Clara Bow had liquid, face-swallowing eyes and a just-woke-up tangle of red hair. Her baby cheeks and unmade bed charm bespoke an adorable, easy sensuality; the kind of girl who’s still pretty when you re-discover her between the sheets the next morning. Her figure, flat and thick-hipped by today’s standards, was considered to be plush flapper perfection in the 1920s, the decade when she rose to stratospheric fame as a film actress. A kitten-sized urchin who projected something sad and lost beneath her sparkly exterior, Bow had innate qualities that surpassed her acting skill and transmitted to the audience in effortless, ineffable ways. In short, she was a movie star.
You can still buy postcards of her acting contemporary, Louise Brooks, at a local “lifestyle store”, but most people, even movie buffs, wouldn’t be able to recognize Bow, let alone name one of her films. (I’ll help you out; she was the leading lady in Wings (1927), winner of the first Oscar for Best Picture.) Why is Brooks a still-immortalized cult figure and Bow not? Maybe there’s something about Brooks’ persona as cool, amoral, gender-ambiguous jazz baby with a keen intelligence shining behind her dark eyes that’s got more staying power than Bow, the little Brooklyn spitfire full of terrier enthusiasm and effortless charm.
These days, if a current glamorous superstar like Julia Roberts can fill seats playing heart-of-gold hookers and sexy public health advocates, there’s no reason to assume the appeal of Bow’s unpretentious and plucky roles as various shopgirls, manicurists, nurses and waitresses in films like Mantrap and The Primrose Path are past their sell date. What Bow lacked in someone like Roberts’ modern moviemaking savvy or Brooks’ dark magnetism she balanced with a sharp, feisty effervescence and an innocent carnality. No calculating vamp (like the dark and smoky, studio manufactured Theda Bara) or mock ingénue (like the pushing-30 Pollyana-esque Mary Pickford), Bow’s legacy might be overlooked today because of its illusory ordinariness.
After years in standard studio fare, Bow got her big break as the female lead in The Plastic Age (1925), a silly proto-Animal House cautionary tale about a naïve high school athlete (Donald Keith) who goes to college and becomes a dissolute, drunken, girl-crazy fool. He turns his priorities around by the final reel and wins the big game, the respect of his family, and the campus sweetheart, Cynthia (Bow). Actually, “sweetheart” isn’t quite the word, as it’s made perfectly clear early on that Bow is the good time girl, much beloved by the guys on campus but for all the wrong reasons.
Twenty-years-old when this film was made, Bow is startlingly sexy. Her big eyes flash and her bow-painted mouth spreads easily into a pearly, ebullient smile. Her body language makes Cynthia’s character clear: when she’s with her guy, she can’t keep her hands off him, pawing and grasping as if her hands were as uncontrollable as a lapful of puppies. Her physicality separates her from the other would-be party girls of the era who are too busy striking Charleston poses to actually get down to business. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, her unconscious pawing and cheerful grin suggest. What’s keeping you?
Her starmaking vehicle was It (1928) a romantic comedy taken from then-hot-stuff romance author Elinor Glyn’s novel It (no relation to Stephen King’s evil clown). “IT”, as Glyn theorized, “is that peculiar quality which some persons possess, which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely un-self-conscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.” Yeah, that was Bow; or, more accurately, her character Betty, a forgotten shopgirl glumly folding stockings and trying to make the best of her crummy job. She’s smitten with her boss (“Sweet Santa Claus, give me him!”), but can’t get him to give a lowly shopgirl like her the time of day. But when the boss’s friend Monty takes notice of Betty’s formidable “IT”, she finagles a way to use Monty to get closer to the man in charge.
