is complex, multi-faceted, enigmatic. It can palpitate
with presence and fall off into haunting echoes of
absence. It can both affirm and negate, communicate
something and snuff it out. It can be a peaceful refuge
or a place of loneliness, alienation and forgetting.
Silence can be a choice. It can also be imposed.
once, curiously unknown today, Clara Bow is both a
heroine and a victim of silence. For the original
"IT girl," the first sex symbol and most
popular female icon of the wildly modern, jazz, gin,
sex and cinema-filled decade of the Twenties, there
was also a hell of a lot of noise. That her name is
not as familiar as Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Mae
West or Marilyn Monroe, despite the fact that she
was more famous than all of them, is testament to
the power of public opinion to silence the very personality
it helped to create.
PICTURE KID Clara Bow seemed doomed to
silence from the very beginning. When she was born
into the madness and poverty of Sarah and Robert Bow's
Brooklyn household on August 25, 1905, the baby—who
would later be known for her easy, uncensored mouth,
vivacious personality and physical dynamism—didn't
make a single sound. It was only after several minutes
of vigorous shaking by her grandmother that Clara
finally made her presence known with a life-affirming
cry. No one cheered. Instead, her mother thought—and
prayed—that Clara was dead.
Bow was a woman who had little respect for life, including
her own. Not only had her first two babies died prematurely,
but Sarah Bow's own days were threatened by debilitating
and dangerous—for Clara, especially—psychotic
fits (she was epileptic in a time when the disease
was thought to be a nervous disorder caused by masturbation
and sunstroke) and by marriage to a hyper-sexed, constantly
disappearing drunk who couldn't hold a steady job.
convinced were Clara's parents of her imminent death
that the Bows never acknowledged her existence with
a birth certificate. But feisty little Clara refused
to be snuffed out. She would soon prove her own existence
to the world, with a little help from the motion picture
made it through a physically and emotionally abusive
and virtually loveless childhood by playing rough-and-tumble
street games with neighborhood boys and by going to
the movies. She was a self-described tomboy ("I
could lick any boy my size. My right was famous.").
She never cared to own a doll or play house (she did
enough real housework to take the fun out of this
sissy game) and, much to her teachers' despair, rarely
opened a book. When puberty came along—and boy,
did it—Clara developed into the curvaceous young
woman that men all across America would soon be lusting
breasts and hips meant that it was no longer appropriate
for her to hang out with the opposite sex, her former
pals cast her out; as her young female peers, who
still viewed Clara as a stuttering, homely, rattily
dressed ragamuffin, had already done. She was heart-broken,
horrified and bewildered. From an early age, this
naíve, but soon-to-be "modern" lack
of understanding and respect for conventional morality
(especially as it applied to women) was both Clara's
blessing and her curse. Like a lot of soon-to-be flappers,
it just didn't make sense to her that the boys got
to have all the fun—not to mention freedom—while
the girls sat demurely on the sidelines, looking pretty.
As double standards would have it, Clara would continue
to pursue her love of games considered more proper
for men—football, gambling, fast driving, sexual
gallivanting—and she would be both celebrated
and condemned for it.
part of the first generation to grow up with, or in,
the movies, Clara's story can be looked at as both
a fairy tale and a cautionary one. Forced to quit
school at the age of 13 in order to work and help
support the family, Clara made the movies into her
primer. She spent every penny she could save, or beg
away from her dad, at the box office, where she found
both love, of a sort, and die-hard ambition in the
big, beautiful images of the silver screen. Steps
and worlds away from the loneliness and misery of
her real life, Clara educated herself in the new art
of acting for the camera by studying, intently, the
gestures and expressions of her female role models—Pickford,
Lillian Gish, Mae Murray, Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson—actresses
whose roles merely hinted at the tremendous changes
women were about to make, on and off the screen. After
the picture, she'd run home to her mirror where she'd
work secretly for hours at creating real-looking
expressions, inspired by her cinematic mentors but
ultimately, and uniquely, her own. Here, in complete
silence, without books or pencils or teachers, she
learned to communicate, in a unique and natural way,
emotions and ideas both tragic and comedic, sweet
and seductive, both feminine and undeniably strong
and tough. Before the mirror she practiced the look,
the coy smiles and the painful, easy-flowing tears
that would soon captivate the world on screen.
