A Look Back at Clara Bow, the Vivacious Hollywood Starlet Who Defined the 1920s
Clara Bow circa 1926
"This thing of being a good little goodie is all very well,/ What can you do when you're loaded with plenty of health ... and vigor?" The question is asked by Helen Kane in a playful 1929 ditty called "I Want to Be Bad," its popularity significant of a new, pragmatic openness about sex in America at the time. With her signature "Boop-boop-a-doop," Kane was one of the two iconic inspirations for Max Fleischer's cartoon flapper, Betty Boop. The other was Clara Bow, also known as "The 'It' Girl."
The UCLA Film & Television Archive's Clara Bow retrospective, which includes 11 films and a program of clips, is titled Call Her Savage after Bow's 1932 film, "savage" being an endearment that is frequently applied to the actress on screen to indicate her wild-eyed spontaneity. It also describes Bow's frankly horrifying background: She was born into the tenements of Brooklyn in 1905, to a weedy, creepy, "hypersexed loser" of a father and a mentally ill, "manipulative and antimaternal" mother, to borrow some words from Bow's superb biographer, David Stenn. (Stenn will introduce the program's first double feature, Savage and 1933's Hoop-la, Bow's screen swan song.)
Not long after Clara had won a magazine "Fame and Fortune" contest in 1921, she woke up to find her mother holding a butcher's knife to her throat. The Fame and Fortune win, however, started Bow on the track to a 20th Century Limited train to California two years later, ink drying on a Preferred Pictures contract. Three years later, Bow was a top box office draw.
About half of UCLA's program is devoted to Bow's silents, including 1927's It, from which derived the nickname that has long outlived her. The convoluted plot, which delays the consummation between Chicago department store magnate Antonio Moreno and shopgirl Bow with misunderstandings for just long enough to fill out standard running time, is a pretext to showcase Bow's unique screen presence.
Bow is defined by a Roman-candle emotionality that sparkles in a dazzling variety of hues in close-up — sullen one second, frantic the next, smoldering after that, and nothing for very long — as well as her fluttering activity, which she sometimes elevated into bouncing-off-the-walls hophead frenzy.
The "It" of the film's title is variously defined in its source material, a novelette by Elinor Glyn, as "a strange magnetism that attracts both sexes ... absolutely un-self-conscious ... which draws all others with its magnetic force."
"All she had to do was lift those lids and she was flirting," is how Bow's onetime boyfriend Artie Jacobson described the vast peepers that radiated "it."
"It," to be clear, was the promise of unbridled whoopee, of a romp in the sheets full of, per Kane, plenty of health and vigor. (A contemporary Tijuana Bible made explicit what was implicit in Bow's relatively chaste scripts, rechristening her "Clara Blow.")
The movie business had had its share of good little goodies, and it had peddled titillation before — the original "vamp" Theda Bara, for example. But Bara, a tailor's daughter from Cincinnati, was fitted with a ridiculous Arabian Nights backstory; Bow was a lusty little thing who was unmistakably girl-next-door familiar, and all-American.
Bow is almost invariably more interesting than her films. The absurd premise of 1925's Capital Punishment gives Bow much occasion to gnash teeth and beat breast, while that year's only-slightly-better Parisian Love, like It, derives much of its charm from cheerful vulgarian Bow's careless vaulting over social boundaries. (Certain self-conscious arrivistes of Hollywood weren't so charmed by the defiantly lower-class Bow, who didn't have an ounce of the pretense that then was socially requisite.)
Unfortunately missing from this program is one of Bow's best silents and her first hit, 1926's Mantrap, directed by Victor Fleming, who belonged to Bow's list of famous lovers, along with Gilbert Roland, Bela Lugosi (allegedly) and a young Gary Cooper.
Cooper debuted with a walk-on role in 1927 World War I dogfighting epic Wings, in which Bow plays the female lead. That film's wheeling aerial photography, directed by actual combat veteran William "Wild Bill" Wellman, has lost none of its power to astonish. (UCLA also plays Bow and Cooper's little-seen co-starring vehicle, 1927's Children of Divorce.)
"I'd whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel ... with several red chow dogs to match my hair," Bow later recalled of her heyday. "Today, [the stars are] sensible and end up with better health, but we had more fun."
Clara's fun, as well as goings-on in the "Chinese room" of her home at 512 Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, soon would become the stuff of public record, as a string of scandals aired Clara's dirty laundry in public.
Along with scandal, the coming of sound film, which revealed Bow's low-bred Brooklyn brogue, has sometimes been blamed for her decline. There was a third factor. While "It" meant fuckability on one hand, "It" also meant the ability to capture the ethos of an era, the 1920s, which have come down to us through Bow and Kane and F. Scott Fitzgerald as having been one big spree — The Wild Party, to borrow the title of Bow's first talkie. A 1925 feature identified her as "Young America rampant, the symbol of flapperdom," but by the hungover '30s, it was time to sweep up after the party, and the flapper, in the form of Boop, had literally become a cartoon.
The Wild Party, directed by Dorothy Arzner, is actually an enjoyable film, touching in its depiction of female camaraderie at a women's college. (The invention of the boom microphone sometimes is attributed to Arzner, who needed to follow the free-ranging Bow around the set.) And Bow continued to perform above the level of her material in schlock like 1930's True to the Navy, which reteamed Bow with Fredric March, and does contain the small pleasure of Bow shimmying and singing along to the radio.
Like fellow Jazz Age survivors the Fitzgeralds, the hyperextended Bow was destined for a crack-up. Retiring from pictures, she lived as a recluse, in and out of sanitariums until her death in 1960. The full measure of Bow's flaming youth had been sacrificed to the camera — and not for nothing. While so many screen actors of her era appear today as elegant waxworks, Bow still fairly jumps off the screen, a vivid avatar of Young America.
CALL HER SAVAGE: CLARA BOW HITS THE SCREEN | Billy Wilder Theater | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Wstwd. | Jan. 4-Feb. 10 | cinema.ucla.edu/programs
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.