Alluring ‘It’ Girl Clara Bow: Tormented Hollywood Outsider
Clara Bow was the screen’s first sex symbol--cinema’s “It” girl who exuded sex appeal, enticement and excitement. But having “It” didn’t bring her any real happiness. In fact, “It” ended up becoming a burden for Bow, who was never really embraced by Hollywood’s elite because she was not perceived as a “serious” actress.
Despite the adulation and love of her fans, Bow couldn’t shake off the demons of her childhood, and when her on-screen life began to parallel her wild screen image, many in Hollywood turned their back on her. Washed up at 28, she died in seclusion in 1965.
“She had her moment in the sun,” says Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who is executive producer of the new documentary, “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl,” which premieres Monday on Turner Classic Movies.
“But even at the height of her popularity, she was an outsider,” says Hefner.
Audiences hadn’t seen anyone quite like Bow when she burst upon the scene in the mid-'20s. Good girls like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were the top female stars of the day. Bow, though, was the epitome of the Roaring ‘20s flapper.
“Clara Bow was sexually aggressive and confident--a real role model,” says David Stenn, author of “Clara Bow: Running Wild.”
“Marilyn Monroe sort of took that back because she was sort of a Barbie doll. Clara Bow was in charge. She domesticated the men. She taught men to come to her. She never gave up her autonomy or her independence.”
Narrated by Bow fan and a contemporary “It” girl, actress-singer Courtney Love, “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl” features archival film footage, rare stills and home movies. The footage is cast against interviews with Bow’s family, friends and co-workers who talk about her Dickensian childhood, her rise to fame as the personification of the sexual liberation of the ‘20s and her fall from grace due to scandal, poor career planning, the advent of sound and her mental problems for which she was often hospitalized.
In conjunction with the documentary, TCM is airing her most famous film, the 1927 comedy “It,” plus the world television premiere of her first talkie, 1929’s “The Wild Party” and her first film, 1922’s “Down to the Sea in Ships.”
Nearly murdered by her mother, who later was institutionalized, and sexually abused by her father, Bow could only relate to men sexually, says Stenn. As her stardom grew, rumors abounded about her hearty sexual life. She was engaged to five men in just four years.
While doing research on his Bow biography, Stenn discovered that most of cinema’s sex symbols were, like Bow, sexually abused. “If you look at the sex symbol in American film as a sexually abused girl acting out . . . it’s interesting,” suggests Stenn.
Bow’s life did seem to foreshadow the tragedies that beset several sex goddesses who followed her. Louise Brooks ended up becoming a call girl before having her films rediscovered in the ‘70s. Jean Harlow kept marrying men who resembled her father and died of a kidney ailment at the age of 26. Carole Landis, a blond bombshell of the ‘40s, committed suicide. So did the “Mexican Spitfire,” Lupe Velez.
Rita Hayworth went through a series of bad marriages, as did Lana Turner. The latter saw her teenage daughter accused of murdering her mobster boyfriend. Veronica Lake, who influenced fashion in the early ‘40s with her peekaboo hairstyle, ended up making headlines because of public drunkenness and worked as a barmaid in the early ‘60s. And probably the biggest sex symbol since Bow, Marilyn Monroe, committed suicide at the age of 36.
Hefner says part of their problems stemmed from being under the thumb of the studio system. “Their professional and personal lives were very much dictated and controlled by the studios,” he says.
When these actresses got older or became embroiled in too much bad publicity, they were often dropped by the studios. Contemporary stars such as Love, Sharon Stone, Madonna, Demi Moore, Kim Basinger and Julia Roberts have overcome personal and career problems and bad press to take charge of their careers.
“Clara was not in the position to do that,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “Not that others didn’t. Mary Pickford certainly did. She completely controlled her career. But Clara was uneducated and didn’t have a lot of confidence in herself. She was sort of a victim waiting to be victimized in a sense.”
Stenn adds that Love and Stone are aware of themselves as creative people. “If you had gone up to Clara Bow at any point in her life and said, ‘You are a great artist,’ she would have looked at you and said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. I’m a working goil.’ ”
Unfortunately, says Stenn, Bow had no one in her corner to give her confidence. “She didn’t have that sense of herself as being someone who was creative and gifted.”
“Movies had a tremendous influence on every one of these [women] before they got into the movies,” says Hefner of the early “It” girls. “These were women who escaped to some extent into the fantasy life and the dreams and the possibilities that were expressed on that giant silver screen. One cannot even begin to fully understand today the power motion pictures had back then because other forms of the medium didn’t exist.”
Maltin believes fan adulation made actresses like Bow uncertain of the reality in their own lives. “They live a life of extremes,” he says. “It is hard to generalize about so many individuals’ lives, yet there are unmistakable patterns. Everybody wants to be loved. But when you are not sure that love is genuine . . . it must be hard.”
Out of the 57 movies Bow made, 31 exist in some form or another, including 1927’s “Wings,” which won the first best picture Oscar. The rest are lost, including the four films she made during the height of her career in 1928.
But Bow comes across as an amazingly contemporary actress in the films that are still available. “When you watch Rudolph Valentino, with his nostrils flaring, you know you are watching a 20s movie,” says Stenn. “He is very much of his period. Whereas with her--I think that’s why Courtney Love loves her and why Madonna wanted to play her in the 1980s--is the idea that when you are really great you transcend time.”
Despite the sadness in her life, says Maltin, he’s never depressed when he watches Bow on screen. “She is like a life force,” he says. “Remember, too, in silent film it was all visual. There was no voice or dialogue to communicate with, so to sort of come through the screen, almost to penetrate the screen the way she did was even more remarkable.”
* “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl” will be shown Monday at 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies. Unrated. “It” follows at 6 p.m.; “The Wild Party” at 8:30 p.m.; and “Down to the Sea in Ships” at 10 p.m.