From the Back of the Bus
US: Jan 1962
Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild
US: Mar 2000
Every now and again I get sucked into participating in one of those blogger memes where you have to pick out your favourite book. The thing is, I maintain a LiveJournal, and frankly get just a little bored with trying to ensure my picks show me off as deep and sensitive to a community that includes feminist rants about Firefly.
Thus, charter member of the Junior Iconoclasts that I am, I recently decided to get cute and pluck out something like the most obscure or weirdest book I own.
Which—at least, in context—is a tiny 1964 paperback called From the Back of the Bus. It’s a collection of one-liners from comedian Dick Gregory’s early career, complete with forward by Hugh Hefner.
I picked it up for 50 cents from a thrift shop, feeling a bit smugly progressive as I did so… and boy was that knocked out of me but quick. The modern media universe knows Gregory, if at all, as a diet pitchman—the black Richard Simmons and about as threatening. Whereas in reality, he’s Chris Rock’s direct ancestor… kind of the same way those first convict settlers were Crocodile Dundee’s direct ancestors. Now, this is a social commentary.
Back in the day, Gregory’s MO was basically to get up in front of white audiences and make jokes about how racist they were. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.” “If I get them laughing, I can get through to them,” he said.
And it worked. They laughed. In the middle of this gut-wrenching national debate that would eventually invoke no less than the fundamental definition of a man, here’s white people packing the Playboy Club for weeks, paying large sums to this smartmouthed compilation of everything dark and alien to their experience so that he might mock them for it.
Then, he ran for President.
I realise each generation creates its own level of insanity… but only in the ‘60s, it sometimes seems, did they fully grasp the possibilities inherent therein.
Clara Bow didn’t ever have to worry about locating the crazy. It spun around her, spun through her, spun her right over the rainbow into some of the most magnetic images ever captured on the big screen. She had no Kansas—she had no idea there was even an Emerald City. And by the time the Wizard turned out to be humbug, her not-so-ruby slippers had long since fallen off, and been lost in the wasteland.
...which is to say, I’ve also been re-reading David Stenn’s Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, lately.
Stories of old Hollywood tend to have this sort of effect on me. For awhile there, you start believing that it’s actually possible to redo reality in Technicolour; the only similar reading experience I can think of is a Dickens marathon.
Anyway, if you like celebrity bios, this is an undisputed classic of the genre, striking the perfect balance between subject and purpose. Where Clara was real—and she was very, very real, in a Tinseltown age where it was unforgivable to be real—so is Stenn; where things must needs get artificial, Stenn sympathises, delicately, rather like a friend who’s trying sincerely not to laugh.
Because, frankly, these people were nuts. At one point, we’re introduced to a Judge Ben Lindsey, a ‘20s era celebrity advocate for premarital sex. He asks to meet Clara. Arriving at the swank home of her producer and his family, Clara promptly unbuttons the Judge’s fly; he promptly flees in a huff. This is a minor incident at the bottom of page 98 or thereabouts.
The really wild stuff is elsewhere, and it has nothing to do with orgies with football teams (as it turns out, there weren’t such things). By the hideously sensible logic of the studio system of the time, Clara was the studio’s top draw, its most reliable meal ticket—therefore too damn reliable to be wasted in a good film. If you threw random junk up around her and it made millions, spending money on commissioning a fine original script, decent co-stars or even an artistic-minded director was actually counter-productive.
So here’s the poor little Brooklyn slum kid on the glittery treadmill, patiently waiting for stardom to make it all better, and here’s her studio, using that same priceless, vivid wistfulness to ensure it’s never going to happen. Eventually she would be diagnosed with the schizophrenia that ran in her family, and die a recluse.
Right. Next week, it’s back to Oz for awhile. I really, really need to find those slippers, again.
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