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CLARA BOW REMEMBERED

By William M.Drew

Although more than 65 years have passed since the release of Clara Bow's final film, "Hoopla," and many of her surviving films are rarely seen outside the archives, the legend of the beloved "It" Girl shines as brightly as ever. More than any other actress of her time, her extraordinary talents embodied the spirit of a restless new country breaking with the familiar patterns of a past shaped by Victorian mores. With its combination of comedy and tragedy, her life and career continue to haunt the imagination.

Clara Bow, of course, cannot be viewed in isolation. The arc of her career--its beginnings, its triumphs, the later defeats and the decades of comparative oblivion--was paralleled by most of her colleagues as I've noted in my article, "Damsels in Distress: Strong Silent Women Held Hostage in Film Archives". Her projection of the new feminine emancipation was shared by many of her contemporaries in the twenties and had been anticipated by the actresses of the teens like Pearl White. For example, Clara's legendary love for driving fast cars (a favorite pastime of many silent film actresses) was part of woman's new freedom (See my article, "The Speeding Sweethearts of the Silent Screen,"). And Clara's portrayal of urban working girls in her films reflected the new realities that saw more and more women entering the labor force and embracing the cultural changes that came with their role away from the traditional one of hearth and home. As one of Clara's fellow flappers, Fox star Madge Bellamyput it, "the twenties saw the beginning of the secretarial type of woman going out to work in offices and shops, and it was an attempt, a breakthrough for liberty and freedom for all people--for women. I think in the beginning it was necessary for women to dance like they wanted to, to cut their hair and wear short skirts to show their rebellion." Or as Clara herself declared in her inimitable Brooklynese: "Marriage ain't woman's only job no more. A girl who's worked hard and earned her place ain't gonna be satisfied as a wife. I know this, I wouldn't give up my work for marriage. I think a modern girl's capable of keepin' a job and a husband."

But however closely she is connected to her contemporaries, in the deepest sense, Clara stood apart from her peers. Brought up in desperate poverty in a family with a history of mental illness, Clara came to the movie world with a personal heritage far removed from the middle-class backgrounds of most of the stars of her generation. Even the poverty experienced by Mary Pickford in her early life seemed genteel compared to the tenement hells of Brooklyn where Clara spent her childhood. For Clara, the movies were truly her salvation. Her natural brilliance as an actress grew out of the combination of her tragic past and the intoxicating sense of liberation she found in the new art of the cinema. But that brilliance coupled with her impoverished background also made her a loner in Hollywood. Like D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Lon Chaney and Greta Garbo, Clara Bow was a non-conformist who worked and lived as she pleased without regard to convention. The familiar round of Hollywood society held little attractions for such boldly individualistic artists who were all too familiar with the tragedies of existence. Yet despite Clara's early sufferings, she was often happy and fun-loving in her relations with others.

Clara made her debut in "Beyond the Rainbow" (1922), a Robertson-Cole production filmed in New York by Christy Cabanne with Billie Dove in the lead. Billie, who had come to prominence as a Follies girl, was then beginning her own spectacular reign as one of the great film stars of the decade. She recalled of the newcomer:

"Clara Bow played in her first picture in "Beyond the Rainbow." She was not well-dressed. She looked as though she'd just come off the streets from playing tag or something like that. Nobody would ever think that she'd become the 'It' Girl but she did. She was just a very nice little thing, a happy person as I remember, always smiling. We got along beautifully."

Clara's road to stardom was far from an easy one. Her part in "Beyond the Rainbow" landed on the cutting-room floor during its initial run. (Her footage would be included in a later reissue of the film.) However, her part in her second film, "Down to the Sea in Ships" (1922), made such a hit that it led to her being brought out to Hollywood the following year. There, for a couple of years, she alternated between leads for B.P.Schulberg's studio which had her under contract and loan-outs to other studios, often in supporting parts. In one instance, she was to appear with the movies' original flapper heroine, Colleen Moore, in "Painted People" (1924) for First National. As Colleen recalled:

"Clara Bow was my chief rival, but we were quite different in our styles. She did a couple of scenes with me in "Painted People" and then she said to me, 'I don't like my part. I want your part.' She talked to Schulberg, and he let her get out of the picture. We put some little blonde girl in there in her place. I felt Clara was just marvelous, and I loved her. I feel very sorry for her, terribly sorry for her personally. She had such a sad life. She told me so much about it at that time. We were quite different, yet each represented a section. I would say that she was obviously very sexy in her approach and mine was not--mine was one you didn't know about."

