Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars: The “It” Girl Clara Bow

Silent Superstars: The “It” Girl Clara Bow

Clara Bow
Clara Bow, the ‘It’ Girl

When novelist, screenwriter, and supreme arbiter of taste Elinor Glyn declared in 1927 that Clara Bow had “It”–her term for a rare type of magnetism–the public must have heartily agreed. After all, the beautiful, vivacious young woman with the big brown eyes and mop of curly red hair was one of the brightest stars on the silver screen, lauded by many as the “quintessential” flapper. Indeed, Glyn didn’t simply say Bow had “It,” but endorsed her as the official “‘It’ Girl.” It’s a title that the sparkling actress has retained to this day.

Bow’s fame was especially remarkable when we consider that she was, to a point, self-motivated. Were it not for her love of the movies and decision to take the wildest of chances, she might never have been discovered by a fan magazine “Fame and Fortune” contest.

Clara Bow 2

Saying that Clara Bow grew up in unfortunate circumstances is an understatement. Her father Robert was a shiftless man often described as “strange,” and her grim mother Sarah suffered from mental illness. The couple lived in a series of shabby New York tenements at a time when they were severely overcrowded and unsanitary. Sarah bore two daughters who both died at birth, and then against all odds had a healthy girl, Clara. What little love the girl received was largely from her grandfather, who doted on her before suddenly passing away from an apoplectic fit.

As a child the tomboyish Bow was largely shunned by the local girls and mocked for her threadbare clothes and tendency to stutter. She found little solace at home, since Robert could be violent and Sarah’s mental illness was steadily worsening. In time Sarah began suffering from seizures, with usually only young Bowand to try and help her. Once she woke up to see a crazed Sarah standing over her with a butcher knife. She would suffer from insomnia for the rest of her life.

Clara Bow 3

But there was one comfort Bow had: the movies. They were a true escape from her troubled home life, offering visions of beauty, romance and adventure. She began to have dreams of appearing on that wonderful screen herself. An avid reader of fan magazines, she came across Motion Picture Magazine’s announcement of the 1921 “Fame and Fortune” contest looking for screen talent. All it required was to send in a portrait with the entry coupon fastened to the back. She conspired with her father to have a couple cheap portraits taken at a Coney Island studio. Since the office accepting the entries was in Brooklyn she took the streetcar to deliver hers in person. After a number of weeks, several screen tests, and a gradual dwindling of contestants, the winner was declared: Clara Bow.

It was a surreal moment of triumph for Bow, who had taken all the screen tests wearing the single dress she owned. Despite the win she still had to hustle to actually get a film role, finally getting a small part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922). Her first lead was–fittingly–as a tomboy in the whaling picture Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). As small roles kept coming her way, Sarah suddenly died from epilepsy-induced heart failure. Troubled though their relationship was, it was another traumatic event for the sensitive Bow.

Clara Bow 4

In 1923 Bow arrived in Hollywood itself and soon nabbed the sort of role that would define her career: a “flapper type” in Black Oxen (1923). It was a supporting role, but critics praised her nonetheless. Determined to continue “making good,” she would appear in 8 films in 1924 and an incredible 15 films in 1925. The hit film The Plastic Age (1925) sealed her outgoing, warm-hearted flapper image for once and for all. Clara Bow, Brooklyn-accented girl of the tenements, was finally one of Hollywood’s glamorous stars.

Clara Bow 5

In general Bow’s screen characters were working girls, unabashedly flirty and quick to stick up for the bullied or to give a lecherous man a sock on the jaw. Some of her notable appearances were in Dancing Mothers (1926), Mantrap (1926) and the epic World War I picture Wings (1927) costarring Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen. Her hit feature It (1927), costarring Antonio Moreno, happily capitalized on Elinor Glyn’s “‘It’ Girl” endorsement.

Clara Bow It

Warmly outgoing and eager to please, Bow was popular at the studios, although her informal nature made her an outsider at the fancy dinners and parties thrown by Hollywood’s elite. Her personal life gave plenty of fodder to the papers as she flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend, appearing in divorce court more than once as the “other woman.” As time passed, she was starting to be regarded as unstable.

Clara Bow 6

The talkies presented even more challenges as Bow struggled with “mike fright,” especially during the shoot of Kick In (1931) where she fled from the set. This stress was compounded tenfold when a tabloid published a fabricated “expose” accusing her of everything from wild promiscuity to bestiality. The ugly attack triggered a nervous breakdown, and Bow’s boyfriend Rex Bell insisted that she recuperate for a time at his Mojave desert ranch.

During this much-needed rest, the couple were married. After a successful return to Hollywood in Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla (1933), Bow decided to retire from the screen for good. She and Rex would raise two sons, Tony and George, and try to live a comparatively peaceful life on their ranch.

Clara Bow and family - Rex Bell and sons Tony and George
Clara, Rex and two sons Tony and George

Unfortunately, Bow wasn’t quite destined to live happily ever after. Perhaps inevitably due to her family history, she began to be plagued with mental problems. In the 1940s she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in 1950 she had to live separately from her family under a nurse’s constant care. Her final years were spent in Culver City and she would pass away from a heart attack in 1965 at age 60. While her legacy has been obscured throughout the years with ugly rumors and falsehoods about her personal life, more recent research has mercifully set many records straight. And happily her shining talent still lives on in her films, revealing her to be one of Hollywood’s most exceptional stars.

Clara Bow 7

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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