. The documentary ends by briefly describing her post-career life as a Hollywood housewife and hostess to cultured parties, married to the English director Charles Brabin, entertaining British expats and haute Hollywood. The Woman With The Hungry Eyes gives the world a chance to reacquaint itself with the woman who put the ‘vamp’ in ‘vampire’.