Ain't 'IT' a Shame

Violet Glaze
Silent film star, Clara Bow

In her debut column, Classic Film Columnist Glaze argues for one forgotten actress's place in the pantheon of legendary leading ladies.

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.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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