Clara Bow, known as the “It” Girl, was the sex symbol of the film industry in the 1920s. Although a huge star, she was a consummate actor with no star temperament who willingly helped new actors just starting in films.
The third child born to a mentally ill (probably schizophrenic), mother, Sarah, and a grim abusive father, Robert, Bow was the only one of their children to survive beyond infancy. Her father had dreams but no ambition, and her mother married to get away from an unsavory home life, only to end in a more difficult and depressing situation.
Since Robert refused to support his family, Clara had to drop out of school to go to work before finishing the eighth grade. In 1921 Bow entered the Fame and Fortune Contest sponsored by Brewster Publications, the publisher of Motion Picture, Motion Picture Classic, and Shadowland, and she won a part in a film. Although her part was edited out before the release of the film; Beyond the Rainbow, Bow was determined to continue in films.
She made a few low-budget films on the East Coast before she went to Hollywood to appear in May time for Preferred Pictures. She made twenty-one films in 1924, and each successive picture added to her reputation as an actor. In 1924 she was also selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star. In 1925 Bow appeared in fourteen films. She portrayed one of the most popular characters of her career the following year when she appeared in Dancing Mothers (1926), as the fun loving but irresponsible daughter Kittens.
Her reputation as a femme fatale was solidified after the son of a well-to-do Eastern family tried to commit suicide when Bow refused to marry him after their initial meeting. He milked his fifteen minutes of fame into two weeks of lurid headlines before Bow leveled him at his sanity hearing by saying that if he truly had intended to kill himself he would have “used pistols.”
Even as her fame grew, Bow remained as unpretentious as she had ever been. She did not see any reason to buy a huge mansion when a smaller home would be sufficient. She lived her life on her terms, but she knew that underneath her self-confident exterior was the lonely, fearful little girl from the tenements.
Her next major role was in Wings, awarded the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Although her part was limited since it was a combat movie, she had the most controversial scene in the film when two men burst into her character's room and her topless torso is briefly revealed before she has time to cover herself.
Then she appeared in It—a film that came to define both a generation and Clara Bow herself. “It,” in the words of originator Elinor Glyn, was “an inner magic, an animal magnetism, a self confidence” that pulled others to the possessor. In the film she plays shop girl Betty Lou Spence, who sets her sights on the son of her new boss. It was during this period that the director of the film, Clarence Badger, stated that the best way to direct Bow was to explain the concept of the scene to her and “just let her go.”
It became the most popular film to that time, breaking records in every city in which it played. Variety stated, “This Bow girl … just runs away with the film.” Bow became the ideal Jazz Baby of the Jazz Age.
F. Scott Fitzgerald defined Bow as “the quintessence of what the term flapper signifies … pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as world-wise [and] briefly-clad” as any of her followers. Bow became the premiere sex symbol of the 1920s. She began to believe that she did have “It,” which gave her real confidence for the first time.
Her studio came to realize that no matter what the picture was about, the audience wanted to see Bow behave flippantly and outrageously. So they developed a formula for her films. First, the studio did not have to worry about plot—just showcase Bow. Second, the male lead was of no concern to the audience—they would pay attention only to Bow and her antics. Finally, make the screen character as close to Bow's publicized character as possible and tie in her supposed off-screen exploits whenever possible.
But her overwhelming success brought problems, not the least of which was the schedule that the studio set for her—often having her work ninety hours per week. Added to her grueling schedule was the fact that Bow slept very little because of the trauma she had experienced when she awoke years earlier to find her mother standing over her with a knife ready to kill her during one of her mother's “spells.” Eventually, Bow collapsed under the extreme pressure and was finally given a chance to rest between pictures.
Two of her most endearing and captivating traits to her fans were her simplicity and genuineness in an industry of fabrication and fantasy. Unfortunately, these traits also caused her problems within the movie community because her behavior reminded everyone of their own less-than-stellar beginnings. Many people in Hollywood distanced themselves from her so that they would not be branded “common” by association. Sadly, Bow was often alone and confused by social rales that made no sense to her.
