By Heather Babcock, 2019
“All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a feeling of tragedy underneath.” – Clara Bow
In the 1910s, film actresses were usually pythoness-like vamps (think Theda Bara) or sunny, Peter-Pan-like eternal children (such as Mary Pickford, who was still playing child roles well into her early 30s). Audiences of the roaring 1920s – giddy with bathtub gin and inspired by a burgeoning sexual revolution – were hungry for a new kind of movie star – someone wholesome but sexy, fun yet sweet – in other words, the dream-girl next door and there she was: Clara Bow.
A lonely child who was insecure about a slight speech impediment, Clara found comfort in the movies, a new medium which was quickly transforming the world and shaping the American Dream. After being forced to drop out of school to support her family by working a number of odd jobs, Clara entered the 1921 Brewster Publications’ Fame and Fortune Contest, publicized in her favorite magazine Motion Picture Classic. She won the contest but Clara still had a rough road ahead of her: “I wore myself out going from studio to studio, from agency to agency, applying for every possible part. But there was always something. I was too young, too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat,” she would say years later. In 1925 she became a household name, playing a flapper “jazz baby” in The Plastic Age. “She has eyes that would drag any youngster away from his books,” the New York Times swooned at the time. Her role as a plucky shop girl in the movie It (1927) catapulted her to both stardom and immortality as the original “It Girl”.
One of Hollywood’s most prevalent falsehoods is the notion that Clara Bow was a casualty of the “talkies” (sound films) or, to use an oft-repeated term from the period, that she had “voice trouble”. This, like the equally ridiculous myth that the 1960s rock group the Monkees “couldn’t play their own instruments”, is a blatant lie that, although easily refuted, nevertheless persists due to well-worn telling and re-telling of the fib, usually by sources who should – and often do – know better. Numerous magazines and “serious” film history text books published after 1950 propagate this untruth about Bow and yet one need only to read contemporary reviews of her sound films – or to simply watch one of her talkies – and the “voice trouble” tall-tale evaporates quicker than an uncapped bottle of dime-store perfume.
“CLARA BOW TALKS!” read the headline of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s review of her first talkie The Wild Party. The review went on to say that Clara’s voice “records fairly well, she speaks her lines realistically enough, and while the dialogue is pretty terrible, that certainly is not her fault.(…)You’ll probably want to ‘see and hear’ Clara Bow.” (Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 1, 1929 issue).
Bow’s “talkies” were, if not critical successes, than at least financial ones: audiences still packed the theaters in such a capacity that police officers were often needed to control the “It Girl” hungry masses. Her sultry Brooklyn accent was perfect for the snappy, streetwise dialogue of the new medium. When she sang in the 1930 film Paramount on Parade, audiences cheered with delight.
The truth is that audiences never left Clara – Clara, unhappy with the new, still primitive, sound technology which limited her movement as an actress and terrified of the microphone, left Hollywood on her own terms to become a full-time mother and homemaker. “I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off,” she said after her final film Hoopla (1933). “I want somethin’ real now.”
But Clara was always “somethin’ real”. And still is. In the WW1 action drama Wings (1927), Bow surprises Charles “Buddy” Rogers by popping up between the legs of a pair of old-fashioned Victorian style bloomers hanging on a clothesline. This scene exemplifies the spirit of Clara Bow: a fresh breeze of modernity breaking through the stuffy constraints of the past. In 2018, The Toronto Silent Film Festival screened Wings (1927) at the Fox Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. The theater was packed with patrons of all ages (including children).
Over 91 years later, Clara still has “It”.
I was able to find contemporary reviews of Clara Bow’s talkies by searching the online newspaper archives available on the Brooklyn Public Library website.
I also researched this article by reading David Stenn’s excellent 1988 book Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild. It is the definitive biography of the It Girl and one of the best Hollywood biographies I have ever read – period.