Clara in 2000: a Year of Rediscovery

by Jeffrey Ford

It’s hard to believe, but the dawn of the new millennium has brought a banquet of previously unavailable riches for the Clara Bow fan. In addition to the new and updated edition of David Stenn’s Bow biography, five previously unviewable Bow films have surfaced either at festivals or on video. To this observer, the year 2000 ended up being the best year for Clara Bow since 1932. 1999 was considered a good year by just having two films, Helen’s Babies (1924) and Parisian Love (1925) released, along with the excellent TCM Bow biography. But now, all that has emerged this year has surpassed it, and the reclaimed films are filling in some vital pieces among the missing legacy of Clara, and are invaluable to a reassessment of her career.

The 1925 Tom Mix film The Best Bad Man seems to me very much the least of all the Clara films that have reemerged this year. Unfortunately, part of this response may be due to the absolutely miserable print that was shown at New York’s Film Forum during their two month Bow festival. Whole chunks of the film seemed to be missing, and since the film was fundamentally a vehicle for Mix, Clara had precious little to do. Still, it was interesting to see her in buckskins and a cowboy hat, and the final flood sequence in which Clara did all her own stunts was certainly impressive. But outside of that, Clara’s presence was the only worthwhile aspect of The Best Bad Man

The films Black Oxen (1924) and Get Your Man (1927) weren’t shown during the New York

              scene from BLACK OXEN

 Festival, but both titles have sneaked out on video, and given the chance to watch the two films together gives one a fascinating look at Clara’s work before and after the influence of It (1927). Black Oxen, based on a popular novel by Gertrude Franklin Atherton, is a fairly ridiculous soap-opera with some science fiction overtones. None of it comes across very effectively in this lethargic screen version, directed with an exceedingly heavy hand by Frank Lloyd. Nevertheless, Clara had a strong affection for the film and its director, and it’s easy to see why she made such an impact when the film was originally released; she’s the only member of the cast whose performance exhibits any kind of life. Whenever Clara is off-screen, the other actors come across as nothing more than posturing statues, while Corinne Griffith, who plays the role of the Gay Nineties beauty romping around the Roaring Twenties, gives a whole new meaning to the term "Ice Princess." In the midst of this, Clara’s fresh faced beauty was never more welcome.

After slogging through the overall tedium of Oxen, 1927’s Get Your Man comes across as an absolute pleasure, and may well be my personal favorite of all the films that have re-emerged this year (certainly I find it the most interesting – fully deserving of a full length article). Even missing a reel and suffering from some severe nitrate decomposition, it showcases Clara superbly. She and Buddy Rogers make a charming couple, and director Dorothy Arzner gives it a lovely pace – even if it is lacking many of the more ambitious ideas that categorized her second film with Clara, 1929’s The Wild Party. What the film does have in abundance is Clara at the peak of her powers. To see her at this point of her stardom – effervescent and alive, before the weight of sound and scandal came crashing down on her – is a joy. With so many of Clara’s silent films still lost to the ravages of time, the reappearance of any of her starring vehicles must be cherished. One can only hope that someone eventually finds the film’s missing reels – or is able to reconstruct them via production stills (they do leave a rather large hole in the film’s plot). Here’s hoping… In the meantime, enjoy what we have.

The Film Forum made quite a buzz with their showing of Clara’s 1930 film Her Wedding Night. It was the first time the film had been shown in New York since 1930, and I’m happy to say that Clara’s fans packed the theater to a sell-out. Why the film has remained so elusive with most of Clara’s other talkies out on video I don’t know (Kick In from 1931 is the only other hold out), but it’s reappearance shows that 1930 was a much better year for Clara than has previously been acknowledged. Despite rather ham-fisted direction by Frank Tuttle, the film bounces along its merry way helped enormously by the supporting performances of Charles Ruggles and Skeets Gallagher. Like all of Clara’s 1930 films, it may not pass for great art but it is a lot of fun. And it also shows that at this point in her career, Clara’s star power was still undiminished. Perhaps now that the film has been shown, it will pop up at a few more festivals to prove that point to some ignorant critics who still insist that Clara was washed up the minute that sound came to film.

