CLARA IN 1931: “NO LIMIT”, “KICK IN”, AND THE GOODBYE TO PARAMOUNT by Jeffrey E. Ford
Personally and professionally, 1931 was probably the nadir of Clara Bow’s life. Not even her earliest days as a working actress – an extra girl confined in a succession of cheap studio pictures — could have encompassed the personal humiliation and professional disappointment that Clara had to endure in the last year of her Paramount contract. First, there was the whole Daisy DeVoe mess and it’s highly publicized trial; following hot on the heals of Clara’s disastrous involvement with Texas doctor Earl Pearson and its exposure, along with the ridiculous Cal-Neva gambling episode, the DeVoe trial was a personal fiasco for Clara, in spite of the fact it resulted in 18 months of jail time for DeVoe. Second, there was “The Coast Reporter” and its unprecedented slander campaign against Clara, a campaign so vicious and mean spirited that even the eventual imprisonment of the newspaper’s editor/publisher on obscenity charges could do little to salvage Clara’s shattered reputation. Worst of all, the star’s two films of that year, No Limit and Kick In, were both failures at the box office. For an actress who had been the top female star with the public a short two years before, the collapse was extraordinary. Clara’s subsequent release from her Paramount contract seemed, at the time, almost like an act of mercy. One thing was certain: the 1920’s were over, and the “It Girl” who had received 45,000 fan letters a month was no more. The shining, soulful eyes that had dominated such films as Mantrap (1926), It (1927), and The Wild Party (1929), was considered a Hollywood has-been at the age of twenty five.
Clara would return triumphantly to Hollywood in 1932 to make her final two films, Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla (1933) for Fox. Not surprisingly, their success has tended to overshadow any serious reassessment of Clara’s last Paramount vehicles. And while they are hardly the best and/or the most memorable of her career, they are also far from the uninspired “kiss-off” films that they’re generally accused of being. In fact, if one of the films seems genuinely uninspired, then the other seems well within shooting distance of being called extraordinary. For all of their faults, both of these films do manage to showcase their leading lady in unique and sometimes surprisingly effective ways, and even if neither film realizes its full potential, they are nevertheless engaging, and often surprisingly watchable star vehicles, which deserve a more widespread distribution and rediscovery than they have hitherto received. And with their recent restoration (and a sold-out special performance at New York’s Film Forum), both No Limit and, even more so, the elusive and largely unseen Kick In, are ripe for a fresh look and appreciation.
In the first place, it’s necessary to put both films within their proper context of Clara and her career. The year of 1930 had been a decidedly mixed one for the star, ranging from the unqualified triumph of her first musical performance in Paramount on Parade, which unfortunately lead directly to the unqualified disaster of Love Among the Millionaires, a self-proclaimed musical-romance that was by far the worst starring film Clara ever appeared in. Between these high and low points were True to the Navy and Her Wedding Night, both unambitious program comedies that, while they may have been watchable, were as equally forgettable. More than any other year, 1930 shows Clara as a star completely under the thumb of her studio – willing to do anything asked of her – and completely at a loss as to the direction of her own career. Love Among the Millionaires is perhaps the supreme example of the studio’s bone-headed, spit-in-the-wind policy regarding Clara and her films: the star has had one popular success singing, musicals are the big box office ticket at the moment, and so, Clara Bow’s next film will be a musical. Never mind that the star was even more petrified of singing on screen than she was of talking, or that the script and score provided for the film play like third-rate remnants pulled from the studio’s garbage can; Clara is still our top star and she will somehow manage to bring it all off. That, in a nutshell, reflected Paramount’s thinking in regard to Clara, so it should come as no surprise that the results were disastrous. No other star of the period, with the possible exception of Buster Keaton – who got stuck in his own musical mess entitled Free and Easy the same year – had to endure such a humiliating mis-use of their talents. However, if Paramount’s attitude toward their most popular star is unfathomable today, it is somewhat more understandable