In 1925, Clara's starring role in The "Plastic Age," her most outstanding film for Schulberg's Preferred Pictures, led Paramount to snap up the popular actress and her producer. Clara scored in hit after hit for her new studio in 1926--"Dancing Mothers," "Kid Boots" (Eddie Cantor's classic comedy which also reunited Clara with Billie Dove), "Mantrap", and slated for release in 1927, William Wellman's great war epic, "Wings," and a comedy written by Elinor Glyn entitled "It." The actress who, without any theatrical experience, had used her uncanny instincts and intuition to develop her own style, entranced critics and public alike with her vivacious performances. In the last climactic years of the American silent era, Clara was the most popular film actress in the world, followed by her former associates, Colleen Moore and Billie Dove. The three actresses were now outdrawing at the box-office, such long-established favorites as Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson,as well as MGM's headliners Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. Billie Dove remembered that "Clara Bow had the most fan mail of everybody in Hollywood, I was second, and then one summer, I beat her. . . I don't think they were writing to the President very much in those days so Clara and I probably had more mail than anybody in the world."

With fame came enormous publicity about Clara's personal life including her romances with director Victor Fleming and leading man Gary Cooper. Cooper was still a beginner when he worked with Clara Bow in "Children of Divorce" in 1927. In fact, both Clara and another rising feminine star at Paramount, Esther Ralston, were jointly starred in the new film over Cooper. Esther had vivid recollections of "Children of Divorce" and her effervescent co-star:

"I don't know if Clara thought I was a prude or not. I've always been more or less reserved, and yet, I'm sure there's nothing prudish about me. But she was a little minx, and if she could shock me by what she said or what she did, her day was made. We were sitting together out on location one day waiting for the next scene while Gary was jumping a horse over a fence or something, doing one of his scenes.

She said to me, 'Esther, do you like Gary?'

I said, 'Yes, I certainly do--very, very much. I think he's a lovely person, a gentleman, and I think he's going to go far.'

'Why,' she said, 'I like him, too. You know, he always lets me take my dog in the tub when he gives me my bath in the morning.'

I said, 'Well, that's like him.'

But things like that, one right after another."

"Then we were doing the death scene--Josef von Sternberg was directing that. She was dying, and I was kneeling beside her, weeping. She was chewing gum. She had this great wad of gum in her face when they said, 'All right, Clara, get the gum out. We're going to shoot the scene.' She took the gum out, put it back of her ear, and died. Well, that struck me as so funny, I howled, and they had to wait for me to stop laughing before I could cry again."

"There was no rivalry whatever between us. She had her part and I had mine. But I feel very sorry because one night--I think it was the night we finished the picture--I was giving a big party at my house and I had to rush home. Her dressing room was right next door to mine, and she must have known that I was giving a big party--all the Hollywood people, directors and everybody, were coming. She was standing in her doorway, and she said, 'You're having a party, aren't you, Esther?' I said, 'Yes--Oh, would you like to come, Clara?' 'No, no' she said, 'I know you don't want me.' I've never forgotten that. I had nothing against her--it's just that we had nothing in common off the screen."

As Esther indicated and as David Stenn chronicled in his excellent, moving biography of the "It" Girl, "Runnin' Wild," Clara's uninhibited frankness seemed out of place at the more sedate social gatherings of the period. At the studio, too, Clara's "fast" reputation, exaggerated though it was by the publicity machine, caused many to avoid socializing with her. Others, however, found Clara's company refreshing. Lois Wilson, one of Paramount's top actresses in the twenties, a well-educated lady who was eleven years Clara's senior, recalled her fondly as a lot of fun and remembered spending a delightful day with her at the beach.

That there was widespread affection and respect for Clara is evident in the many warm recollections of her by her peers and the vote she received in 1957 from veterans of the silent era as one of their greatest artists. With her honesty and lack of pretense, however, Clara had no interest in pursuing a traditional Hollywood social life. No one, indeed, could tell what Clara would do next on the occasions that she attended social functions in the film colony.

Patsy Ruth Miller, a talented, prominent star of the era, characterized Clara as "very cute, sweet, vivacious but not terribly well-educated." She remembered that at the time of her 1929 wedding to director Tay Garnett, she had invited Clara's current beau, entertainer Harry Richman, to be a guest but not Clara. Clara came to the reception anyway and sat in the bridal chair where Patsy was supposed to be seated to receive the gifts. Clara showed no signs of getting up but Patsy didn't have the heart to embarrass her by telling her of her social gaffe. Finally, Patsy hit on an idea to reclaim her seat. She sent word to the orchestra to play a number that was peppy and quick. As expected, Clara jumped to her feet, grabbed the first man in sight (not Harry Richman) and proceeded to dance.