Bow is delightful, the dervish of shimmying, winking activity at the center of the screen, a giddy flirt and unquenchable optimist full of life. When she lolls on the boss’s desk as if it were a grand piano, batting her eyes and beaming, it’s hard to imagine what’s keeping him from asking her out. Hell, Monty took her to the Ritz; she cut up her only good dress to make a suitable evening gown for the occasion (just like present day cinema’s famous working-class redhead, Molly Ringwald, did for her prom in Pretty and Pink). Why won’t he “do it up right”, as Betty puts it, the roller coaster-like dip and swoop of her hands making clear where a Brooklyn girl’s idea of a fun date place is.
Sure enough, Betty’s boss takes her to Coney Island amusement park, where the two ride all sorts of mechanical amusements that look like lawsuit magnets to modern eyes (including one that bucks them against each other in half-disguised congress, predating Debra Winger’s solo ride on the mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy by decades.) The boss awards Betty a working class token of his affection; a stuffed monkey, won in a game of skill. But at the end of the date, mistaking her lack of pretense for cheapness, the boss makes his move. Betty quickly slaps him, aghast. “So you’re one of those Minute Men the minute you know a girl you think you can kiss her!” She might be unpretentious but she’s no dummy; and she’s much too smart to end up like her unwed-mother roommate. Betty races up the stairs to her tenement apartment, leaving the chastened swain to drive away in shame. But later in her room, safe in her window perch, she runs a finger over her lips and gives a very sexy swoon in private memory, turning over the stuffed monkey he won for her and spanking its bottom with baby taps of her hand.
A prisoner of her own sex appeal, Bow was mostly wasted in lackluster follow-up projects. Studio bosses knew that audiences came to see her in action, not to marvel at the quality of her scripts. Still, the big film of 1927, Wings was a noticeable exception. Even though Bow hated playing Mary Preston, the goody two shoes nurse torn between two flyboys (and constantly made unauthorized alternations to her drab military costume, unable to stand not being sexy in uniform), she still draws the viewer’s eye to her portion of the screen whenever she’s around; high praise for a movie that’s got what’s still considered some of the best aerial dogfight sequences ever filmed. Her performance in an Academy award winning film should have been a career jumping off point, but instead it marked the apex, and the starting point, of her slow decline into obscurity.
Bow just couldn’t get a break. She had the bad timing to be a stunning redhead in the black and white era, a superstar when studios, not agents, controlled an actor’s going rate, and an unchoosy bedhopper when female stars still had morals clauses written into their contracts. Worst of all, unknown to anyone in Hollywood, she was a victim of incest, alcoholism, child abuse and mental illness in an era where shame, not confessional candor, surrounded one’s secrets. The litany of Bow’s childhood traumas doesn’t seem quite real; her mother was an epileptic prostitute prone to murderous delusions, once waking Bow up in the middle of the night and threatening to slit her throat. Her father was a neglectful, mentally retarded drunk who raped her. Directors loved Bow’s ability to cry fat tears on cue, but had no clue as to the trauma that made said waterworks so easily possible. And studio heads didn’t care about whether her breakneck work schedule was healthy for someone as emotionally fragile as Bow, or whether there’s a difference between a “slut” and a desperate, damaged woman looking for any kind of affection.
The one bit of timing in her favor was that her foghorn ‘Noo Yawk’ accent and occasional stutter remained camouflaged in silent films. (It’s a shame It is silent it’d be great to hear lines like “Just you wait I’ll take the snap out of your garters yet!” in Bow’s native whipcrack Brooklynese.) The arrival of the “talkies” ruined her, not so much for her inability to adopt the exaggerated, faux British stage dialect that was in vogue, but because of her own anxieties, mostly centered around insecurities about her voice; fears that were compounded by burgeoning mental illness. She suffered a nervous breakdown on the set of Kick In, her final feature for Paramount. Bedeviled by schizophrenia, she spent the last three decades of her life in and out of sanatoriums before finally dying of heart failure in 1965. She was an incandescent talent who would have glowed even brighter had her grim life not been so decidedly dark. As an icon and an actress she had “It”. Here’s hoping history treats her, and her onscreen legacy, more kindly. See you in pictures, Clara.