if you look at it from their prospective at the time. Namely: just what can we do with Clara Bow and her talent? This much is certain: the 1920’s were over and “IT” was no longer selling. So just what was Paramount to do? The frothy sex comedies at least provided a temporary answer; it allowed the studio to play off the star’s growing notoriety while at the same time, playing up to Clara’s established skill at light comedy. As much as one can deride the resulting films as formula and uninspired, they at least managed to show off Clara to better advantage than they’re usually given credit for. On the whole, True to the Navy is as trite a film as any other, and yet, the first twenty minutes are so engagingly performed by Clara – again playing up her image as she deftly juggles a half dozen different sailors – that it’s impossible not to smile in pleasant memory of it. The material may not have been the best, but the star was still able to wring an engaging life out of it at various points. As late as this film, Clara was still able to shine regardless of her material. The same star magic is apparent in Her Wedding Night, and the audience reaction was still favorable. The important thing, as Stenn states in his book, is that “audiences were laughing with Clara instead of at her.” They made, as they often did where Clara was concerned, the idiotic assumption that what they were seeing on the screen was a reflection of the star’s real life; for all the audience cared, movie star Norma Martin of Her Wedding Night might as well have been called Clara Bow. But for all the audience titillation that Paramount encouraged by slipping lines and situations into the film that seemed a direct reflection of the star’s actual life — they stupidly pretended that it wasn’t so — and that they were promoting rather than exploiting their star, which clearly wasn’t the case. Certainly, the box office success of the films only convinced Paramount that their course of action was the correct one, and so, the exploitation continued. At this point, Clara still had her audience. But then came more scandals, and Paramount was getting frustrated as Clara’s popularity sank.
So, when “Winter Bow” started production in October of 1930, it was caught in-between a star and a studio who both had no idea of how to approach it. And the film reflects all of this indecision throughout its every frame. It was being made just as the Cal-Neva gambling scandal was hitting the newspapers, so scenes were re-written and/or added to the film to make direct references to, and poke fun at, the star’s misadventures. The tone the script was aiming for seems to have been in the same light-comic vein as Clara’s other 1930 films. Meanwhile, gangster pictures were starting to become more and more popular, with the releases of Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931) being seen as the inspiration of a new genre cycle that had actually begun several years earlier. Suddenly, the film was being pushed in this new, altogether different direction. And not surprisingly, the different parts of the film reacted to one another like oil and water; some scenes are played for comedy, others appear to be played completely straight. Even the film’s title was confused, being changed at the last minute from the self-conscious Lose Your Money (as anyone with the price of a newspaper knew Clara had) to the innocuous No Limit. Unfortunately for Paramount, and even more so for Clara, a public that was oming in to the worst of the Depression had little humor for an out-of-control star’s excesses, and even less humor for fortunes lost through stupidity. Consequently, No Limit was a box office bomb – the first Clara Bow film to lose money. Only David O. Selznick, who had opposed its production from the beginning, could have possibly cracked a smile at the film’s fate. For Clara, it was just another reason for despair and retreat.</align=”justify”>
The sharp eye can spot every bit of this despair in No Limit, particularly in its leading lady’s performance. There is none of the spark and vitality that lit the screen in her previous films; instead, it has been replaced with a somber sadness that is undeniably affecting, but also completely wrong for the tone the film seems to be trying to set for itself. It gives even the lightest of the film’s supposedly comic scenes a fatal lethargy that’s insurmountable. Nor is director Frank Tuttle in any kind of position to help the overburdened star; his straightforward directoral approach is uninspired at best, and here he is far from his best, leaving Clara and the other players completely to their own devices. At times, Clara seems so lost as to be on the verge of tears; no other film in