CLARA BOw: a short biography

                                                                                                        BY WILLIAM CRAMER

    To posterity, film buffs, and historians alike Clara Bow will forever be the "It" girl…"the royal mounted policeman of sex who always gets her man" at the end of every film. Granted many older fans who are still alive today remember her with love and affection. She was often cast as a waitress, a manicurist, or a salesgirl.  The ever plucky and ever resourceful Clara would predictably set her sights on the prize (a handsome male).  Armed with her natural vivaciousness, cunning, sensuousness, and irresistible charm, Clara's character would rise above her lowly station in life and obtain her goal. "Clara Bow lit up the screen as much as-if not more than-any other star in history. She is three- dimensional in her presence, and this quality projected onto her down to earth, regular-guy flappers, makes her seem terribly real and true to audiences." (Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999 p.448). But like so many of the great actors of yesteryear, rumors and legend have a way of superceding the truth. They have a way of distorting the facts and thereby eliminating any knowledge of what made Clara the truly talented phenomenon that she actually was.

"(Clara Bow has) won a very prominent place in the pantheon of silent movie stars, and her surviving films leave no doubt as to the exceptional force of her talent. She may have been the rawest and most unlettered of the silent era's stars…but the Clara Bow you can see in both pot-boilers and Oscar-winners ,clearly belongs in the elite company of the Gish sisters, Gloria Swanson, Louise Brooks, Garbo-female performers who made indelible and incandescent impressions on the collective unconscious of movie culture in the silent era."

(Peter Hogue - Film Comment)

      Clara Bow invented the notion of sex on the silver screen. She was the first actress who visibly flaunted her sex appeal and, in turn, became the most talked-about resident of Hollywood. Idolized by Louise Brooks in the 20s, Marilyn Monroe in the 50s, and Madonna in the 80s, Clara was an icon of sexual freedom for women everywhere. But beneath Clara's radiant, carefree laughter hid a pain that she couldn't ignore forever.

     Born in a Brooklyn tenement in 1905 during one of the worst heat waves New York has ever experienced, Clara was unwanted from day one. Both her mother and grandmother were mentally ill and her father was disinterested in both marriage and children (he had left Clara's mother shortly before she went into labor). Clara's mother hoped that the heat would kill both her and her child and didn't bother with a birth certificate.

     "Clara developed into a lonely, hypersensitive child, acutely self-conscious of a slight speech impediment" (Stenn).  School chum Catherine Mulligan remembers that a young Clara was not allowed to invite anyone to her home. To add to this she was ashamed of her wastrel father and sick epileptic mother who "entertained visiting firemen or uncles". The terrified Clara would often have to hide in a cupboard during these frequent ‘visits’."

     For her escape from her oppressive home-life, Clara would turn to a new medium: the moving pictures. There she would forget her parents' bitter fights, her father’s long absences, and her mother’s increasingly bizarre behavior.  Clara, much to the consternation of her mother would look in the mirror and imitate the acting styles of her favorite actresses, Mary Pickford, Mae Murray, and Theda Bara.

     In the early 1920's, most every American girl dreamed of winning a fan magazine contest as a stepping stone to becoming a movie actress. Clara was no different. The plucky and ambitious street urchin recognized early what she saw in the mirror and would save what little she had to go search out the studios in New York. Always on the lookout for "beauty" and "film" contests, Clara borrowed 50 cents off of her father to get a cheap tin-type made up and entered and won one such contest that was sponsored by Motion Picture, Motion Picture Classic, and Shadowland Magazines. The January 1922 edition of Motion Picture Magazine announced Clara as the 1921 Fame and Fortune Contest. The magazine went on to say: 

" She is very young, only 16. But She is full of confidence, determination and ambition. She is endowed with a mentality far beyond her years. She has a genuine spark of the divine fire. The five different screen tests she had, showed this very plainly, her emotional range of expression provoking a fine enthusiasm from every contest judge who saw the tests. She screens perfectly. Her personal appearance is almost enough to carry her to success without the aid of the brains she indubitably possesses. " 

"Gentlemen: I want to thank all those in the Brewster Publication, In., who have been responsible for the kind treatment and many efforts in my behalf, from the day of my entrance into the Fame and Fortune Contest of 1921 up until the present time, and also for the beautiful outfit, which they so kindly presented me with. Everyone thinks the outfit beautiful, and is so very becoming, thanks to the taste of Mrs. Gleason and Miss Palmer.