Which brings me around to what was by far the most eagerly awaited Clara rediscovery of the year. It was a long standing rumor that a print of 1927’s Children of Divorce was collecting dust in the Library of Congress, and outside of a couple of minutes that were shown in the Brownlow/Gill Hollywood documentary, the film has remained unseen since its original release. Finally, after much prodding (some of it by Bow biographer David Stenn), the Library decided to mount a major restoration of the film, which was premiered on the final night of the Film Forum festival. Bill Cramer was with me in the audience for the occasion, and after the show he remarked: "I thought Mantrap (1926) was Clara’s best performance, but I think I was wrong." The statement was sweeping, but I almost believe it to be true. If nothing else, Children of Divorce shows the kind of direction Clara’s career might have followed if the phenomenal success of It hadn’t been taken to Paramount’s heart. Here, as in Dancing Mothers (1926), Clara plays a selfish and somewhat dislikable character, who is only redeemed at the picture’s end by her death. Clara’s death scene in the film was much praised at the time, and it still holds up well. As for the rest of the film, it isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Clara’s performance, but it is a fascinating relic of its time. Of course, the picture’s main attraction today is the fact that Gary Cooper plays the male lead opposite Clara. Unfortunately, all the reports that indicated Cooper came across looking ridiculous have proven absolutely true. Wearing more makeup than Clara, he looks somewhat like a clown, and his performance has none of the authority that he demonstrated even a few short years later. One wishes that Clara and Cooper had generated as much chemistry on screen as they did in real life, but it was sadly not the case. Still, Children of Divorce looks beautiful in the new restoration, and for all it’s absurdity (made worse by the fact it takes itself seriously) it’s riveting from start to finish, and Clara’s performance is outstanding. Perhaps, as Bill Cramer said, it may even be the best of her career. And even if the film it graces is not – its reappearance is a cause for celebration.

The festival also came up with an interesting oddity – particularly for this Clara historian. The 35mm print shown of The Wild Party – supposedly obtained from the UCLA achive – contained four fascinating variations that I have previously never seen in any available print of the film. The combined new footage adds little more than a minute to the film, but in terms of sidelong revelation of characters and their motivations, it seems to me at least two of the variations are vital. The differences in the film are as follows:

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As Clara and Fredric March are fleeing from drunks, when they first pause hiding behind a bush, the two look into each other's eyes for several second.  then March hands her a knife and remarks: "If you have to, use this.  "The Long look and the extra line are not in the standard prints of the film.

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One of the inter-titles within the film is worded differently.  In the standard prints (including the one recently shown on TCM) the title reads simply:  "It was a month before Professor Gilmore returned to the college.  "The UCLA print reads: "After the shooting, Professor Gilmore was granted a temporary leave.  It was over a month before he returned to the college."

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After the fire alarm is set off and the girls have gathered outside, Marciline Day states:  "It's a false alarm.  According to the rules of the college, I will now read the roll.  "In the standard prints, she states:  "It's a false alarm."  And then just reads the roll.

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After Clara announces that she is leaving college, Marciline Day follows her and once outside, hugs her before saying:  'That was pretty stiff to take."  In standard prints, the hug between the two women is omitted.

Again, nothing in any of these variations greatly effects one’s overall perception of the film, except in the case of the final hug, which seems to me to make the film even more daring than it has previously appeared. As for the genesis of this fascinating print variation, I personally asked no less an expert than David Stenn, and he had no idea of its origin (nor was he even aware of the differences). Hopefully, it’s a mystery that someone will be able to resolve soon.

Like I said, the year 2000 has been a fabulous one for Clara. Let’s hope that 2001 will be even better! Is anyone holding a print of Red Hair (1928) or Ladies of the Mob (1928) out there?