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Hollywood 1920s silent romcom – Clara Bow has It

Clara Bow - It movie poster

With the Oscars just hours away, when stars’ sartorial elegance and faux pas will be dissected, it seems timely to blog about Clara Bow – a darling on screen and at the box office, but also a somewhat forgotten outsider from tinsel town. Her Hollywood story is both one of dream fulfilment and a cautionary tale ending in faded glamour and an almost forgotten career, which has been just been rediscovered over the last 1o years or so.

Clara Bow came into my head for this Oscars blog after watching a documentary on Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddesses. All the talking heads reiterated that she had ‘it’ but the power of the star system and the way that it circulates via other media (magazines, TV shows, biopics) was not really discussed fully, and so I wanted to get to know Clara Bow, the star focusing on the silent film, It (Badger, 1927), her defining role as the original It-girl.

Coming from a troubled home in Brooklyn (her mother suffered from mental health issues and her father from alcohol abuse), Clara Bow’s Hollywood trajectory is on fast forward. Her acting début derived from winning Motion Picture Magazine’s Fame and Fortune Contest to appear in a film, and although this footage ended on the cutting room floor, she went on to make 57 films in her short career. At the height of her fame, she received 45,000 fan letters a year, and filled movie magazines with stories both complementary and scandalous, prior to retiring to married life on a ranch before she reached 30. Clara Bow  represented the new woman, who was taking on a more active role after the First World War, but these traits combined with her “vulgar” working class background, also brought her approbation (and the money from her talents went to the film bosses). Sadly her story ends almost ‘Baby Jane’ style with her divorced and living alone in Hollywood’s suburbia replying to fan mail and re-watching her old movies.  

Do you have It?

The character Clara plays in It has parallels with her off-screen persona. It tells the story of Molly Lou, a shop girl in a department store, who falls in love with the owner, Cyrus Waltham, and sets out to get her man. The movie is based upon the book of the same name by English author, Elinor Glyn, (who also has a cameo in the film) which tries to explain that indefinable characteristic that attracts us to certain people. According to the caption:

“It is that peculiar quality which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of it must be absolutely unselfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.”

A conventional romance narrative is played out, where after overcoming class obstacles and misunderstandings, love conquers all. At the end, the caption reads “We’re just a couple if it-less its” and the final shot sees them kiss with the ‘it’ of the name of the ship ‘Itola’ between them.

Although Molly uses a man to ahead, she is a character with agency – a new woman of the 1920s – who knows what she wants and how to get it. She may use her desirability to attract and steal men, but she’s also loyal to her female friend, willing to work to support her and her child, and she can fight her own battles (in the final scenes, she saves her love rival who tries to sink her and she does not need to any male assistance to save herself).

The pre-code film has an endearing, saucy tone. The inter-title reads – “Hot dogs that sizzle and satisfy! Best in the beach!” – to introduce the scenes when Molly takes the upper-class Waltham to her milieu, the beach fair. The couple go on a ride called the social mixer which spins them round and round, and they whirl down a chute with Waltham holding Betty between his knees, resulting in her skirt flying up to reveal her garters. She slaps Waltham when he tries to kiss her, and later says that she has to play this game, as women should not be seen to take the lead sexually.

The feminine consumer of romance

The romance is played out in the department store, and linked with commodity culture. Orgeron (2004) argues that the space of the shop, one of the few places in the public sphere where woman would be actively encouraged to look, formalises the way that the spectator is set up in the film to look, desire and then buy. A defining scene early in the film is when Betty first sees Waltham and palpably shows her desire for him – “Sweet Santa Clause, give me him”.

It in particular illustrates the link between the Hollywood system, the commodification of the star to sell movies and products. Orgeron says:

“The fan magazines were advertisements, and their pitch was attainability; if you buy this you can look like Star X. Bow made such aspirations looks particularly possible because she failed to create distance between herself and her fans that other stars worked rigorously to achieve. She was in many ways the star system’s best advertisement because she perpetuated the illusion of possibility for fans.”

As Clara won a competition to get into the movies, her story is the fulfilment of a fantasy even greater than her character in It.  Below is an article about Clara Bow to sell a book about how to make love like the movie stars. If you look, desire and buy, you too can achieve love.