"Now about my future. I hope that everything you credit me with will prove true, and that all your hopes and expectations will also do the same. I hope that with the proper training I will grow into a good actress, worthy of the Brewster Publications’ help, and hope that some day Mr. Brewster and the rest will be proud of me and my work. I intend to work very hard and try and perform the smallest role that is given me to the best of my ability."

(Clara Bow's thank-you letter to the judges) 

     As part of her prize, Clara was promised a part in a motion picture. This came about in the 1922 feature, Beyond the Rainbow, in which she was cast as a flirtatious sub-deb who stirs up trouble by passing the note, "Consult your conscience. Your secret is common gossip." The excited Clara gathered all of her friends to view her screen debut, only to be disappointed to find out that her sequences were cut from the initial print.

     Curiously, perhaps mistakenly, Clara's performance as Virginia Gardener in Beyond the Rainbow, was reviewed in Variety: "The feminine characters form a galaxy of beauty, Lillian (Billie) Dove has a wealth of brunette loveliness and makes an attractive contrast to the other two beauties, Virginia Lee and Clara Bow, both blondes and both beauty contest winners." After viewing clips of the re-issued print as shown on Hugh Munro Neely's recent documentary, Clara Bow: Discovering the "It" Girl, it is obvious that the "dark"-haired Clara was not one of the mentioned blondes.

     At any rate, the unfettered Clara bounced back and continued making the rounds at the Manhattan film and photography studios. As luck would have it, D. W. Griffith's protégé, Elmer Clifton came across her photo and the Motion Picture contest announcement and became interested in casting her. Clifton was shooting the low-budget whaling movie, Down to the Sea in Ships in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He hired Clara at $35 a week for 13 weeks to play Dot Morgan, "…a life-loving, energetic young girl who shows no respect for the rules. Set down in the middle of this staid vehicle, she is like a breath of fresh air-vivid, alive, modern. She seems to have real passion rather than just imitating it. She's the very definition of the term 'screen presence', particularly seen among the careful and stilted performances of the other actors. Cast as a young tomboy she romps, she fights, and she seems utterly unselfconscious." (Basinger pg.423)

     Clara was unbilled in her next two 1923 features. Enemies of Women, and The Daring Years. Sadly, Clara's mother died during the filming of Enemies of Women.

     Soon Clara met up with playwright-agent Maxine Alton, who in turn convinced J. G. Bachman, a partner of B. P. Schulberg in Preferred Pictures, to sign Clara for a three-month film contract at $50 a week. Train fare to be included. Alton remembers Clara's brutal audition before Schulberg:  "Without make-up, still in a sweater and skirt, she ran the gamut of emotions. Schulberg told her to laugh. She did. Suddenly he said, 'Stop laughing, cry!' Immediately, in the snap of a finger, a flood of tears drenched her cheeks. She was an emotional machine. Schulberg turned to me, threw up his hands, and said 'You win!' "  (Stenn)

     The ambitious and often ruthless Preferred Picture chief, Schulberg, was a rising force in Hollywood. He accumulated much of his revenue from loaning out his overworked and underpaid contract players to other producers when they weren't being used in his own cheaply produced vehicles. Clara was no exception. The ever -grateful Clara was most happy to do anything to be a working actress. Clara made 25 features in the next two years. Budget productions like these allowed no time for rehearsals or retakes for many of her roles. And yet despite the grueling work schedules and the many demands, Clara would rise above her material. It is in these early productions that you see the real talent that is Clara Bow. Sadly, many film historians and writers never have had the opportunity to experience her in her early features. Instead she is labeled the "It" girl---only one type of the many different characters that she was able to play. Clara had many non-flapper roles. As a matter of fact, the flapper (i.e.: It, Mantrap, Dancing Mothers) was only one of three major film types Clara would play during her career. The other two being- that of the "Jailbird" (as in Free to Love- 1925, Shadow of the Law- 1926, and Grit- 1924)- and that of a "tomboy" (as in Down to the Sea in Ships- 1922, The Lawful Cheater- 1925, etc.,.) In these roles Clara would be called upon to run the gamut of emotions, and she would always transcend the oft-bad material that she was given.

