Celebrating the films of Clara Bow

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In this week’s old movies spotlight, we celebrate the work of a standout talent from the silent film era – Clara Bow.

Clara Bow is easily one of the most recognisable faces in silent cinema. With big blossoming doe-eyes, a devilish grin, and an absolute talent for stirring trouble, Bow is an iconic Golden Hollywood star.

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In Damien Chazelle’s recent release Babylon, Margot Robbie stars as a fictionalised version of Bow called Nellie LaRoy. To celebrate the film being in cinemas, I thought it best to try and surmise what made Bow such a legend in her craft.

“I don’t suppose two people ever looked death in the face more clearly than my mother and I the morning I was born. We were both given up, but somehow we struggled back to life.”
– Clara Bow

Clara Bow was born in Brooklyn 1905. From the moment she was born, Clara Bow had a difficult relationship with her mother, who had previously lost her other children. Their relationship worsened when her mother suffered a brain injury when Bow was just 16 and thus she had to take care of her.

As a child Bow would show the same tenacity that she’d carry in her films – fighting boys and being a self-professed tomboy.

Bow’s first foray into acting came when, with her father’s encouragement, she entered an acting competition for magazine Fame and Fortune in 1921. Despite fierce opposition from seasoned actresses, Bow won. However, she wouldn’t immediately be cast in a film, until she was told to haunt the film offices. She’d eventually be cast in film Beyond The Rainbow (1921). Though advertisements and editorial pieces suggested otherwise, Bow would say that she was ultimately cut from the film, and it dampened her enthusiasm for filmmaking.

Down To The Sea In Ships (1922) was the first picture of which people took note. Elmer Clifton’s silent romantic drama movie revolved around a whaling family in Massachusetts. Bow played Dot, a tempestuous child who wants to be a whaler when she is older, despite the fact that it is unacceptable for women to do so. Her performance drew much acclaim with many deeming her a star comedienne in the making.

In 1923, Bow moved on from New York and flew over to California to make it in Hollywood. Thanks to her contract with Preferred Pictures, Bow’s star began to steadily rise as she made a name for herself in comedies and dramas.

Highlights during this time were 1923’s Flaming Youth, a tale of the sexual revolution during the Jazz Age, and prohibition comedy Wine (1924). She also appeared in Maytime (1923). Based on a musical by Sigmund Romberg, Maytime tells the story of a young heiress who falls haplessly in love with the gardener. Originally thought lost, an incomplete print of the film was found in New Zealand in 2009 and lovingly restored.

During this time, Bow defied gender roles and conventions, portraying wild and sexually free flappers, or tomboys. Throughout her acting career, she wished to push the envelope of the female characters she played, regretting when a book was toned down for the screen, as was the case in Paramount’s Mantrap (1926).

In 1926, Bow appeared in eight Paramount Pictures releases including Dancing Mothers, a story of a mother cheated by her husband and daughter; Mantrap, a tale of a woman rising through the ranks of men in the titular small town, and Kid Boots, a tale of a tailor’s assistant trying to save his friend from a gold-digger. Famous silent film star Louise Brooks would say of Bow’s performance in Dancing Mothers: “She was absolutely sensational.”

Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered“-Clara Bow

Thanks to her looks and her presentation, Bow would become the definitive sex-symbol of the twenties. Thanks to her performance in racy drama It (1927), Clara Bow became known as “the It Girl.” The film itself is just over an hour, and sees a young woman use a man’s friends in order to attract him. It serves as an unforgettable highlight of why Bow was so watchable. Her presence here is alluring and whilst she can deliver a scorn-filled look or bat her eyes in scandalous flirtation, she can also hit the emotional beats as well. One such scene sees Bow’s Betty race to the defence of her roommate Molly, whose child is nearly taken away by social workers. I think some could call that gumption.

Clara Bow in It (1927)

It (1927)

Perhaps the key film that has cemented her star in the history books is silent film Wings (1927). One of the most famous war films of all time, William A Wellmen’s Wings revolves around two men who fall in love with the same woman (Bow as Mary Preston) before they are sent off to be fighter pilots in World War One. Boasting gorgeous cinematography, including a famous tracking shot through a restaurant, this is one of the greatest cinema spectacles of all time. A must-see for every cinephile.

“I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”– Clara Bow

Whilst Bow herself would deem talkies to be lame, one could argue that she was able to deftly adept her skill and wiles to the sound pictures. Her comedic capabilities and droll deliveries make her films enticing to watch. Her first sound picture was Dorothy Arzner’s The Wild Party (1929), which sees her as a college student falling for her handsome professor (which I’ve previously spoken about in great length).

The best sound picture with Bow in was the absolutely phenomenal Call Her Savage (1932). Bow stars as the exuberant Nasa Springer who rebels against her father. If you ignore the racist connotations of the fact she’s supposedly part Native American, you can enjoy Bow’s performance as the wiley and hot-tempered Nasa who tries her best to love fiercely. And has a whip! It’s known for being one of the first (official) portrayals of homosexuals in a Hollywood movie, as there’s a sequence in a gay bar.

Other talkie films of Bow’s include Secrets (1933) True To The Navy (1930,) and Dangerous Curves (1929).

“We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. I used to whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel, with several red Chow dogs to match my hair. Today, they’re sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun.” – Clara Bow

Though Bow did successfully appear in sound pictures, unfortunately like other stars, such as John Gilbert and Louise Brookes, she found the medium too turgid and tedious to continue. She would eventually retire from acting in 1933, with Frank Lloyd’s Hoop-La being her final film.

Following later in life health complications, Clara Bow died in 1965 of a heart attack.

However, Bow has an enduring and lasting legacy. In fact, famed cartoon Betty Boop was modelled on Bow’s looks. At the height of her fame, Bow received 45,000 fan letters in just one month!

During her career, Bow’s off-screen antics drew in as much criticism as her movies. In 1931, The Coast Reporter would publish outrageous rumours such as drug-addiction, alcoholism, and exhibitionism (amongst many other things too wild to post here), though these were considered only to be rumours.

In fact, the publisher was arrested for printing such salaciousness. However, Bow was still criticised for not adhering to the Hollywood elitism, thanks to her partying antics and bohemian lifestyle and apparent lack of manners (which she readily admitted to).

Beyond her successful box-office figures, her legion of fans, and contemporaries who spoke highly of her work, Bow’s talent is completely memorable. From the moment she glides onto screen, with an unparalleled smirk on her face and a cock-sure attitude, Clara Bow will leave the utmost incomparable impression on you.

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