Forgotten Hollywood: Clara Bow
In 1928, the 22-year-old “It Girl” Clara Bow gave a candid interview to Photoplay entitled ‘My Life Story.’ In it she described her rags to riches story. “There is only one thing you can do when you are very young and not a philosopher if life has frightened you by its cruelty and made you distrust its most glittering promises. You must make living a sort of gay curtain to throw across the abyss into which you have looked and where lie dread memories.”
“I think that wildly gay people are usually hiding from something in themselves. They dare not be quiet, for there is no peace nor serenity in their souls. The best life has taught them is to snatch at every moment of fun and excitement, because they feel sure that fate is going to hit them over the head with a club at the first opportunity. I don’t want to feel that way. But I do.”
For an unwanted child growing up in Brooklyn to an abusive father and mentally ill mother, Bow managed to make a glittering career in silent films by dint of perseverance and sheer hard work. She overcame poverty: “I never had any clothes. And lots of time didn’t have anything to eat. We just lived, that’s about all.” She overcame the trauma of her mother’s attempt to kill her. According to her biographer David Stenn, her father raped her when she was 16. Her salvation was the movies whenever she could afford to go.
In 1921, Bow tried out for a magazine’s annual “Fame and Fortune” acting contest. She describes the audition in the Photoplay article. “I hadn’t dressed up because I had nothing to dress up in. I had never had a manicure nor a pair of chiffon stockings in my life. I had never even been close to the scent of such perfumes as filled that room. I wore the one and only thing I owned. A little plain wool dress, a sweater, and a woolly red tam. I hadn’t thought much of that angle. I had only looked at my face, and that was disappointment enough.”
Bow won the contest, but the bit part in a movie that was the prize was cut out of the final version. “Things weren’t breaking for me at all,” she told Photoplay. “Winning the contest hadn’t seemed to mean a thing. I wore myself out trying to find work, going from studio to studio, from agency to agency, applying for every possible part. But there was always something. I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually, I was too fat. When I told them that I’d won this contest, they only laughed. They said the woods were full of girls who’d won some bum beauty contest and they were mostly dumb or they wouldn’t have been in any beauty contest in the first place. Which I guess maybe was right.”
Bow broke through in the film Down to the Sea in Ships released in 1922 which garnered positive reviews for her despite her tenth-billed appearance. After a handful more supporting roles, she moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with Preferred Pictures, which was run by B.P. Schulberg. She was paid $200 a week and put to work at once, sometimes working on several films at once, sometimes loaned out to other studios, making 31 movies in less than three years.
In 1925, she made 15 films, one of which was The Plastic Age, a big hit. It was also her last film for Preferred which filed for bankruptcy that same year. She followed Schulberg to Paramount Pictures and worked in such films as Dancing Mothers and Mantrap, both in 1926.
But finally, fame arrived when she was given the title role in It, the 1927 movie about a poor shop girl who wins the love of her wealthy boss. Bow was now “The It Girl” with her kewpie doll looks, cupid’s bow lips and sparkling personality. “She danced even when her feet were not moving,” said Paramount boss Adolph Zukor. She personified the Roaring ‘20s, and over the next decade, she made 46 silent films and 11 talkies, getting thousands of fan letters each week. Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer and Mae West also dominated the silver screen at the time, but Bow was the flapper girl, the sexually liberated, outspoken, gorgeous jazz baby, the working-class girl who smoked and drank, “the real thing, someone to stir every pulse in the nation,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1927, Bow starred in Wings, a WW1 film that was about a love triangle with her and two pilots. It won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture.
While Bow had the acting chops to segue into dramatic roles, she was unable to break from the profitable romantic comedies that kept the fans coming to see her, even through the Great Depression. Her first talkie, The Wild Party in 1929 was a success; her career was not doomed despite her Brooklyn accent, unlike several stars who couldn’t make the transition. Bow went on to make more talkies which did good business, like Dangerous Curves and The Saturday Night Kid, both in 1929, and True to the Navy (1930), but she had great anxiety about doing them, and the first signs of the mental illness that would plague her the rest of her life were breakdowns throughout the filming of the talkies.
Offscreen, Bow lived her life on her own terms. She rode around town in her red sports car with seven chihuahuas in the back seat. She had numerous affairs including with Gary Cooper while she was engaged to Gilbert Roland, all the while carrying on with Victor Fleming at the same time. She dressed eccentrically – she once wore a bathing suit to a formal dinner, and often painted her legs. And she developed a fondness for gambling that she could ill afford. Her total disregard for convention and her free and easy manners excluded her from Hollywood’s inner circle. To them she was still a vulgarian from Brooklyn. Her popularity faded when the gossip rags wrote sensational stories of drugs and alcohol and free living. An embezzlement trial involving her personal secretary also got bad headlines, and Schulberg started referring to her as ‘Crisis-a-Day Clara.’ She was even sued for stealing a woman’s husband.
The combined pressures of years of work, bad publicity and fragile health caused her to mentally break down once again. In 1931, at the age of 28, she went to a sanitarium, then married actor-turned-politician Rex Bell. They lived in Nevada and had two boys.
Bow made two more pictures in Hollywood before she retired from acting at age 28.
Unfortunately, she succumbed to the illness that had plagued her mother, schizophrenia. Several suicide attempts failed. In 1949, she submitted herself for shock therapy. When Bell died in 1962, she moved back to Hollywood where she spent her last years as a recluse. She died in 1965 of a heart attack at the age of 60. Sadly, many of her silent films are lost.
Bow received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and her caricature by artist Al Hirschfeld was used on a postage stamp in 1994.