     The recent re-discovery of Empty Hearts provides a rare glimpse of Clara in an early dramatic role. The "simple and unforced" death scene in this feature is poignant and heart wrenching and is indeed, a revelation. 

"She seemed to really enjoy what she was doing. I think it was the desire of her life to be a film actress in Hollywood…later being the "Itgirl" she was kind of a conniving shop-girl who wanted to catch her man. But that wasn't her role in Helen's Babies. Clara plays a simple homespun girl. She seemed to have a bubbly enthusiastic, youthful nature…and she appeared to me to be natural and true to herself." (Diana "Baby Peggy" Cary-"Clara Bow:  Discovering the Itgirl")

     Even later when she was called on to play her flapper roles, Clara would infuse these same aspects of simplicity and naturalism into her later films as well. She could consistently and naturally cry for the camera. Witness her in any of her films---the tears she shed were real. She would pass it off and explain the crying to be a result of thinking about her awful past. True, when the scene called for crying, the violins in the background would churn out "Rock-a-bye Baby", and Clara would methodically fall apart and cry hysterically. Other times, she could cry at the drop of a hat. Frank Tuttle, her director in the 1924 feature Grit, "marveled at Clara's ability to express emotion without apparent concentration." She would ask the director, "Ya want me t' cry?" (Stenn, pg. 29) She would park her chewing gum behind her ear and within seconds, would cry her eyes out.

     Victor Fleming was also astounded at her serious side.  He is quoted as saying that, she had "A temperament that responded like a great violin, touch her and she answered with genius. Her acting could have been developed to a power, a reality that would have led screen drama to new heights." (Love, Laughter, and Tears" by Adela St. Johns, pg. 218)

     In  Children of Divorce, Fleming remembers her "dying scene" to be the best one he ever saw. Children of Divorce was recently restored and presented publicly for the first time in over 70 years. This 1927 feature not only showcases Clara's natural abilities at comedy, and the "It" qualities that made her a star, but also reveal a darker and yet more brilliant side to her acting abilities. Director Frank Lloyd's original cut was reportedly very bad and the film was only released after the great Josef von Sternberg brought his German "new wave" techniques to re-shoot sequences of the film. His expert use of light and shadows, unusual camera angles and perspectives, and tight close-ups gave the film an in-depth psychological turn. This was unusual for filmgoers of the 1920's who were used to seeing frivolous flapper films and epic adventure yarns. Toward the end of the film Clara's character, socialite Nancy Worthington, a child of a broken home, is faced with a fatal decision. The only way for her to reunite her best friend with her true love (who happens to be Nancy's own husband, Gary Cooper), and to thereby guarantee their future happiness (apart from divorce), would be to take her own life.

     In a truly haunting scene Nancy grimly writes her suicide note, seals it with her own real tears, and as the boom camera rises, she is seen quietly walking through a series of doors-as if she is voluntarily going to her own execution. The ensuing death scene is gripping and startling. In it, Clara almost seems to be calling back the spirit of her dead mother as she screams in terror. You can sense that she will be going into death alone. She then dies in the arms of her childhood friend.

     Despite giving such brilliant dramatic performances, it was Clara's flapper roles that increasingly drew the attentions of millions of American film-goers.  Riding on the successes of The Plastic Age, Dancing Mothers, and especially Mantrap, Clara was fast becoming a major star.  Men started to desire her voluptuous body and became completely mesmerized by her effervescent charm and breath-taking beauty. Clara even set fashion trends among women.  They  would pluck their eyebrows in the same fashion as Clara.   Clara Bow style hats were offered for sale in many mail-order catalogues.

