MANIPULATION VS. MINOGOMY:
Clara and the Sexual Politics in “GET YOUR MAN”
by Jeffrey E. Ford
It’s a shame that 1927’s Get Your Man has remained stubbornly elusive among the surviving Clara Bow films. Of course, the reasons it hasn’t been seen until very recently are easy to determine: the only extant print is in the hands of the Library of Congress; the existing print suffers from extensive nitrate decomposition in places, and most importantly, the surviving print is missing one (or two) crucial reels in the first half of the film, the result of which renders the bulk of what follows almost incomprehensible without a crash course in the contents of the missing footage.1 The amazing thing is – that given half a chance – the film triumphs over every one of these flaws and emerges as both enjoyable and extremely interesting. I expected nothing less. When I previously wrote about the subsequent collaboration between star and director Dorothy Arzner, 1929’s The Wild Party, I bemoaned the fact that Get Your Man was unavailable for viewing to provide a better background on this much underrated star/director duo.2 Now that I’ve seen the film, I can say that it has fulfilled every expectation, and is deserving of a major restoration like the one recently done on the same year’s Children of Divorce (1927) by the LOC. Although the film may have been planned as just another “It” Girl vehicle, the surviving film, much like The Wild Party, emerges as something far richer than any formula film could ever hope to be.
When Get Your Man began production in September 1927, Clara Bow seemed to be a star who could do no wrong. Her previous eight Paramount films had all been substantial money makers, and her audience popularity still seemed to be on the rise. Likewise, Dorothy Arzner had just completed her first two films for Paramount with star Esther Ralston, which had also been very successful. While it seems surprising that a director with only two films to her credit was entrusted with the studio’s most valuable property, it was perhaps a result of the studio’s pig-headed belief that Clara could carry any product regardless of her behind the scenes support. Or maybe it was a reflection of the respect Arzner was beginning to develop within the industry. Perhaps (as David Stenn writes) it was even the result of behind the scenes politics between B. P. Schulberg and his wife. Regardless of the circumstances that got Arzner the job, she approached it with consummate professionalism and a good deal of artistry. Even if the script was mired in convention and cliché, she seemed to innately understand that she was dealing with a star who could transcend the most sub-par material, and given the right kind of support, transform it into something memorable.3
Indeed, one of the first impressions one gets from viewing the surviving Get Your Man footage is the enormous vitality of both the star and her director. Clara’s overwhelming energy was, of course, one of the key ingredients of her personality that her stardom was based upon; it’s the melding of it with Arzner’s directoral approach that gives it not only its typical kick, but also a surprising depth. There’s much more to Clara’s Nancy Worthington (from this point forward, referred to simply as Clara) than what one might dub her typical “It” Girl histrionics. The key seems to lie completely in her direction. It would be easy for many of those who know only Clara’s performance in It (1927) to conclude that her whole career was a triumph of style over substance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even in her weakest films, it’s Clara who gives her character’s substance. Being the type of emotional, highly strung woman that she was, she could hardly do otherwise. Superficially, Get Your Man – based solely on its script – possesses no more depth than any of Clara’s other formula vehicles; it’s in the star’s performance (particularly if one watches her films sequentially) that one can see in Nancy Worthington the stepping stone that was to lead to some of Clara’s most memorable roles. Without what she learned here under Arzner’s influence, there might well never have been a Stella Ames of The Wild Party, a Pat Delaney of Dangerous Curves (1929), or a Nasa Springer of Call Her Savage (1932). And certainly not one’s played with quite the same power and authority.
But the director did more than just showcase the range of her star; she also made a movie that’s beautifully paced and very attractive to look at.4 The good pace is not surprising – given Arzner’s background as a film editor – but the visual sheen is a revelation, as the director never seemed to be one overly concerned with the visual aspect of her films. And yet, compared to any of Clara’s other vehicles from the same period, Get Your Man manages to tread a fine line in making every one of its Paris boulevard and French chateau settings succeed as both true to life realism and Hollywood fantasy. We know that every scene for the film was shot in the Paramount studio or on the backlot, and yet it’s easy to believe that this really is the French countryside and the streets of Paris. Compare any of it to the horrid process shots (also intended to represent the streets of Paris) that open Her Wedding Night (1930), or any of the studio phony settings that dominate It, and it’s easy to understand the anchor the look of the film provides to it’s flimsy story.
Because it looks so real, we are suddenly captivated and believe that it could be real. The suspension of disbelief is critical.