working-girl spirit and dedication paid off. After
several screen tests, the judges of Motion Picture
Magazine's Fame and Fortune contest were
completely convinced by Clara's natural acting style,
her ability to learn quickly and her photographically
perfect features. Barely noticeable in a crowd of
beautiful young contestants, Clara literally transformed
before the camera and brought the screen to life in
a way few could. Much to her surprise, this little
tomboy from Brooklyn was picked as the 1921 contest
winner. The prize was a small role in a New York production,
Beyond the Rainbow.
mother wasn't happy about the news. Sexually repressed
and, at times, scary as hell, Sarah Bow considered
actresses, with their flashy dresses and painted faces,
about as respectable as prostitutes. "You ain't
goin' inta pictures. You ain't gonna be no hoor. I'd
rather see ya' dead," she preached. It was an
early warning sign of the hypocrisy Clara would meet
with later in her life—that her moralizing mother
used to entertain "uncles" for cash, as
her daughter waited in a locked closet, hands over
her ears. When verbal threats didn't stop Clara from
pursuing acting, Sarah tried to squelch her daughter's
dream, and save her soul, with a butcher's knife.
"I'm gonna kill ya' Clara" she threatened,
more than once. "It'll be better." Though
Clara would suffer from debilitating insomnia and
insecurity for the rest of her life because of them,
she survived her mother's murder attempts and madness.
Daddy put mommy away (in an asylum) and, soon after,
daughter got away—for good.
was still a kid of 16 when her brief but unforgettable
performance as a sad-eyed, ready-fisted stowaway in
the whaling saga Down to the Sea in Ships
(1922) caught the eye of Preferred Pictures (soon
to be Paramount) producer B.P. Schulberg. At his invitation,
she left Brooklyn for the already mythical place called
Hollywood. Here the self-proclaimed "woikin'
goil" was put to work. A movie-mogul in the making,
Schulberg was quick to spot Clara's box-office potential.
Her beauty, vulnerability and affordable price tag
didn't get by him, either. He signed her for pennies
and put her on a non-stop filming schedule, loaning
her out to several different production companies
in order to maximize the profit earnings of his newest
and youngest starlet.
the first years, Schulberg paid Clara from $500 to
$750 a week, although he received up to $3,000 a week
for renting her out, an exploitative, yet not unusual
practice even back in the early days of movie making.
Glad to be acting, but increasingly run down, Clara
made an unthinkable sixteen movies in a mere eighteen
months, between 1923 and 1924, and fifteen in 1925
alone. She literally lived on the set and spent her
nights tossing and turning or playing poker with her
maid, her hired female companion or her father, who
was quick to join his meal-ticket daughter in California.
quality of Clara's films was clearly not Schulberg's
concern, nor would it ever really be. Even as she
started earning serious, unanimous critical praise,
he kept hiring her out to one poorly written, low-budget
flick after another. But by 1925, Clara was already
soaring high above her material. A zesty, refreshing
alternative to Mary Pickford's chastity, Clara Bow
had what the Twenties craved—before there was
even a name for "it."
ON FILM Clara was a child not only of the
motion pictures but also, and undeniably, of the Roaring
Twenties. As a movie star and female icon, she helped
define what it meant to be both an actress and a woman
in this dizzying decade of change.
were fought, won and surrendered in the 1920s and
early '30s, the likes of which wouldn't be seen again
until the post-1968 days of Gloria Steinem and Co.'s
bra-burning feminism and Jill Clayburgh's revolutionary
performance in An Unmarried Woman. In 1920,
women won the right to vote, just one sign of the
power and independence they had earned and enjoyed
while the boys were off fighting (not to mention Folies-Bergéres
playing) in Europe. When peace was declared, the boys
came home to a war of a different sort. Its front-line
soldier was an entirely new breed of woman: the "flapper,"
the "modern." She refused to relinquish
the newfound sense of freedom and strength that came
with a job—and without a husband. She tossed
her grandmother's corset, went braless and didn't
bother to buckle her galoshes (thus putting the "flap"
in the "flapper").
Clara's mother had feared, the flapper painted her
face like a whore and wore her hair and hemlines short.