     Of course studio chief B. P. Schulberg knew the market potential of Clara’s stardom and began to act accordingly. Eliciting the aide of popular romance novelist Elinor Glyn (not unlike Jacqueline Susanne), Schulberg crowned Clara the ‘IT’ girl. ‘It’ was a euphonium for the word "sex" in those days-mostly because it was not acceptable to say "sex." Thereafter, IT "did much to establish Bow as a popular icon, and the film itself is and exemplary showcase for the basic Clara Bow movie persona-cheerful impudence and free-spirited sexiness transcending the barriers of class and Victorian inhibition." (Hogue) And thus Clara, by all intents and purposes, became the first sex symbol (in the tradition of Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Racquel Welch, and others).

     After the resounding success of the movie It  (which starred Clara), Schulberg and Paramount began to continually cast her in movies with the same type of premise. Films like Red Hair, Rough House Rosie, Get Your Man, Fleet’s In all were all merely variations of how a charming and scheming woman,  would win over an otherwise unavailable man. People loved these types of movies,  and flocked to see her in record droves. By contrast, Clara would soon grow bored with this one-dimensional typecast.

     During her rise to fame in the mid to late 1920’s, many people closely associated the real Clara to the roles she played on screen. True, she did have many flings, lovers, and wild times. What young, beautiful, talented, successful, and available 20-year-old girl wouldn’t behave like this? But imagine this:

"She had been a child of poverty and neglect and had suddenly come into money, fame, and if not business or political power, at least an understanding of her own sexual power. She became known for her very colorful off-screen life, and was eventually brought low by scandal…her many love affairs, madcap adventures, and careless, sometimes drunken exploits were well known" 

(Basinger. pg445).

     To promote their young star, Paramount was only too happy to help sensationalize every love affair she had. The otherwise shy and reclusive Clara gave into the expectations and trappings of being the Itgirl. A hypocritical Hollywood society did not take kindly to her wild raucous ways and were very quick to shun and distance themselves from her. Many of Clara’s exploits were quite mild compared to some of her Hollywood counterparts. The only difference being was that her counterparts were more careful about airing out their dirty laundry.

     Much has been written about Clara's failings as a "talkie" star,  but in retrospect, it is interesting to note that she had a more substantial career in sound films. She was the top-billed star in no less than 11 features. 

"Bow's iconic value is almost entirely a matter of her silent films, and of images forged in a relatively brief period-but her sound films are intriguing in part because they show us dimensions of the actress that her most famous and successful silent films managed to conceal. Clara Bow with a voice is by no means unfit for movie stardom, but that tough, torch-song voice generates a very different creature from the one who seemed able to activate mythy magic just by the way she looked at people or things".
(Peter Hogue)

     It is no wonder why Clara Bow’s life started to spin so hopelessly out of control in 1930. After falling victim to three horrible scandals that involved gambling, carousing, and a much publicized court trial, Clara became media fodder to a ravenous, mean-spirited media machine. An unsympathetic Paramount abandoned Clara in her hour of need and passed her off as "Crisis-a-day Clara". With no family to speak of, no close friends, and no studio to come to her rescue Clara had no life net to catch her, and no one to wipe away her tears of despair. Although adapting well to talkies (Clara had become quite a singing sensation in True to the Navy, Paramount On Parade, and Love Among the Millionaires), the fun and refuge that Clara found  in making films had left. After suffering a nervous breakdown during the filming of her final Paramount feature, Kick In, she had decided enough was enough and had decided to quit films. Being a movie actress was no longer a safe place for her to be.

     Clara did find a safe place in the arms of cowboy star, Rex Bell, who she later married. Almost immediately, the couple moved far away from the bright lights of Hollywood, and to their remote ranch in Searchlight, Nevada. There Clara recuperated and soon felt strong enough to return to films.