Thankfully – based on the surviving evidence – Clara and Arzner weren’t alone in their attempts to raise the quality of the material at hand. If Hope Loring’s adaptation of Louis Verneuil’s play has only one novel idea amid it’s overwhelming mediocrity, it’s one both the star and director were apparently ready to pick up and run with. A quick glance through the majority of Clara’s starring vehicles will show – as her persona doubtless dictated – that she always played characters who were in control of their destiny. She always controlled what she would do, who she would do it with, who she would love, and no one else would ever have a hell of a lot to say about the matter.5 In Get Your Man, Clara’s character doesn’t change, but her impact and control certainly do. The reason might not be immediately obvious, but upon review of the film becomes astonishing clear: for the first time in her career, Clara the control freak finds herself trapped within a story whose characters — and indeed lives — are all built upon their control of other people. One can almost say that in this instance, Clara the talented amateur finds herself surrounded by a bunch of professionals whose whole culture is built around control. Compared to the French families she’s trying to overwhelm here, Clara’s previous American conquests were pushovers. Even when the film reaches it’s climax, Clara has yet to gain full control over the incidents she’s set in motion, and only manages to extract herself from disaster through the intervention of another who’s apparently even wiser in the ways of the world than she is. It’s a subtle yet striking variation on the Bow formula, and one that the director in particular seems to have eagerly embraced.
The first scene in Get Your Man shows all the main characters of the film save Clara seventeen years prior to the main action. The occasion is the family arraigned wedding of Robert Albin6 to Simone de Valens. One need only see that the two are children to understand the power and control their families are exercising over their lives. Alongside the children, two happy fathers, the Duke of Albin and the Marquis de Valens, beam proudly. “This will be a happy day long remembered by our families,” they congratulate each other. Maybe for them, but the child playing Robert looks bored and indifferent – as if there were a million other things he would rather be doing. It’s an inspired bit of casting, making a subtle but important point. He seems to have no conception of what’s happening; only that it makes his father happy. That seems to be all that matters. As Simone is barely a few months old, and must be carried in to the ceremony, her feelings toward the matter are probably non-existent. Afterward, Robert’s father the Duke contentedly tells him that he may kiss his bride; the sequence sets up a recurring gag that continues to be played out after the film has jumped forward to the then present. As young adults, the pair is still given permission as to when they can kiss; they are also told the time has come for them to be married. Everything they do has to carry the approval of the family. They only seem to exist to satisfy their family’s wishes; they have no real lives of their own. Clara, on the other hand, has no family and no attachments. She is beholden to no one but herself. (As she succinctly puts it later: “In America, a father is lucky if he gets to choose the attorney for the divorce.) Her first scene in the film shows her alone and unchaperoned, having the time of her life on the streets of Paris. The first thing she does is to commandeer Robert’s taxi for herself, but not before taking a long hard look as he has metamorphosized into the exceedingly handsome Buddy Rogers. The two meet cute several times amid various locations until Clara is finally forced to exclaim: “It must be fate!” Either that, or the screenwriter’s whim. In any event, from the get go it seems that Clara and Robert belong together, and after some of the leading men Clara had to endure up to this point in her career, Buddy Rogers’ presence couldn’t be more welcome. Unlike Wings (1927), his previous film with Clara, where the project’s inherent seriousness caused him to come across something like a stick figure, Get Your Man allows Rogers to relax, and the lightness of the subject matter plays into his natural charm as a performer. It’s easy to see why he was so popular at the time;7 even Clara seems to be under his spell. When the two are finally alone together (for the first time – in the print as it stands) Clara actually seems betwixt and between — a victim of her own feelings. When Robert approaches and kisses her hand, she bites her lip and draws back, almost as though she is afraid of her own emotions. Clara Bow – playing a woman who is afraid of her emotions? Yes, indeed. And one who also seems not quite sure of herself. More than once, her acting and Arzner’s mise-en-scene make it clear that Clara is continually questioning herself: Is she right to break up this engagement between two people who are perfectly capable of deciding their own fate? Where does one’s duty lie: to oneself of one’s family? Just because something is a tradition, does that make it right?