her career so totally documents her behind the scenes torment as does this one. Even worse for the film, just as in Dangerous Curves, Clara is stuck with a character who ends up coming across as too much of a naive and soft-hearted marshmallow to encourage any audience sympathy; you just want to slap her across the face and tell her to wake up and smell the coffee. There are odd moments where you almost think its going to happen – Clara’s final confrontation with her hoodlum husband before he runs out on her, for example – but the film never follows through. Any sympathy Clara generates is due solely to audience identification with Clara, not the character she’s playing. But Clara was too much of a victim in real life to find any pleasure in her playing one on the screen. And the supporting cast is of no help whatsoever. Norman Foster is a likable enough presence, and with better material he and Clara might have made a good screen couple, but with the messy script and characterization he’s stuck with here, he’s alternately a lying jerk, a sexist cad, or a rather nice guy depending on which part of the film you happen to see him in. He comes across as particularly sleazy in his attempted seduction of Clara, filmed by director Tuttle in such a way so that the audience can make the worst of assumptions as to what he’s attempting behind that closed door. Then, when Clara runs away in shame, the script uses the situation to set up a cheap sex joke, and it comes across as more pitiful than funny. We don’t know who we feel sorrier for: Clara or the scriptwriter. There’s nothing Foster can do but to play the scenes as written, and as a result, he never comes across as any kind of believable character. Little wonder he gave up acting within a few years and turned to directing. However, as weak as Foster may be, both Stuart Erwin and Harry Green — each supplying their own type of offensive, stereotyped characterizations — come off even worse. Each seems to be tying to outdo the other to see who can be the more annoying, and the entertainment value in their down to the wire battle is nil. Even gifted comedienne Thelma Todd, who so memorably went up against Clara in Call Her Savage the following year, is mean-spirited, humorless, and dull. Consequently, so is much of the film. Clara had put her trust in Paramount to provide her with material that would showcase her talent, and in this instance, her trust – for the most part – was betrayed.</align=”justify”>
But, surprisingly, this is not the last word that should be had on No Limit. For if the film is often a mind-numbing shambles, it still never manages to sink to the stomach churning depths of Love Among the Millionaires, or some of the offensive sexism on display in The Saturday Night Kid (1929). Even the film’s exploitative dialogue centered around the star’s actual gambling problems seems no where near as blatant and tacky as it’s made out to be, or indeed could be; for the most part, it’s on and off so fast as to be almost unnoticeable, and one need only compare it to the kind of scenes Jean Harlow was forced to endure in the likes of The Girl from Missouri (1934) and Reckless (1935) – scenes that so mirror the star’s actual involvement in the Paul Bern suicide scandal that they raise Hollywood tastelessness to a new degree – to appreciate the more subtle exploitation that’s on display here. And if Clara’s performance never seems in sync with anything that’s going on around her, it nevertheless gives indications of the soulful and moving performances that she was capable of – and indeed gave in many other and better films. Even if she can’t surmount the Mount Everest of the script, Clara is still trying to give the best her talent can supply, and if the effort seems wrongheaded and foolhardy, it’s nonetheless admirable in light of her surroundings. She’s clearly not giving up and offering a superficial and perfunctory performance as she did on a few other occasions. In addition, the film offers some wonderful location footage of New York in 1931, as well as the art-deco sets that make up the apartment/gambling house where much of the action is set. There’s also some smart and daring (typically pre-code) dialogue, most of which is centered around sex. In the end, if the film is not in any absolute sense good, then it is also not completely awful, especially if one is inclined to cast a sympathetic eye to its leading lady and the dilemmas she was going through at the time. What we’re left with is a mediocre star vehicle, which has several compensations for the dedicated Clara Bow fan. And to be frank, in this dire world, there are a lot worse ways that one can kill 72 minutes, than with the uninspired trifle that is No Limit.