     Clara's last two films, Call Her Savage(1932) and Hoopla (1933) proved to be very successful and financially rewarding for her. After making a very lucrative deal with Fox, she was now able to finally retire from films and move back to Nevada to later have two sons of her own.

..."She should be the greatest dramatic actress if Paramount would...give her stories worthy of her genius. Poor Pictures have dimmed the blazing light of her success, but with one real story she would come back. I have studied Clara Bow closely. I have had opportunity to talk with her for hours. She has always interested me intensely, because, as I say, I honestly believe the girl has genius." She adds, "...We find her living only in the moment, only in the present... Of course that is what makes her a very great actress. Since only the moment has reality, her acting becomes intensely real to her. She is so glad to get away from reality that her parts seem real to her. She loves to have them seem real. Her greatest joy is her work. When she is being someone else, living vicariously, getting away from herself and being some girl when she would much rather have been." She concludes, "I believe her (Clara) capable of reaching heights as an actress not yet reached by anyone in pictures."
(Adela St. John-"The Salvation of Clara Bow")

     But how could Clara be a public figure again? Especially after what Daisy DeVoe, her closest and dearest friend had done to her by divulging soul-bearing secrets and the most intimate details of her personal life, in an internationally public trial that shocked the world?  It did not help that notorious Frederic Girnau, publisher of the Coast Reporter (an early National Enquirer-type gossip magazine) would add fuel to the fire by regularly publishing false, mean-spirited, tales of sexual debauchery and perversion to this sordid mess. Similar false and ridiculous fables would later be spun in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. Thereafter, the major public perception of Clara Bow would be shrouded and she would be falsely characterized as a wild, sex-crazed, uncontrollable, and one-dimensional actress. This would continue until well after her death on September 26, 1965.

a scene from Poisoned Paradise

     It was not until 1988, when author David Stenn boldly dispelled many of these falsities in his Clara Bow biography,  Runnin Wild. Since then her movies, which had previously existed idle and rotting in archives, were brought out and preserved. Most recently, Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner took an active interest in preserving Clara's work for posterity by funding the nationally televised Hugh Nealy documentary, Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl. The response has been overwhelming. Just in the last year or so, many of Clara's  titles have been restored. Such films as Best Bad Man (a Tom Mix western), Children of Divorce, Parisian Love, Her Wedding Night have been presented to packed movie houses for the first time in over 70 years. The films, Capital Punishment, My Lady of Whims, My Lady's Lips, and Poisoned Paradise are all currently being restored with funds provided by "The National Film Preservation Foundation". 

     In addition to this, all of Clara's talkies are reported to be newly preserved.   Furthermore, all of Clara's existing Films are in the process of being restored.  Movie houses across the nation are now offering Clara Bow revivals and film festivals. Clara's personal items, movies and memorabillia are now fetching top dollar at online web auctions. Young people, unfettered by past misconceptions of Clara, are now discovering her sparkling beauty, prodigious talent, and dynamic presence.  Clara Bow is enjoying a new-found and lasting popularity.  Clara Bow's  time has finally arrived and she can no longer be silenced.   She is definitely here to stay.

"..A beauty contest in Brooklyn had first brought her into the movies. She had arrived in Hollywood in 1923, a vibrant, gum-chewing, slightly tattered, and emotionally vulnerable eighteen-year-old. The pretentious social hierarchy of twenties Hollywood, embodied by her "discoverer" and producer, B.P. Schulberg, had slotted her into semi pornographic flapper and Cinderella stories, where she would remain until the end of her career in 1933.  But now that Bow's movies are emerging from vaults, it is possible to see how original was the talent she brought to those cheap twenties formulae, and how critical is her place in the whole history of female screen acting in America. Bow not only summed up the techniques of her predecessors Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Mae Marsh-the D. W. Griffith pioneers-she suggested those of her "descendants." She brought to the screen an openness that hadn't been seen before, and elemental good nature, a wish to please that read as a healthy sexuality, and an unstudied naturalness about the extremes of grief and joy-qualities that Mae West took from her and caricatured, and which the romantic comedy heroines then took over, via West, and turned into virtues. Yet Clara had done it all herself: no director, producer, or screenwriter ever tried to build a movie around her unstinting generosity. She constructed her own roles. Romantic comedy was obliged on the surface to repudiate her example, since she was associated with the wild jazz years though responsible for the Crash. But this most exploited of actresses haunts the genre. Her trustingness lives in its heroines; her magnificent vulnerability prepared the way for them.   (Elizabeth Kendall-THE RUNAWAY BRIDE)