Clara Bow's secret

Fashionable Clara Bow – the one to follow

Last year at the Oscars, the talk of the town was The Artist, a silent film, following the rise of female star, Peppy Miller who had ‘it’. And that’s not where the connection ends, Clare Bow’s style was the inspiration for Mark Bridges’ (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood) costumes for Peppy Miller. Clara Bow embodied the roaring twenties flapper, and after the success of It, she was a fashion icon. Fans could order their own Clara Bow cloche hat via mail order, scarf sales increased as did henna. Indeed, women are still encouraged to style themselves a la Clara Bow.

Of course Clara Bow’s red hair was not really captured in her movies, and the film magazines would literally add extra colour to the black and white films, encouraging readers to buy henna to get the star’s look. Here are some recovered lost fragments, just as this star has been brought back into the limelight in recent years. The quality of the footage makes us feel voyeuristic as though we are watching her audition reel through the camera lens.

Loved by movie-goers and one of the biggest stars in the business, she was nonetheless, kept at a distance by the Hollywood glitterati failing to shake off her Brooklyn working class background (her accent was not a problem in the silent era). One story which seems to circulate frequently when reading about this actress is when she turned up to a formal Hollywood party in a belted swimsuit. Her outsider status is articulated through lack of cultural capital via inappropriate dress code.  

It‘s costume designer was Travis Banton, best known for shaping the styles of Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. In the popular discourses about Clara, he despaired of her lack of taste but succumbed to her fashion ideas because she had ‘it’. In a Photoplay magazine article, the interviewer writes:

“And then her boundless vitality never failed to turn Banton’s most costly gowns into rags within a few hours. There was too much in the sheer business of living for Clara to remember what she had on her back the moment she left a mirror. Sequin trains were dragged through muddy studio streets, white satin robes fell unnoticed on dusty floors, and a frock of cobweb lace was an unfailing signal for a romp with the Great Dane.”

Her taste in clothes was ‘noxious’ and she ‘jazzed up’ his most beautiful creations, accessorising with the vulgarity of  bangles, large earrings and socks, as well as pulling her skirt up to her knees. She may have had ‘it’ and moved to the West coast, but the Brooklyn girl remained.  I wonder if the cherries on Clara Bow’s cloche hat (which I love) were from her idea or his…

http://youtu.be/z5vgMWGe444

Fashion both its commercial side and the notion of a sense of style plays an important part in the film. Molly sells clothes to rich women whilst her love rival buys fancy stylish items. However, money and class cannot buy you ‘It’, so the qualities that made Clara Bow an outsider in real life, were her selling points in the movie. The difference between Molly and her rival for Waltham’s affections is played out through clothing as we see both actresses preparing for an evening at the Ritz. The wealthier woman takes time to dress in an opulent boudoir with a maid to help her, whilst Molly ‘makes do and mends’ with her friend’s help by cutting up the dress she is wearing to create an evening dress with a shawl. She also attaches flowers to her waist but once she is at the Ritz she copies the trend of her love rival and wears it like a corsage. When Molly sees an advert for dresses from Waltham’s store in the newspaper, she looks wistful for the object of her desire, which is also linked with the desire to consume. 

The pleasure in It, for me, resides in the active desire that Molly shows to get what she wants and the fun, cheeky attitude of the film. Although this is still very much within conventional gender roles, there is some negotiation here in a time where there were tensions in women’s roles. Clara Bow brings joie de vivre to her performance, and you feel that you would get carried along with her schemes. One of the first actresses to grow up watching movies, she brings expression and physicality to the screen. Indeed she said of the 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.”

What do you think of Clara Bow, the Hollywood legend? Are there any contemporary Clara Bows? Will you be hooked reading about the Oscar winners and losers tomorrow in magazines? Why not watch It – a very Hollywood film – to get in the mood for the Oscars tonight?

Clara Bow articles to check out

Ball, Christina, (2001), “The Silencing of Clara Bow” in Gladfly, March/April.

Orergon, Marsha (2003), “Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture”, in Cinema Journal, 42 (no.2), Summer.

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