Clara Bow (1/2)

Stories about 22 December, 1927

While the beauty of many “great beauties” of the past does not translate to our age, Clara Bow’s smolder definitely does.

On the days leading into Christmas in 1927 you could catch Clara Blow’s latest flick Rough House Rosie at the Regent Theatre on Manners Street.  1927 was Clara’s year.  She was the reigning silent screen star of 1927 in America having been the star of the movie It, and singled out (successfully) as the “it girl” in a shameless Paramount Studio’s publicity campaign.

In 1927 Clara was 22 years old.  Her story from birth to superstar is part dream to three parts nightmare.  She was born in a Brooklyn slum.  Her mother was mentally ill, and during her “episodes” would threaten to kill Clara, one night pinning her to her bed and holding a butcher’s knife to her throat.  Clara’s father was a drunk, womaniser who molested her.  To add to this horror story, Clara as a child also watched her best friend burn to death in a tenement fire.

In 1921 Clara won the Fame and Fortune contest.  First prize was a part in a movie.  She was 16 years old in 1921.  In the days when actors made dozens of movies a year, by the time Clara became a name in 1927 she had made more than 30 films.

Rough House Rosie is a lost film.  A preview has survived.

Earlier in the year you could’ve caught It in Wellington at the Deluxe (now the Embassy).  I watched It with Cathy last week thanks to Aro Street Video Store which has two Clara Bow movies.  The other is called Wings which was the first movie to win an Oscar (trivia alert).  I’m a big fan of silent movies, and I had already read the Clara Bow biography when I saw It, so I was expecting to like the movie.  Cathy on the other hand has no soft spot for silent films, and – like everyone else on the planet – had not read a biography of Clara Bow.  It turns out that it didn’t matter.  We both enjoyed the movie and Clara is certainly the star.  Even though the movie is silly, and the acting style looks overdone nowadays, Clara is the dynamo making the whole movie run.  There are other women in the movie, some of them quite pretty, but the petite, slightly manic, slightly ridiculous, and extremely likeable Clara turns all the other female competition into wallpaper.

Here she is with all her energy and charm.

When I watched Clara in It I enjoyed the movie and her performance, but to do so I had to make an effort to be sympathetic to the film conventions of a different era.  I enjoyed the experience but only by closing my eyes to certain things.  It is worth remembering though that when a movie like It came out it was not enjoyed in this way – indulgently or ironically – it was fully enjoyed by its audience and represented the glamour and dreams of an age.  The phenomenon of Clara Bow attracted serious commentary by serious commentators like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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 were hundreds of them, her prototypes.  Now, completing the circle, there are thousands more, patterning themselves after her….  It is rather futile to analyse flappers.  They are just girls, all sorts of girls, their one common trait being that they are young things with a splendid talent for living.

Dorothy Parker also had something to say about “it” that was less complimentary.  In fact quite a few people were uncomplimentary about Clara Bow, and one thing you must know when you are at the pinnacle of Mount Celebrity is that the descent will probably be rough.

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