Better than Fiction
In 1968, silent film legend Louise Brooks wrote a scathing letter to historian Kevin Brownlow, who had just published his seminal work on silent film, The Parade’s Gone By. In typical outspoken Brooksian fashion, Lulu railed at Brownlow for focusing on “some old fucks and not even mentioning Clara Bow’s name.”
Unfortunately, Brownlow’s oversight, whether intentional or not, was not atypical. The “It” Girl, one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, whose combination of spunk and seduction paved the way for the likes of Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe and all succeeding generations of dream girls, had outlived the gaudy era that made her a star. By the time Brownlow’s book came out, she was mostly forgotten - a tattered John Held Jr. flapper caricature, a shopworn Kewpie doll relegated to the remnants bin of film history.
But from the middle 1920s to the early ‘30s, Clara Bow was a force to be reckoned with - a natural force, like a hurricane or tidal wave. She made 57 films in eleven years, forging a definitive flapper persona that generated millions of dollars for Paramount. By 1928, the she had received more than 33,000 fan letters, some simply marked “It Girl, Hollywood, U.S.A.” Along the way, she influenced a generation of young women who related to her style, sass and liberated sexuality; she appealed to men for pretty much the same reasons. With an irresistible combination of earthiness, humor and sensuality, Clara Bow singlehandedly changed the way America looked at sex.
But Clara’s frantic flapper act, both on and offscreen, was fueled by tragedy and a life whose melodrama rivaled any fiction. Her love affairs were legion - from Gary Cooper and Victor Fleming to Bela Lugosi and, apocryphally, the entire USC Trojans football squad. Most ended unhappily. B.P. Schulberg, head of Paramount who she looked up to as a mentor, exploited her financially and emotionally, paying her a paltry $2,800 a week in 1928, compared with Pola Negri’s $6,000 per week, and Colleen Moore’s $125,000 per picture. Her constant parade of broken engagements, extramarital affairs and lawsuits made headlines, further enhancing the “It” girl mythos. If Clara Bow hadn’t existed, ‘20s Hollywood would have had to invent her.
But underneath the fun and games, Clara carried the emotional scars of a squalid, dysfunctional childhood that rivaled anything ever doled out by Charles Dickens. They were scars she would carry for the rest of her life.
Born in a Brooklyn tenement in 1905 to a schizophrenic mother and an absent father, Clara’s only escape was going to the movies. In classic fashion, she escaped to Hollywood at age 16 after winning a “Fame and Fortune” contest. As a contract player for Preferred Pictures, she ground out dozens of low-budget potboilers, some cranked out in as little as two weeks. But it wasn’t until 1926, when Paramount paid literary doyenne Elinor Glyn $50,000 to christen her the “It” girl to coincide with the release of It in 1927, that the real roller-coaster ride began.
It launched what would become a long line of Clara Bow formula films. With titles like Rough House Rosie (1927), Red Hair (1928), and Dangerous Curves (1929), the common elements of all these pictures was a feeble plot, a nondescript leading man, and Clara endlessly reprising her spunky flapper role.
But in spite of the interchangeability of these elements, Clara always managed to transcend her material. Coming to film totally untrained in the theatrical arts, Clara proved to be a natural match for the new technology of motion pictures. She was irrepressible, bounding around the sets, able to laugh and cry at the drop of a hat. Her lovely, expressive face could convey everything from mischief to sorrow with the arch of a tweezed eyebrow, the curl of a rouged lip.
And Clara was no prima donna. Tough, hardworking and big-hearted, she indiscriminately mingled with everyone, but was especially comfortable with the cameramen, technicians and grips, who considered her “one of the boys.”
Unlike many other silent stars, Clara managed to successfully make the transition to sound. Critical and financial hits like Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla (1933), both made for Fox at a lucrative deal for her, proved her broad Brooklyn accent to be perfectly suited for the tough-girl roles she played. With Clara branching out into more dramatic roles, the potential was there for the rebirth of her career, this time as a serious actress in the new talkie medium.
But Clara was exhausted. She married cowboy star Rex Bell in 1933, retired to a secluded ranch in Nevada, and had two sons, who she doted on. After years of frantic living, she was ready to lead a tranquil life as a wife and mother -- or so she hoped.
Instead, Clara was wracked with insomnia, hypochondria, suicide attempts, and frequent institutionalization. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1949, and underwent intensive psychotherapy, even shock treatments, in an attempt to root out the mental illness that had claimed her mother and aunts. She grew estranged from her husband and sons and eventually moved back to Los Angeles alone.
In her later years she found a semblance of the peace that had evaded her throughout her life - painting, reading voraciously, swimming. Re-release of her talkies to television in the late ‘50s - with Paramount typically denying her royalties - resulted in a flush of recognition for the former “It” girl, who avoided the spotlight as assiduously as she'd sought it in the ‘20s.
She died peacefully in 1965 at age 60 while watching a telecast of The Virginian -- starring Gary Cooper and directed by Victor Fleming.
Today, with all of her existing films being restored and revival houses rediscovering why the American public fell in love with her, Clara is emerging from the shadows. Stars as diverse as Madonna and Courtney Love have expressed an interest in portraying her on film (although Clara possessed a major attribute that most modern divas lack - a self-deprecating sense of humor). She continues to fascinate us with her incandescent blend of brash confidence and vulnerability that glow on the screen as brightly today as they did at the apex of the ‘20s.
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