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Bow, Clara (1905-1965)

Bow, Clara (1905-1965)

With her performance in the 1927 silent movie, It, rising film star Clara Bow transformed herself almost overnight into the Jazz Age icon called "the 'It' Girl." The movie's record-breaking popularity turned the single word "It" into a national euphemism for sex appeal, and helped make Bow, two years later, the highest paid female actor in Hollywood. Writer and Hollywood trendsetter, Elinor Glyn, first coined the expression in her novella, It, then selected Bow as its embodiment in the role of Betty Lou Spence. As "the 'It' Girl," Bow became the dominant sex symbol of the 1920s and 1930s, and a singular identity within Hollywood history as the first wholly American vision of erotic appeal. Before Bow, depictions of bold female sexuality were associated with foreignness, as in the career of the 1910s' star, Theda Bara, whose studio-manufactured image feigned Arabic heritage. Bow's portrayals expressed unabashed attraction to men in ways that American-identified female stars, such as "virginal" Lillian Gish, eschewed. Bow's spontaneous style of acting exasperated camera crews of the day, but her abandonment and intuitive skill were the qualities that translated as 'It' to spectators, and to directors like It's Clarence Badger, who learned to "explain the scene to her and just let her go."

With her natural red hair, cupid bow lips and hourglass figure, Clara Bow's persona mirrored the liberated decade itself. Onscreen and off, she epitomized the high living, carefree and carnallyemancipated "flapper." Sporting bobbed hair, glittery dresses falling above the knee, and headbands, "flappers" were 1920s good-time girls who smoked, drank, frequented jazz clubs and reveled in the nation's prosperity by flouting turn-of-the-century rules for feminine behavior. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the writer who dubbed the decade "the Jazz Age," observed, "Clara Bow is the quintessence of what the term 'flapper' signifies as a definite description: pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad, and 'hard-berled' as possible…. there are thousands more patterning themselves after her girls, all sorts of girls, their one common trait being that they are young things with a splendid talent for living." Many novice actresses, including Joan Crawford, also viewed Bow as a role model and imitated her screen type.

Bow's acting ability was innate, but her "talent for living" was acquired. Born July 29, 1905 to impoverished parents eking out an abject existence in the tenement slums of Brooklyn, Bow's childhood was marked by brutal neglect. Her mother, Sarah Bow, née Gordon, struggled with severe mental illness and despised her primarily absent husband, Robert Bow. Oppressive emotional and economic conditions affected Bow the way many a movie star's bleak background did: she sought escape in movie houses and moving picture fan magazines like Motion Picture Classic and Photoplay. Poring over stories of "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, and the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, Bow vowed to join their ranks. When she confided her dreams of stardom to her mother, Sarah castigated her desires as a prostitute's. Bow's conflict with her mother was not unique. As Nickelodeons across the country gave way to theatrical movie houses in the 1910s and 1920s, movie-going united cross-segments of the culture. But this new entertainment activity also provoked 1920s sensibilities concerned with religious virtue and threatened by perceptions of movies' degenerate influence on youths. This gap between the public's values and Hollywood's profligate spending, depictions of moral laxity, and offscreen scandals like the rape trial of Fatty Arbuckle, features as a constant in the history of American movie culture. For example, a related outrage over movie violence spurred 1996 Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole to attack the industry as part of his campaign. To impugn his opponent, President Clinton, Dole accused him of being a "Holly-wood insider." Had she lived to witness it, Bow's mother would have been horrified by "the 'It' Girl's" appearance in movies titled Wild Party, Daughters of Pleasure, Dangerous Curves, Kiss Me Again and Call Her Savage.

Bow established a professional Hollywood reputation as hardworking, kind-hearted and unpretentious. She also developed a notoriety that blurred with her fun-loving screen personality and shaded into promiscuity. Her lovers included co-stars Gary Cooper, Gilbert Roland, Frederic March, and director Victor Fleming. Her stardom occurred simultaneously with the increasing popularity of scandal sheets, and the press tracked her every dalliance. What Americans loved onscreen, appalled them in tabloid reports of Bow's refusal to marry. Involved in several financial scandals, she diminished further in the Depression-era public's esteem when details of her spending were publicized during a trial involving a personal secretary, who had attempted to blackmail Bow based on records she secretly kept of Bow's bedroom visitors.

Bow ended her film career in 1933, in response to her loss of fans' affections and a career sagging under the weight of stock roles in uninspired films. Having discovered the Clara Bow formula, Paramount studio exploited it and her unequalled popularity by sticking her in a series of low budget, predictable vehicles co-starring unknowns. Despite reviewers' praise for 1933's Hoopla, constant typecasting as the seductive girl with endless self-confidence—dimensions lacking in her own increasingly fragile identity—disgusted Bow. Her retirement also coincided with the emergence of the "talkies." Though she completed several successful movies requiring dialogue, and her voice did not doom her as it did other stars attempting the silent-to-talkie transition (e.g. Pola Negri and John Gilbert), the strain of controlling her Brooklyn accent and memorizing lines took its toll. She abandoned her film career for marriage and motherhood. As other seminal Hollywood personalities like Greta Garbo would, Bow fled Hollywood and entered into seclusion. Despite her escape from the fishbowl pressures of fading stardom, she experienced severe breakdowns requiring hospitalization.

Bow disappeared from the public eye, but "The 'It' Girl's" legend resurfaced in various cultural expressions. In the 1950s, Life magazine featured a photo spread of Marilyn Monroe made up as Bow. In the 1980s, entertainer Madonna billed herself as the new "'It' Girl," and musician Prince featured Bow's picture on the cover of an album. In 1998, a cover of Vanity Fair posed the question of whether Hollywood newcomer, Gretchen Mol, might not be the next "'It' Girl." Bow herself identified with Marilyn Monroe, saying of her death, "A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered."

—Elizabeth Haas

Further Reading:

MacCann, Richard Dyer. The Stars Appear. Metuchen, Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Morella, Joseph, and Edward Z. Epstein. The "It" Girl. New York, Delacorte, 1976.

Stenn, David. Runnin' Wild. New York, Doubleday, 1988.

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