However, if that film’s inability to combine the tone of it’s leading lady’s performance with the overall tone of the film is one of its key faults, then that makes the re-emergence of the film that followed it, Kick In, all the more important. For in this film – amazing as it may seem in light of its history — Clara, the script, her directors, and even her supporting cast all seem in perfect harmony. There is no “It Girl” here, but there is a superb and hard working actress. What emerges is less of a “Star Vehicle” and more of a compact and solid little human drama. The resulting film is thematically unified and structurally sound. It is also far and away the best film Clara Bow made since Dangerous Curves in 1929. But it’s more than just a re-discovered gem for the Clara fan; Kick In is a major film rediscovery. It’s restoration and reappearance is a cause for celebration.
Certainly, it was not a film approached auspiciously by anyone involved: three scandals, a courtroom debacle, and the box office failure of No Limit had left a Clara Bow that was physically and emotionally battered, barely able to function let alone carry a major production. Paramount, as quickly becoming disinterested in Clara as the public was, had assigned her a script based on what some called a “rotten theatrical chestnut” that had been first produced on Broadway back in 1914, and filmed twice before. The production was a nightmare of disorganization, with Clara breaking down in the midst of shooting, and the original director Lothar Mendes being replaced by Richard Wallace when the studio felt he was mis-using the star and handing the film over to co-star Regis Toomey. Paramount’s intense concern over “extracting the last ounce of value out of Bow before letting her go”obviously didn’t extend to promoting the final product, which was dumped into theaters at the end of May 1931 to meet it’s expected failure. At this point, Clara had no one to support her: the studio, the critics, and worst of all “her wonderful fan friends” had all deserted her. A month later, Paramount (or more precisely B. P. Schulberg – anxious to save the studio $60,000 it owed to the star) manipulated Clara into asking for a release from her contract, which the studio promptly and gratefully granted. As for the ill-fated Kick In, it was quickly shoved into the studio vaults and completely forgotten.
According to Bow biographer David Stenn, the studio never even bothered to sell the film to television in the 1950’s.</align=”justify”>
It is, perhaps, not surprising that both the critics and the public rejected Kick In in 1931; Clara had become such a public joke that no one was willing to look at anything she did objectively. And the film’s fatalistic tone was certainly out of line with what audiences expected and wanted from her. But as any real film historian knows, a film’s critical and box office performance at the time of its release has little baring on its shelf life and/or its gifts to posterity. Many highly regarded film classics were utter failures in their original releases, only to be rediscovered and reevaluated later. For all intents and purposes, no one has really seen Kick In since 1931; any estimation of its value that wasn’t written at the time of its original release can’t be trusted, since it couldn’t have been based on first-hand evidence, but solely on secondary sources. It calls into question everything that’s been written about the film by supposedly respectable film historians. How can anyone critique a film that can’t be seen? Thankfully, with the new restoration, the film can now be seen. And hopefully, it will be seen. More importantly, I hope it will be seen for the often dark, uncompromising film of fate and emotion that it finally emerged as. Unlike No Limit, time has been kind to Kick In.
There are several reasons Kick In outshines any of its immediate predecessors. David Stenn, in his presentation before its recent showing, theorized that Paramount was so disinterested in the new Bow film that they just let the makers do as they pleased. That may well have been the case, since the film is so different from other Bow vehicles it seems that no one from Paramount was hanging over it. Kick In is as different from every Clara Bow film that preceded it as Citizen Kane (1941) is from Casablanca (1942). The one film that might have provided some invaluable insights and comparisons, 1928’s Ladies of the Mob, is sadly lost. One can happily say that the Paramount influence isn’t missed, as it was Paramount for the most part, that kept Clara boxed within formula films for the better part of her career. If the studio often exhibited a decided lack of taste, some of its employees seem to have been better gauges of good quality. Whatever or whoever was responsible, much of Kick In’s success can be traced to a combination of three elements that are crucial to any film: script, direction, and performances. If I choose to point out the script’s contributions first, it’s not to imply a higher valuation of it than might seem warranted; indeed, it’s precisely because of the script’s lowly origins that it seems necessary to defend it at length, since it can all too easily fall into dismissal simply on the basis of its background. Just because the script was based on Willard Mack’s seventeen year old play does not necessarily mean that it was worthless. Indeed, the hindsight of seventy years might cause one to praise Bartlett Cormack’s adaptation as a textbook on effective screenwriting, which manages to “open up the play” while retaining much of its claustrophobic intensity. Despite the fact that the play had been previously filmed twice before, this depression era update seems to suit its themes and characterizations well; the result is hard-edged and thoroughly engaging — hardly something “mildewed by time” as one writer put it. Remember, when Kick In was made, the Gangster Cycle of the early depression years was just reaching full flower; because of this, its story of a husband and wife struggling to go straight as both friend and foe seem to conspire against them, should have struck as responsive a chord with audiences as any of the films that were being churned out by Warner Brothers at the same time. I’m afraid the only reasons that it didn’t were due solely to Paramount’s decided lack of faith in its own product, and the fact that Kick In starred not James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, but “crisis-a-day” Clara Bow.