Shadows of Clara Bow - A Tribute by Anastasija Marinochka

Clara Bow remains an enigma. Her life remains a tangled mass of quivering femininity, depraved childhood, and Hollywood super-stardom. Her beaming porcelain face and sparkling eyes belied the truth, the shadows, that surrounded her. She seemed to dance her way through life (and into our hearts) as the care-free ‘IT Girl’ and seemed surrounded in a posh future of Hollywood history and fulfilling marriage and motherhood. Yet, Clara died alone, much as she danced her way through life. Alone, with only the shadows to accompany her.

Clara was born into poverty, depression and abuse, which inadvertently doomed her to a life of excruciating loneliness - a loneliness that prevailed even in the company of fans, lovers and her beloved boys. That loneliness nurtured, inside Clara, a fierce craving for release, happiness, and acceptance. Clara found all of this in acting and nowhere else. But, Clara’s star faded much too soon - a delicate flower ravished by the elements surrounding her. We live with only the memory of Clara Bow brought about by her surviving films. Her talent was genuine and innocent and thus stalked and led astray by power and money-hungry movie executives. Amazingly enough, Clara never lost the genuine and innocent talent she had even when it was constantly used against her. Even when all the fulfillment was lost. Beyond all that she lost or endured, Clara gave the world, through her acting and her life, something to wish for. She gave hope to those who were trying to over-come their own somber lives. She made us laugh, smile and, most importantly: forget. A lull in our lives that, however short-lived, made us keep coming back for more of her infectious spirit. We still find comfort in the spirit she possessed and, even after all these years, find delight and sanctuary in her films. This is the true mark of Clara Bow.

~*~

When most people remember Hollywood’s Golden Age, they think of Chaplin, Jean Harlow and Mae West among others, but rarely do they think of Clara Bow. This is one aspect of Clara’s life that I have pondered extensively and still have not figured out. How could “The girl of the year…someone to stir every pulse in the nation…” (as quoted by F. Scott Fitzgerald), the screen’s first sex-symbol, the most famous actress of her day who received more fan letters than any other actor of that time; how could Clara have faded to relative obscurity in the face of the stardom and admiration she garnered?

We will never understand the complete truth about Clara Bow. She hid so much while fearing rejection and yet gave so freely of herself through her acting. She retired from the public eye to find the love she craved and eventually found safety in the solitude she died in. Our memory is laced with the image of Clara Bow and bathed in her natural beauty and talent. She gave us something she never found. Something revered uniquely by each and every one us, her fans. We remember Clara, today and everyday. And, in the fading lights and final curtain calls, we watch as she dances away into the shadows.

“All the time the flapper is laughin’ and dancin’, there’s a feelin’ of tragedy underneath…” ~Clara Bow

 

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Sources:

*Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999

*Sweet and Lowdown,Peter Hogue in the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Film Comment

*The January 1922 edition of Motion Picture Magazine, "A New Star"

*Runnin' Wild by David Stenn, Cooper Square Press, 2000

*CLARA BOW: DISCOVERING THE ITGIRL , a documentary by Hugh Nealy produced by Timeline Films, 1999

*Variety Film Reviews

*Love, Laughter, and Tears" by Adela St. Johns

*The Salvation of Clara Bow by Adela St. Johns, "The New Movie Magazine", Dec., 1930

*The Runaway Bride by Elizabeth Kendall

 

 

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