It leads to a classic paradox: we realize that Clara is being manipulative, but we forgive her all her transgressions for the simple reason that she’s the only one in the film who seems to realize that she and Robert belong together. Therefore, anything she does toward that end, no matter how morally reprehensible, we immediately dismiss. In much the same way, we overlook any and all of Clara’s flirtations with men, because we know that when the right one comes along (like Robert) she will be the epitome of monogamy. The amazing thing is that the characters in the film don’t realize this, as we in the audience do. Indeed, logic tells us these characters, steeped in manipulation as they are, would immediately see through all of Clara’s games and quickly show her the door. Instead, they openly invite her into their midst and she proceeds with her manipulation. As far as the audience is concerned, any family that marries it’s children off before they’re out of the cradle deserves what it gets. And here, they get two parts of Clara in roughly equal measure: Clara the manipulative, and Clara the monogamous. She’s not intentionally setting out to destroy a tradition; she is simply doing what she knows is right. Thy will be done – the “Thy” in this case being Clara. But that still leaves the question: which side is right and which side is wrong? Furthermore, among these people, does it even matter? Certainly, under the director’s careful guidance, none of the character’s in the film come across as being in any way evil; at worst they are misguided. The only guiltless party in the film – the only one who does not manipulate or deceive in order to further her own ends — is Simone, and the result of her goodness is to come across as the dullest character on display. Such is the burden one must bear for being the only honest person around. Still, the questions remain. And the sexual politics of the old world versus the new are shoved to the forefront. They cannot be ignored.
In all honesty, Get Your Man doesn’t provide answers to any of these questions, but in the midst of such formula work the fact that the questions are being asked at all is nothing short of remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that the film – much like The Wild Party — seems to frame all of Clara’s actions within a critical and broadening context. If one thinks the crux of the film is presented in its title, they might do well to look at the film again. It’s true, Clara lays her eyes on Robert and from that point forward is determined to land him; it’s true she uses deceit and trickery to gain access to his home and family, it’s true she systematically sets out to destroy his engagement to another – even going so far as to flirt with the Marquis in order to get the marriage postponed. It all seems a shallow and heartless game. As she usually does, Clara uses her charm and sexuality to advance her own cause. And what’s the result? Surprise! She almost ends up married to the wrong man. But in fact, for all the havoc Clara wreaks, she also does considerable good. Surprisingly (in context), she makes fast friends with Simone – the very girl whose man she is stealing – and even encourages her to pursue her own dreams of true love. Is Clara encouraging others to follow their heart as she does – or is she just using that as an excuse to further her own ends? The film is hardly clear on this point, and the viewer can take it ether way. One has to wonder if such inflections were in the original script, or came about as a result of Arzner’s influence as director. Certainly, no other Bow film, with the exception of The Wild Party, looks at Clara in such a thought provoking manner. She juggles her men, even gets one to propose marriage to her (with plenty of prompting), all the while finagling events so that in the end – she’ll have the man she wants. She seems in control of everything, so no one is more surprised than Clara herself when she find’s out that she’s not.
At a point in the story when it seems all is lost, Clara invites Robert to her room under some pretext, and once he’s there proceeds to noisily trash the place. It brings the whole household, and from the compromising position the two are found in there can be only one result: the ruin of Clara’s engagement to the Marquis and a marriage (born out of scandal) to Robert. The climax is very abrupt – almost as abrupt as the climax of Hula (1927) made earlier in the year. But unlike that film, things don’t go as easy for Clara. First, Simone rushes to the defense, begging her father to forgive Clara because of her youth (isn’t it amazing how friends trying to help you, end up doing the worst things possible?); and then (curses – foiled again!), the Marquis agrees and invites Clara to come back to him with open arms. What can Clara do? She has tried everything in her power and still hasn’t managed to “get her man.” At least not the one she wanted. There’s a wonderful moment late in the scene when Clara realizes she’s not only lost her control over other people’s lives, she has completely lost control of her own. She’s helpless, and hasn’t a blessed idea of what to do. In a flash – there’s a look of absolute terror that comes across her face. All her plans have come to nothing, and it seems as though she has nothing to look forward to but marriage to a wealthy man whom she does not love. Suddenly, the thought of wealth and security mean very little to her, and all she can do is cling to the love she believes she is losing.