Kick In opens with a stylistically bravo sequence showing petty crook Chick Hewes (Regis Toomey) being released from prison. Almost immediately, we are in unfamiliar territory for a Clara Bow film, as the images throughout are dark, gritty, and almost expressionistic. One has to wonder which director, Mendes or Wallace, was responsible for the overall look of these sequences, for they bear little relation to any other Paramount film of the period. Indeed, if anything, the film would seem to owe a great deal to director Roland West’s gangster film of two years earlier, Alibi (1929). That film, made for United Artists, is little known today, but it’s one that’s worthy of being dug up again. Once released, Chick’s faithful wife Molly (Clara) is there to greet him. They start a new life together, but when an old acquaintance of Chick’s commits a robbery, they are both dragged back into covering the crime, all the while being targeted by a corrupt and unforgiving detective (Paul Hurst) and an ambitious Chief of Police (Donald Crisp). All of the action takes place at night, resulting in an unmistakable noir like atmosphere. Clara and her husband are a quintessential good couple whom fate is continually thwarting; they want to do nothing but good, but fate constantly compels them to be bad. It is exactly the same type of themes that many classic film noirs are based around, and more than any other film of its time (excepting, again, Alibi) Kick In clearly paves the way, stylistically and thematically, to the film noir movement of the late 1940’s. The obvious question is: who should be credited for this striking premonition of things to come: Lothar Mendes or Richard Wallace? One’s first inclination is to give the credit to Mendes, since he was the director responsible for Dangerous Curves (1929), one of the most visually beautiful of all the Clara Bow films. On the other hand, nothing in Mendes’ style for Curves or the 1929 version of The Four Feathers (the only films of his that I’ve seen) even remotely resembles the dark and oppressive imagery on display in Kick In. As for Richard Wallace, a complete scan of his filmography reveals absolutely nothing of any interest today; could Kick In have been the exception to the mediocre rule in his career? It’s an impossible question to answer. And besides, there’s no way of knowing who shot this or that, or whether any of the footage Mendes shot at the beginning of the production was re-shot by Wallace after he came in as a replacement. Surprisingly, the final product shows none of the ragged edges usually associated with such behind the scenes chaos. Did Wallace simply continue with the original look Mendes had planned for the film? Did Wallace completely revamp the production once he had taken over? We may never know. This much is certain: Kick Inemerges along with Alibi and the other early gangster films as one of the key works in the development of the genre. Certainly, it’s only unavailability that has caused it to be overlooked for so long. That – and the fact that it starred Clara Bow.