At the height of her popularity, in 1928, Bow received over 10,000 fan letters each week. In May 1928 the postmaster of Los Angeles announced that in just one month almost 45,000 fan letters came through his office for Bow. However, when she tried to move from comedies to more serious films, the fans rebelled. She was the happy flapper and they wanted her to remain the symbol of happiness and light for them.
While her naivete and genuineness caused less authentic people to distance themselves from her, talkies dealt the final blow to Bow's career. Afflicted by a stammer since childhood that was accentuated by stress, her voice was viewed by the studio as a whine. However, her fans loved “their star's” first talkie, The Wild Party, although only major cities had converted to sound capability.
Eventually her fear and feelings of inferiority made it too difficult for Bow to say her lines. Too many words were beyond her limited education. Films, in her words, were “just no fun anymore.” Perhaps the final killing blow to Bow's career came from a friend, who after failing in an attempt to blackmail Bow, held the actor up to ridicule at her trial. Now the spending of its favorite star appalled the country that had loved Bow's frivolousness and extravagance.
Ridiculed and ostracized by the only people who mattered to her, her fans, Bow became prey to “shattered nerves” and went to a sanitarium to rest and regain her strength. In the summer of 1931, Bow removed her belongings from her dressing room—which had since been assigned to someone else—and at twenty-five years old became a has-been.
After a long rest, Bow returned to films and changed studios. Her first film was Call Her Savage (1932), a strange film that dealt with just about every forbidden topic known to censorship at that time— including homosexuality, prostitution, and sadism. When her new studio sent her on a publicity tour of Europe, she encountered many of her die-hard fans, including Adolph Hitler. Tired of the same type of roles, Bow retired permanently in 1934.
She centered her retirement on her two sons, but she was never able to achieve the happiness and peace she so craved. After years of instability, she went through a battery of psychological tests and it was determined that the unpredictable behavior that had drawn so many fans to her was a result of schizophrenia. Inherited from her mother, who died in a sanitarium, Bow now had a reason for her dissatisfaction and reaction to stress. Further psychotherapy revealed both the tortured childhood Bow had endured and that her father had raped her at sixteen.
Bow's unstable behavior took its toll on her marriage; since Bell had political aspirations, a mentally ill wife was a liability. The couple separated, with Bell retaining custody of their two sons and Bow retiring to Los Angeles where she lived in seclusion for most of her life. She took up painting and foreign languages, among other hobbies, until her sudden death from a heart attack. Before her death she reflected that silent stars “had individuality. Today they're more sensible … but we had more fun.”
|1922||Beyond the Rainbow; Down to the Sea in Ships|
|1923||Enemies of Women; The Daring Years; May time|
|1924||Grit; Poisoned Paradise; Daughters of Pleasure; Wine; Empty Hearts; Helen's Babies; Black Lightening; Black Oxen; This Woman; Black|
|1925||Capital Punishment; The Adventurous Sex; Eve's Lover; Lawful Cheater; The Scarlet West; Parisian Love; Kiss Me Again; The Keeper of the Bees; The Primrose Path; Free to Love; The Best Bad Man; The Plastic Age; The Ancient Mariner; My Lady's Lips; My Lady of Whims; The Boomerang; The Great Sensation|
|1926||Shadow of the Law; Two Can Play; Dancing Mothers; Fascinating Youth; Mantrap; Kid Boots; The Runaway; Dancing Madness|
|1927||It; Children of Divorce; Rough House Rosie; Wings; Hula; Get Your Man|
|1928||Red Hair; Ladies of the Mob; The Fleet's In; Three Weekends|
|1929||The Wild Party; Dangerous Curves; The Saturday Night Kid; Hollywood Snapshots #11|
|1930||Paramount on Parade; True to the Navy; Her Wedding Night; Love Among the Millionaires|
|1931||No Limit; Kick In|
|1932||Call Her Savage|
Related Credo Articles
Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered. —Quoted by Clyde...
She personified the vivacious flapper of the 1920s in such films as Mantrap (1926) and It (1927), after which she became...