June 13, 1999, The New York Times

Appreciating the Flapper Who Put the 'It' in an Era


If you try to imagine Mary Pickford in a spangled cocktail dress slashed to the thigh or a flesh-colored bathing suit, failure awaits you: the flapper's wardrobe wasn't designed for apparent virgins. From 1909 to the early 1930's, Pickford's long sausage curls and ruffled skirts, her little feet in black patent leather Mary Janes, the limpid nursery school gaze, all suggested an existence rinsed of sexuality. Yet the barely adolescent Clara Bow "spent hours imitating" Pickford before a mirror, according to Bow's biographer, David Stenn. The spotless image of Pickford, the permanent child, dramatizes the contrast between "America's Sweetheart" and Bow, the arch-flapper of the 1920's, born in 1907.

Tomorrow at 8 P.M., Turner Classic Movies will show a documentary, "Clara Bow: Discovering the 'It' Girl," and three of her films. Bow, the quicksilver hedonist who lived in and for the present, was Paramount's most profitable star and the most popular female performer of the late silent era. She was also Al Capone's favorite actress, and when she visited Berlin, an admiring Hitler gave her an inscribed copy of "Mein Kampf."

Hemlines had risen while Pickford was combing her ringlets, jazz drowned out Methodist hymns, gin sparkled more brightly than lemonade. At a festive time when Wall Street was thriving, when many Americans were sure there would never be another world war, and urban problems seemed rare -- apart from finding a skilled bootlegger -- F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term 'flapper' signifies": a young woman who was "pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad and 'hard-berled' as possible." There were different kinds of flappers, but he thought all of them had a "common trait," which was "a splendid talent for living."

Flapperhood flourished throughout the social classes: sales clerks, secretaries, hatcheckers and hairdressers were flappers, as were privileged belles like Zelda Fitzgerald. In 1922 she wrote that the flapper told herself, "I do not want to be respectable because respectable girls are not attractive" and "boys do dance most with the girls they kiss most." So the flapper "bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt . . . she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn't need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn't boring." At 21, Zelda Fitzgerald declared that a young woman had "the right to experiment with herself as a transient, poignant figure who will be dead tomorrow."

Elinor Glynn, the high-flown Englishwoman whose lush bestselling novels included "It" -- a coy synonym for sex -- received $50,000 from Paramount's B. P. Schulberg to state that Bow had "It," more so than any actress in Hollywood. Appearing briefly in the 1927 movie of that title, Glynn gassily asserts that " 'It' is self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold." The British critic Cyril Connolly couldn't resist a spoof:

"She's got what the Americans call 'that.' "


"What the Americans call 'that.' "

"What's that?"

"That' -- that's what she's got."

"But what the Americans call what? I don't even know that."

"Oh, my dear Duchess!"

In Bow's movies, she pursued men, as she did in her own life. Stalking was an exercise new to American movie heroines; previously, sexual initiative had belonged to men or wicked (usually foreign) women. But only an inept director would have chosen Bow for a passive role: she functioned like a short-range missile. In the midst of postwar sexual freedom, popular culture equated the name of "Freud" with an invitation to ditch your inhibitions. Yet while much of the public assumed that flappers were at home with casual sex and rivers of booze, in the movies most remained chaste, despite all the come-hithering. But occasionally they delivered what could be called An Awful Warning to the Youth of America.

Portraying zestful headlong flappers, Bow's essence is energy: she never walks when she can run or dance. Her body and her face instantly obey her moods: her shoulders rise when she's happy; when she's distressed, the big liquid eyes seem to grow even larger beneath her penciled eyebrows; anger moves her jaw forward in a pugnacious thrust. Strumming on a banjo, unleashing a mischievous smile, heaving with laughter at a spurned suitor, sauntering through a men's barbershop, she's very fetching -- but could she act? Most of her movies are so vapid that it's hard to judge her abilities. Still, there's a bold carelessness that reminds you of Fitzgerald's characters, and a willfulness that would not have been appropriate to most of the ballads of goodness devised for Mary Pickford.

O N the screen Bow seems to be governed by high spirits. But her cheerful persona was synthetic. Reared in extreme poverty in Brooklyn, she had a mentally ill mother -- who once threatened to kill her -- and an alcoholic father who raped and beat her. At 16 she won a movie magazine's Fame and Fortune Contest, which resulted in her first small role. Even more successful at the box office than Garbo, Bow was dissed in Hollywood, partly because of her tenement background -- all too similar to some of her haughty colleagues' origins -- but also because of the scandals that swirled around her. Here facts are elusive. Evidently she had flings with Gary Cooper, the director Victor Fleming, Bela Lugosi and quite a few others; the yellow press publicized her entanglements with several men at a time. But although it was said that she pleasured the entire football team of the University of Southern California -- the future actor John Wayne among them -- that may well have been a myth.

Farflung tales of her gambling debts, drinking, all-night parties and polygamous tastes damaged her career. And talkies terrified her; stricken with "mike fright," she had a crack-up on the set of "Kick In" (1931), Schulberg called her "Crisis-a-Day-Clara," and she made her last movie, "Hoopla," at the age of 26. Married to a former cowboy star, Rex Bell, who entered Republican politics in Nevada, she hated the public life required of a politician's wife. (Yet she had sturdy opinions about candidates, hoping that Barry Goldwater would be elected President in 1964.) After more breakdowns, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic at the Institute of Living in Hartford and became a recluse; tended at home by a professional nurse, she died in 1965.

The Bow documentary, directed by Hugh Munro Neely, is huskily narrated by Courtney Love; the film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, Bow's co-star Buddy Rogers and one of her sons, Rex Bell Jr., participate. The writer Budd Schulberg, son of the producer, recalls Bow's insecurity and na´vetÚ, which surely intensified her miseries. The film, which contains engaging footage of old New York, is informative, but the script is weighted with throbbing phrases like "famous beyond her wildest dreams."

TCM offers "Down to the Sea in Ships" (1922) with Bow as a rebellious tomboy who slugs men who exasperate her; the movie sags between those scenes. In "It," she's a shopgirl who ensnares her wealthy boss, demonstrating that a seductive city sprite can remain virtuous. "The Wild Party" (1929), directed by the gifted Dorothy Arzner -- who had not yet developed her own style -- was Bow's first talkie. Her untrained voice was not disastrous, although her Brooklyn twang alternates with posh inflections, and she speaks of "footbawl." The movie unwinds on the campus of a women's college, a setting Hollywood regarded as both sexy and elegant, a playground for flappers who wear bathing suits under their fur coats.

All three pictures are slow, though "It" has beguiling moments and possesses some historical interest. But you wish -- as Bow apparently did -- that she'd had stronger material. Paramount simply didn't bother to develop substantial properties for her as long as her films made a bundle. From Pickford and Lillian Gish to Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, other stars of the silent years were far better served by their studios. Yet if Bow was more an icon than an actress, glimpses of what Mr. Maltin describes as "her ebullient 1,000-watt personality" help to illuminate our understanding of an optimistic time -- when good news was expected to drive out bad, when flappers needn't be sober, when being young could mean celebrating yourself.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company