By 1929, however, Clara had more serious concerns than faux-pas at Hollywood functions. Sound had arrived and although Clara's speaking voice was well-suited to the new medium, she missed the freedom of the silent camera and dreaded having to memorize dialogue.

Jean Arthur, who worked with her in "The Saturday Night Kid" in 1929, adored Clara, remembering her as "wonderful to me but frightened to death of talkies." Jean was impressed by Clara's kindness during the picture when "she invited me to her trailer on the lot."

Clara left a vivid impression at this time on Marian Marsh, a young actress who would later become famous as Trilby opposite John Barrymore in the 1931 version of "Svengali." As Marian recalled:

"I was visiting the Paramount studio to see about getting a part there on loan-out from Pathe. I didn't get it but I was introduced to Clara Bow. I think we just said 'hello.' She was a bit nervous and was seemingly in haste. She was there to act and perform and she wanted to get started. I remember she was very nice and not an 'It' Girl at all. She was very quiet and not talkative. She wore a pleated skirt with a big belt around her waist and was very graceful. I could tell how talented she was because she could use her face so well. Whenever she spoke, her eyebrows would go up. She was very small with lovely hair over her forehead and great big eyes. She seemed insecure about the talkies and found the whole thing overwhelming. I remember hearing her say, 'It's all so new to me.' She was all alone there. She'd go into make-up alone and do it herself and she'd come on the set alone. She didn't depend on anybody. I didn't think the studio was supporting her. She was such a big star and I think she could have had a longer career if they had been more helpful. I was impressed with what a nice girl she really was."

Clara indeed faced a lonely struggle in the next few years, not only in meeting the challenge posed by the new medium, but in confronting a devastating barrage of negative publicity. In both cases, she had reason to feel abandoned by Paramount, the studio that had made millions on her talent but was unwilling to come to her aid during a crisis. Clara was hardly alone in finding her career slipping away from her in the early thirties. Almost all of the major actresses of the American silent screen were affected by the studio politics of the period. Mary Pickford, Billie Dove and Colleen Moore, for example, all made their final films around the same time that Clara bade farewell to the screen. But Clara was very much alone in becoming the scapegoat for the post-twenties backlash against the Jazz Age she had come to symbolize. Like Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand a decade before and like Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman in the post-World War II era, Clara was victimized by a recrudescence of traditional American Puritanism. Amidst the clamor of screaming newspaper headlines and morally censorious witch-hunters, Clara was hurled from her position as the greatest star on the screen to a retired life of domesticity in which she vainly hope to find peace and contentment. The years of oblivion began. The studios which regarded her and other silent stars as commodities and their past films as discarded merchandise, had no interest in reviving an art form they viewed as moribund and commercially valueless. Soon, even many of the people who had lived through the teens and twenties began to think of the silent cinema as a quaint anachronism.

For all of her troubles, Clara managed to survive. She would not die young like Olive Thomas, Barbara LaMarr and Mabel Normand or those three radiant blonde comediennes she had known--Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard. But neither would she attain old age and live to see the later revival of the silent era. In the 1950s, Clara, in the company of her nurse, did regularly attend screenings of her films at Los Angeles' legendary Silent Movie Theatre. And she had the satisfaction of being honored by her peers in 1957 when the George Eastman House asked the silent veterans to select those they considered their greatest artists. But in those later years, the silent film was still viewed by much of the public as a primitive era of movie-making filled with posturing hams. A newer generation was apt to form their first impression of silents from a popular program of the sixties like"Fractured Flickers" which ridiculed the films by blending cut-up footage with inane, insulting commentary. Few viewers of such shows could have been aware of how believable and natural stars like Clara had been in their films.

But time has proven to be Clara Bow's ally. When screened today, Clara is as scintillating and beautiful as when the films were first released. Abel Gance had declared that "The cinema is the paroxysm of life." No star more fully realized that than Clara Bow. Her warmth, her vivacity, her talent for mime defy the years. Perhaps she was called the "It" Girl because she had a quality, a power of expressiveness transcending simple definition in performances that remain the very essence of moving pictures.

Some of these quotations are taken from my book, Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen, and a forthcoming sequel: At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties.


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