Clara Bow had `It,' and studios abused it

Television: Documentary examines the life of one of Hollywood's earliest and brightest sex goddesses.

June 14, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Clara Bow had it. And it nearly destroyed her.

"It," in the parlance of the 1920s, was sex appeal, and as a documentary premiering tonight on TCM amply demonstrates, Bow was one of the first to unabashedly bring it to America's movie screens. The price she paid was enormous.

Not that sex was absent from the movies before Clara Bow came along; Theda Bara made a career of being exotically, unattainably and sometimes dangerously sexual, while Gloria Swanson made her early mark on films prancing scantily clad through an assortment of Cecil B. DeMille epics. But as "Clara Bow: Discovering the `It' Girl" makes clear, no actress before seemed to enjoy her own sexuality so utterly, and so willingly use it to her own advantage, as Bow.

In the end, Hollywood turned its back on her, making her a has-been at age 30 and turning her into a recluse who would spend the last years of her life -- she died in 1965 -- holed up in a Los Angeles bungalow. Fortunately, her films remain (though not all of them; like most of the silent-era stars, many of her films have vanished) as testimony to a woman who worked magic on-screen.

Even today, it's easy to see what made the Brooklyn-born Bow so popular. Her wondrously expressive face could go from girlish to glowering within seconds; her wide eyes and round cheeks are enough to rivet the attention of any male. And as another icon of the flapper era, Louise Brooks, liked to point out, no one had more fun on-screen than Clara Bow or did a better job of conveying that fun to her audience.

The result was a screen persona that was a major hit with the public -- legend has it she was receiving some 40,000 fan letters a week -- but not with the Hollywood community. Movie studio executives were glad to make money off Bow's films, but outside the studio, they wanted nothing to do with her.

It didn't help matters that her personal life seemed to mirror the scandalous (for the time) characters she portrayed. While the legend that she once took on the entire USC football team is probably apocryphal, there's little doubt that Bow gave freely of herself at a time when good girls simply didn't do that.

As tonight's documentary points out, it's amazing Bow managed to appear so unaffected on film; given her troubled early years, it's amazing she survived at all.

She was born in 1905 to a mentally unstable mother and a chronically drunk father who abandoned his family shortly after his daughter's birth, only to return later. Her father beat and probably raped her. Her mother so hated the notion that her daughter wanted to become an actress that she once held a knife to Clara's throat and threatened to kill her; she escaped and locked herself in a closet until her father came home.

But Bow was not to be deterred from the fantasy life she so desperately wanted for herself. Shortly after winning a movie magazine's personality contest, she appeared in her first film, 1922's "Beyond the Rainbow" (scenes of a frizzy-haired, 17-year-old Bow are included in the documentary).

Her break came the following year, when she appeared as a girl stowaway pretending to be a boy(!) in "Down to the Sea in Ships," one of three Bow films airing tonight. Soon billed as "The Hottest Jazz Baby In Films," her popularity skyrocketed, peaking with the 1927 release of "It," based on Elinor Glyn's novella about a young woman's strange hold on men.

Bow was undeniably one of the biggest stars of the silent era, but the coming of sound terrified her; convinced that her heavy Brooklyn accent made her sound trashy and uneducated, she developed mike fright so horrible that she would often ruin film takes by unconsciously staring at the huge microphone looming over her head.

The fear was baseless; as 1929's "The Wild Party," also airing on TCM tonight, demonstrates, there was nothing wrong with her voice. But Bow's self-confidence was eroding rapidly, and a scandal that resulted from a former secretary accusing her of all manner of lascivious behavior hardly helped matters.

Clara Bow made her last film in 1933. As "Clara Bow: Discovering the `It' Girl" demonstrates, it was Hollywood's loss.

Documentary

What: "Clara Bow: Discovering the `It' Girl"

When: 8-9 tonight (repeats 10: 30 p.m.-11: 30 p.m.)

Where: TCM

Bow films TCM: "It" (9 p.m.-10: 30 p.m., repeats 2: 30 a.m.-4 a.m.), "The Wild Party" (11: 30 p.m.-1 a.m.) and "Down to the Sea In Ships" (1 a.m.-2: 30 a.m.)

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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