She was in no rush to get married and preferred dates
and dancehalls to dubious domestic bliss. She considered
all her options. She drank and smoked. She liked sex
and wasn't afraid to admit it. And she was mad about
censorship and the moral codes of the mid-'30s took
all the fun, realism and complexity out of playing
a woman, by swapping strong heroines with goodie-two-shoes
purity or evil sexuality, the motion pictures both
fed and fed off of the freedom and frivolity of the
post-war period, ushering in the flapper's glory years.
The silver screen was the flapper's favorite Speakeasy,
a place where women could break free of old taboos
and explore new roles—not just the black and
white types of good girl and bad girl, the ingénue
and the vamp, but every other shade of gray in between.
As names like Dorothy Arzner, Elinor Glyn, Gloria
Swanson, Norma Shearer and Mae West can attest, the
glitz, glamour, artistry and social power of early
Hollywood were to provide female actors, directors,
writers and even viewers with a new and powerful voice.
At first this voice was silent, and the most outspoken
star of the silent screen was undoubtedly Clara Bow.
screen, Clara Bow embodied the Twenties. Her beautiful,
beguiling, independent-minded heroines also helped
bring into focus a new breed of woman. With her performance
as the sexy and sexually aggressive young co-ed in
Wesley Ruggles' fine adaptation of The Plastic
Age (1925), Clara caught the eye not only
of major directors and producers but also of the entire
flapper-mad country. With subsequent films like Dancing
Mothers (1926), Mantrap (1926),
Wings (1927) and the legend-maker, "It"
(1927), she blew away the competition (Colleen Moore,
Joan Crawford) and became universally recognized as
the premier flapper, the "hottest jazz baby in
films." She was the girl who F. Scott Fitzgerald,
whose name is virtually synonymous with the Twenties,
called "the real thing, someone to stir every
pulse in the nation."
Bow put the "s" in seduction and the seduction
in silent film. She was a sexual magnet with dancing
feet whose provocative powers were so strong that
all she had to do was lift her lids and she was flirting,
unabashedly and irresistibly. She had what racy novelist
turned Hollywood screenplay writer and socialite Elinor
Glyn declared as the most desirable quality of the
times—"It"—a rare, difficult
to define combination of raw animal magnetism and
an unselfconscious indifference to this same ability
to attract members of both sexes.
just a boy-toy, she was also a director's joy and
was recognized by the directors and actors of her
day as the most naturally gifted and hard-working
actress Hollywood had ever seen. Pioneers such as
Frank Tuttle, Victor Fleming, Clarence Badger and
Dorothy Arzner praised her for her improvisational
skills, emotional range and overall dedication and
professionalism. No matter how similar they could
seem on paper, she brought freshness to each of her
roles and was able to create strong female characters
who were also vulnerable and human, much like herself.
"emotional machine," Clara was as famous
for her crying as she was for her flirting. Cast and
crew marveled at her ability to shed real, deep-seeded
tears at the drop of a hat or the sound of a violin.
She'd request "Rock-a-bye Baby" from the
studio's musical trio, remember her childhood and
within seconds she'd start to sob—quietly, convincingly
and very photogenically. In films as early as Down
to the Sea with Ships, as celebrated as
Wings (for which she would accept the
first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929) and
as late as her talking masterpiece Call Her Savage
(1932), Clara's crying reveals the flapper's flip-side;
the subtle yet tragic underbelly of a young woman
whose growing pains, magnified under the microscope
of the public eye, reflected those of society-at-large.
many moments of sorrow on-screen also attest to her
dramatic skills, skills that she desperately wanted
but wasn't allowed to develop or seriously pursue.
Though many tried to convince him otherwise, Schulberg
kept his box-office baby glued to high-grossing formula
films (risqué romantic comedies), even after
the onset of the Depression when this frivolous genre
became shamefully outdated. Had she been given more
of a fighting chance, a chance to evolve out of the
flapper formula into a mature, complex dramatic heroine,
Clara Bow would've certainly reigned with the screen
queens of the '30s—Garbo, Dietrich, Shearer,
recall Sunset Boulevard's faded silent
goddess Norma Desmond, Clara Bow didn't need dialogue;
she had a face, and she knew how to
use it. It made all her fans happy and made a fortune.
