Before Sharon Stone, before Madonna, before Monroe, before Harlow, before all of those, America's leading sex symbol was Clara Bow.
The pouty redhead seduced audiences with a playful and somewhat vulnerable sex appeal. Bow's 1927 picture "It" opens the eighth annual "Silents Under the Stars" mini-festival Sunday at Paramount Ranch.
On celluloid, her appeal continues to be strong enough to inspire a steady stream of fan mail, even though she died in 1965.
"I get 30 or 40 letters a year, from all over the country," said her son, Nevada lawyer Rex A. Bell, a former Las Vegas district attorney.
Bow grew up in a poor, abusive family in Brooklyn and as a child became determined to make something of herself. At age 16 she entered a "Fame and Fortune" contest sponsored by a fan magazine. In one of those turns of events that seems more Hollywood myth than fact, she won the contest, took a screen test and began getting parts in movies. Blessed with beauty, spunk, quick wits and a natural gift for acting, she caught the eye of directors and vaulted to superstardom within a few years. She soon came to personify the saucy, spirited flapper and liberated young woman of the Roaring '20s.
"It" was based on a sensational novelette by Elinor Glyn, a popular writer of lurid romance fiction. Randy Habercamp, director of Hollywood Heritage, the group sponsoring the festival, said "It" was the first Hollywood production successfully hyped by publicists, who whipped moviegoers into a frenzy of anticipation to see the screen treatment of the scandalous book.
The "It" the plot revolves around refers to the sexually charged irresistibility that Bow's character, a department store lingerie clerk, uses to catch her boss.
The poet Carl Sandberg--who wrote movie reviews for the Chicago Daily News during that time--described a key sequence in the film, which is quoted in "Carl Sandberg at the Movies" (Fetherling and Fetherling, 1985, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J.):
"Her employer's silly-ass friend, Mr. Austin, comes through the store looking for people with 'It.' He had read Elinor Glyn's declaration that some people have 'It' and some do not. That 'It' is a strange quality that you recognize immediately. Luckily, Mr. Austin looks at Clara Bow and calls out: 'She has "It." ' He is right."
Moviegoers knew exactly what It is after watching Bow frolic on screen. "Her performance in the film is still very fresh and modern," Habercamp said.
And such was the power of that performance that Bow was forever after to be known as the "It Girl." It also launched her into a series of glamour-girl roles in movies such as "Get Your Man," "The Wild Party" and "Dangerous Curves," all of which shocked audiences who kept flocking to the box office to see her.
Off screen, Bow's was no less sensational. Her affair with "It" co-star Gary Cooper, which is recounted in the 1988 book "Clara Bow, Runnin' Wild," by David Stenn, quickly became a Hollywood legend of its own. Bow took delight in describing Cooper's prowess in rich detail to friends, including Hedda Hopper, the future newspaper columnist.
Cooper, who owed his rise to stardom in large part to Bow, co-stars Aug. 18 in the second film in the Silents Under the Stars series, the 1926 action-romance picture "The Winning of Barbara Worth," starring Vilma Banky.
Glamorous in quite a different way from Bow, Banky was an accomplished actress in her native Hungary who had appeared in at least a dozen European films. She was spotted by Samuel Goldwyn, who brought her to the United States and promoted her as the "Hungarian Rhapsody." An actress of uncommonly delicate beauty, she co-starred opposite Rudolph Valentino and Ronald Colman in several films, including the classic "Son of the Sheik," in which she played a dancing girl.
In "Barbara Worth," which also co-stars Colman, Banky is a wealthy landowner's daughter who is fought over by two young engineers, who happen to be in the neighborhood building a dam. The film concludes with a watery disaster that moved this newspaper's movie reviewer in 1926, Herbert Moulton, to effusive praise: "The flood scenes in the latter part of the picture are strikingly vivid and unquestionably the finest I have ever witnessed on the screen."
Jonathan Kuntz, a visiting associate professor of film at UCLA, said "Barbara Worth" was one of the earliest features to use panchromatic film, then a new development in photography, which gives the film richer, higher-quality images.
Ironically, technology--the sort that brought sound to the movies--was blamed for ending the careers of both Bow and Banky.
Film historians say that Banky, who retained a thick Hungarian accent, was never comfortable before the microphone. It was said that lip readers watching Banky and Colman in silent movie love scenes can see her speaking Hungarian while he mumbles seductively about his sports hobbies.
Bow was similarly self-conscious about her Brooklyn accent. But her son, Rex Bell, said that her decision to retire was more a result of seeing younger women who worked for less money getting all the glamour-girl roles.
* WHAT: "Silents Under the Stars."
* WHERE: Paramount Ranch, Agoura. (Take the Kanan Road exit off the Ventura Freeway, go south three-fourths of a mile. Turn left on Cornell Road, go about 2 1/2 miles.)
* WHEN: 8-10 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 18.
* HOW MUCH: $6.
* CALL: (818) 597-9192.
* FYI: The movies are shown in an open-air pavilion behind the western movie set used in the CBS series "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Plan to arrive early because the films drew quite a crowd last year. Also, with no street lights in the area, visitors should bring a flashlight. Many attendees also bring a picnic dinner for before the show. Soft drinks and popcorn are sold during the performance.