Friday, 18 January 2013

Clara Bow - The Hottest Jazz Baby in Films

After a recent documentary shown on the Beeb (which spoke as if no-one born after 1932 had ever heard of her), I was compelled to write about Clara Bow, the frivolous ingénue of the silent screen.  As she is such an interesting, and somewhat tragic character, I thought it right to redress the balance and write about the girl who was the personification of 'It'.

The first film of Clara's that I saw was her defining role in 'It' (1927) in which she plays a shop girl out to snare her employer.  Apart from it being an important piece of film history, I also found it really funny (it's definitely worth seeking out).  Clara perfectly depicts the girl-next-door who aspires for a better life and is determined to get it - but without having to give up her principles (she's not quite the floozy her boss thinks she is).   The concept of 'It' was defined by Elinor Glyn (said to have coined the term) as 'a strange magnetism which attracts both sexes', but can be more easily described as good old-fashioned sex appeal!
Clara with Madame Glyn
The film crystallised a new type of woman emerging both in film and society - the flapper.  These were newly emancipated young women, with the right to vote, money they'd earned themselves and trying to break free from the strict, corseted life previously laid out for them.
But Bow's carefree image onscreen belied a turbulent (to put it lightly) home life.  Born into poverty in a Brooklyn tenement to Sarah and Robert Bow in 1905, her childhood was marked by an absentee father and a mother with serious mental health problems.  One night when Clara was 16, she woke to find her mother standing with a butcher's knife to her throat, which led to Sarah being committed to a hospital where she died in 1923.
Clara's first break was winning an acting competition in 1921, after she astounded the judges with her ability to express such a range of emotions, even at the age of just 16.  A few minor film roles followed, and she soon began to steal any scene she was in.  Her first co-starring role came in 1923 in 'Black Oxen' which quickly led to starring roles, often as some variation of a flapper.
With Fredric March in 'The Wild Party' (1929)
Clara Bow was the epitome of the 'jazz-baby' that filmmakers were clamouring to put in their pictures and audiences couldn't wait to rush out to be immersed in her world of local-girl-done-good (after being a little bit bad of course).  She was phenomenally popular in her heyday, with reports of her receiving up to 45,000 letters from her 'fan-friends' in just one month in 1929.  A film star that ordinary women could identify with, her red hair (dyed with henna) was copied by many hoping to emulate the look of their favourite star.
From the lost film 'Red Hair'(1928)
It is often reported that Clara sank from stardom at the advent of the 'talkies' due to her thick Brooklyn accent, but she actually had some very successful speaking roles (such as 1929's 'The Wild Party').  Her accent in no way hampered her popularity, it actually endeared audiences to her as she was always seen as 'one of them'.  When the talkies arrived, Clara took on more mature roles including 'Call her Savage' (1932) and 'Hoopla' (1933). 
'Call Her Savage'(1932)
However, the tide was turning in regards to her popularity, fuelled by numerous scandals relating to her sex life, spending and drug-taking.  This, combined with the fact that  she really disliked rehearsing and learning her lines - she said they 'sapped her pep', really started to undermine her place at the top of Hollywood.  Her family history of mental and emotional problems, as well as chronic insomnia, were also beginning to take their toll.  Tellingly, she once said 'Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered'.
 From 'Hoopla'(1933)
The final blow to her image was the seemingly endless bad press she received (much of it wildly exaggerated if not completely fabricated).  What had been seen as fun and exciting in the 1920s was seen as disgusting and wasteful during the depression of the 1930s.  Nobody wanted to see a flapper going to endless parties and running up a $14,000 debt at a casino (which Clara reportedly did in 1931) when they could hardly afford food.  A highly scandalous court case between Clara and her former secretary, Daisy de Voe (Clara sued de Voe for embezzlement) ended with Bow's reputation in tatters, after large amounts of evidence of her predilection for drink, drugs and gigolos came to light.  Her popularity declined rapidly and she was subsequently dropped from her contract with Paramount in 1931.
With Monroe Owsley in 'Call Her Savage' (1932)
Despite numerous offers of multi-picture contracts (including one from Howard Hughes), Bow retired to a Nevada ranch with her husband Rex Bell in 1933.  Their marriage started off very happily, but over the next decade she withdrew more from public life.  Her psychological wellbeing was also declining and this led to her attempted suicide in 1944, as she said couldn't cope with the thought of living in the public eye as a result of her husband's political aspirations.  The couple grew apart and in 1965 she died of a heart attack in Los Angeles.
From 'Call Her Savage' (1932)
In just 12 years she made an incredible impact on the film industry, and I imagine on the lives of young women on the 1920s as well.  Many of her films are thought to be lost, but a few have turned up in recent years (her most famous film 'It' was only unearthed during the 1960s).  Hopefully, all of her films will eventually be restored and more people will come to be entranced by 'the hottest jazz baby in films'.
I love this quote from Carl Sandberg and think it is a fitting ending to this post: "there are only about five actresses who give me a real thrill on the screen — and Clara is nearly five of them".

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