Just then, Robert’s father, the Duke steps forward. He will have none of it. The family honor is at stake; Clara must marry Robert, which leaves Simone free to pursue her own love, and her father free to pursue the first pretty girl he happens across. Clara’s love has been salvaged by the intervention of another, and without that intervention, she would have failed in all her manipulations. It’s a first for any Bow film. But is this the end of the story? No. In a moment, Clara and the Duke are left alone together and he approaches her point blank: “Young lady, did you come here intending to marry my son?” he asks. Sheepishly, almost as though she’s a girl who’s been caught doing something naughty, she nods in confession. Nothing more is said, but an enormous smile comes over the Duke’s face, almost as if he knew it all along. He – in spite of all outward appearances to the contrary – has seen Clara the monogamous. She will be the perfect wife for his son. Clara ends up back in Robert’s arms for the final fade out, and the film ends. It’s the happy ending we expected all along. Getting there was all the fun.
But the endings were not as happy for Get Your Man. After it’s initial release, it was left to molder in the Paramount vaults, neglected and forgotten. It’s once beautiful photography faded; finally whole sections of the film turned to dust. Today, we can only see fragments of what once was, and the fact that this tattered ruin can still inspire and entertain makes the loss of the complete film all the more tragic. We can only see portions of the Waxworks tableaux designed by Arzner’s long-time companion Marion Morgan that were praised in 1927 (the images are so compelling and exquisitely designed one wishes the sequence had been shot in the two-color Technicolor available then). We can’t see what occurred after Clara and Buddy Rogers are locked together in the museum overnight, nor can we see Clara crash her car through the front gates in an attempt to gain entrance to the Albin chateau. As of this writing, it’s all gone.
Looking at Get Your Man now, one can consider it – like many other films from the period – something like the Venus De Milo: a beautiful fragment of what once was, and something that may seem all the more lovely for the sadness of it’s incompleteness. But unlike the famous masterpiece, there’s still hope for Arzner’s film. Just as there’s also hope that someday any one of Clara’s 1928 films will resurface to once again regale us with the star’s beauty, grace, and talent. New discoveries are made every day. The situation is sad – but not completely hopeless. However, until the time when a more complete Get Your Man resurfaces, we are left with what we have. And what we have in this neglected opus is a little gem of character and style. Sadly, it would be surpassed in the careers of both its star and director by other, admittedly greater films, but none that would manage to juggle its components (much as Clara juggles her men) with quite the same finesse. Nor would they raise so many questions in regard to its leading lady and her relationship within her highly romanticized world. As such, the film deserves to be lifted from its obscurity and placed in its rightful position within its maker’s filmographies: It was the first glimmer of some of the truly great things that were to follow for both the star and director. While it’s position among Dorothy Arzner’s films is that of a first step in the logical progression that would lead to such works as The Wild Party, Christopher Strong (1933), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), among Clara Bow’s films it can be seen as something greater. For the first time, the “It” Girl is in a film that manages to succeed as something more than just a vehicle for her considerable talents.
Whereas other films such as Mantrap (1926) and It ride on its star vivaciousness (quite wonderfully, I might add) and rarely invite more in-depth analysis, Get Your Man demands it. It’s achievements may be minor, but they are not insubstantial. In the February 1928 Photoplay review of the film, editor James Quirk declared the film was “made for the youth of America” and that “Clara Bow continues to charm and fascinate.”8 Perhaps one day, the fates will smile, and we will once again be able to view what audiences in 1927 saw, and confirm that judgment. Only then, will we be able to realize that to them it may have just been an entertainment, but to some of us today, it is art.
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1 Based on the available evidence, what happens in the missing footage is this: Clara and Robert view the exhibits in wax museum and fall in love. The two lose track of the time and are locked in the museum overnight. The next morning, Robert confesses to Clara about his impending marriage. Furious at what she considers a deception, Clara goes off and determines to “get her man.” She crashes her car outside the Albin chateau and is taken in by the family to recuperate.
2 See The Clara Bow Page: Clara Bow and The Wild Party, footnote 3.
3 For many of these facts, I am indebted to Judith Mayne’s excellent book: Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Indiana University Press, 1994).
4 This beauty extends to the lobby card set that was produced for the film – arguably the most beautiful made for any Clara Bow film.
5 See Mantrap, It, Hula, and Children of Divorce, all produced prior to Get Your Man. In Divorce, Clara’s control even extends to ending her own life – certainly the ultimate demonstration of control.
6 There seems to be some confusion over the families names in the film. All filmographies, including the one in David Stenn’s book, list the two families names as de Bellecontre and de Villeneuve. However, in the existing print, the families names are Albin and de Valens.
7 According to David Stenn, at the time Get Your Man was made, Buddy Rogers’ amount of fan mail ran second only to Clara’s.
8 Ironically, this review appeared in the same Photoplay issue as Part One of Clara’s Life Story.