But finally, it’s the performances that really put the film over, and in this regard, Kick In was blessed with one of the best casts ever to be assembled for one of Clara’s films. Regis Toomey is surprisingly good in the role of the likable but downtrodden Chick, struggling to remain on the straight and narrow even as the fates conspire against him. Paul Hurst is appropriately smarmy as the unforgiving detective eager to nail Chick whether he’s guilty of a crime or not. And, best of all, Donald Crisp is outstanding as the Police Commissioner vainly struggling to play both ends against the middle – anxious to both solve the crime and advance his own career – whatever it may cost. Crisp succeeds in making the character thoroughly ambiguous, and the audience doesn’t really know until the film’s end whether he’s going to end up on the good or the bad side of the scales. Wynne Gibson and James Murray (of King Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd fame) offer solid supporting work. Only Leslie Fenton, playing the drug addicted brother, seems somewhat overwrought and campy; still, he’s a far cry from the type of acting one finds in Reefer Madness (1936). Nevertheless, it is Clara Bow who ties everything together and makes the film inspiring and memorable. It was interesting talking about Kick In with some Clara fans after the showing; many expressed disappointment at what they considered Clara’s limited screen time, and decidedly supporting role to Toomey. To my eyes, nothing could be further from the truth. The effectiveness of a star’s performance can’t be judged by the amount of time they spend on the screen. Clara’s performance is central to the success of Kick In, and the truly amazing thing is that none of her behind-the-scenes turmoil is detectable in the finished film. Here, unlike in No Limit, Clara’s overwhelming sadness and struggle against the forces aligned against her is completely in sync with the film’s tense drama and shadowy noir atmosphere. Surprising, given the conditions under which it was created, Clara offers a performance of strength and conviction. She is the rock who helps her husband triumph over the enemies who seek to destroy him. Although she may appear weak and demure, her Molly Hewes is a strong woman capable of action and even violence (her surprise attack on Hurst, taking him down with the butt of a gun, is just one of her many striking moments); she will do anything for the husband she loves, and she supports him unconditionally. It’s a rounded, wholly memorable performance, I can only shake my head in disbelief that if did nothing to help Clara’s career, or indeed was even noticed in 1931. But then, take a look at the 1931 Oscar winners, and learn that they are never handed out on the basis of merit – only on what is fashionable according to the standards of the time. Unfortunately, Clara was never fashionable in Hollywood; she was only tolerated. The public made her, and in a sense, the public also destroyed her. It was a sad waste of a great talent.</align=”justify”>
Still, the films, for the most part, are here. And it’s in Clara’s surviving films that her true legacy lies. With every film that re-emerges from the vaults, the true force of her talent makes itself better known to a world that has, for the most part, forgotten her greatness. While there are still many gaps waiting in the catalogue of lost Clara Bow films, the re-appearance of Kick In is a cause for celebration. Time and technology have taken us a long way from the Hollywood that Clara knew and worked in, but some of her films are timeless. And if some of the others are not (like No Limit), then it’s only through an examination of both the good films and the bad that one can come to a full understanding of Clara and her talent. If that talent had to make its way through some mediocre films (and worse), well then, it also managed to shine in some that were unmistakably great. To that short, and exclusive list, should now be added the title of Kick In. To anybody interested in Clara Bow, it’s a major work that cannot, and should not, be overlooked. Hopefully, Kick In is now on the path of its much needed redemption. Anyone who loves film – and Clara Bow — can hope for nothing less.
Sadly, in 1931, Clara could see none of this. She could only see her trust in Paramount betrayed, her career a failure, and her fame a curse. Never again would she be quite the same woman who had come to the studio in 1926, full of life and ambition. Oddly enough, the themes of trust and betrayal are the prevalent one’s in Kick In, a film that more than any other should solidify her reputation as one of the screen’s great stars. I would like to think that as the applause rang through the Film Forum on February 11, 2003 after a showing of Kick In, the spirit of Clara was somewhere in the theater, smiling with pride, finally realizing that all her hard work had not been in vain, and that some of her films were better than she ever realized. It would nice if she could know; it would be nice for her to realize that she is remembered for more than just scandal. And as the years pass, it becomes more and more true. She is remembered for her talent. Just as it should be.