It also made her into the biggest (and still most
underpaid) star of Hollywood. By 1928, her face was
a household name, and her films played to consistent
they loved her movies, the tabloid-fed public was
even more curious about their favorite star's infamous
off-screen life, for Clara Bow was much more than
just a flapper on film.
ALL-TOO-MODERN Despite all the encouraging
signs, the Twenties weren't ready for Clara's breed
of woman. Even in decadent Hollywood, she was way
too hot, way too modern, to handle. Unconventional,
uninhibited, irreverent and utterly, helplessly herself,
Clara Bow was both the champion and the victim of
her own projected image.
the model modern, Clara set herself apart from Hollywood
hypocrites by actually practicing what she preached.
She was her own woman—and her own man. Her signature
color was red. She died her hair flaming orange and
(literally) sped around town in her red roadster sports
car, a pack of Chihuahuas in tow. She ignored fashion
conventions and flaunted her own sense of style, wearing
gold slippers to football games and a belted bathing
suit to a formal hotel dinner. When she felt lucky
(she wasn't), Clara headed for the Cal-Nevada border,
where she'd gamble away more money than she thought
she had (scandal). She took advantage of her sex appeal
and took numerous lovers (scandal). After her conquests,
she'd shock the women and entertain the guys on the
set with the juicy, graphic details. She worked hard
and played hard and, despite her fast-paced lifestyle,
was in no rush to get married.
original runaway bride, Ms. Bow was officially engaged
four times (Gilbert Roland, Victor Fleming, Harry
Richmond and Rex Bell) and had an open affair with
at least one married man (scandal, lawsuit). "Marriage
ain't woman's only job no more, " she convinced
a columnist. "A girl who's worked hard and earned
her place ain't gonna be satisfied as a wife. I know
this. I wouldn't give up my work for marriage. I think
a modern girl's capable of keepin' a job and a husband."
candor spared nothing, not even her childhood. Where
most of Hollywood's so-called trailblazers were taking
care to conceal their humble pasts in favor of a new,
glitzier image, Clara shared all the details of her
brief, but dramatic life, most notably with readers
of Photoplay magazine in 1928.
and clearly respected as an actress, Clara the woman
was shunned by Hollywood high society. William Randolph
Hearst and Marion Davies, Mary Pickford and Douglas
Fairbanks, Jr., Eddie Sutherland and Louise Brooks—all
of the most powerful and elite couples in the business
took care to omit her name from their guest lists.
Everyone who was anyone considered her a low-life
from Brooklyn—vulgar, immoral, poorly mannered,
rebellious and entirely unpredictable.
spread like the bonfire she was. If given the chance,
Clara Bow could embarrass even the most "modern"
of hosts with her dirty jokes, drunken revelry and
total lack of regard for etiquette. In an age that
pretended to be liberal and liberated, Clara appeared
to be the only one who really was. When she was invited
to the Schulberg's home to meet the scandalous pre-marital
sex advocate, Judge Ben Lindsey, Clara, considering
herself in sympathetic company, kissed him brazenly
on the lips. She then proceeded to unbutton his jacket
and, ultimately, his pants, to the tune of "Rich
man, poor man, beggar man, thief." Horrified
and outraged, the Judge and his wife fled the premises.
"Well, gee whiz," Clara responded to her
embarrassed hosts, "if he believes in all that
modern stuff like ya' say he does, how come he's such
an old stick-in-the mud?"
as the "It girl" reached the peak of popularity,
double standards came indignantly forth to slap her
in the face. As scandalous words spread and more of
the lurid details of her so-called "private"
life were revealed (thanks to an embezzlement trial
involving her vengeful personal secretary, Daisy DeVoe),
the jury of the moral majority came to its unanimous
decision: Clara Bow was morally unfit to act in films,
morally unfit to be a role model for young women.
She was judged guilty of being herself. The punishment:
shut "it" up, shut her out.
the Coast Reporter, the sleazy tabloid
that was responsible for spreading many of the ugliest
rumors about Clara (alcoholism, spending sprees, drug
addiction and sex with men, women and dogs) demanded
that Paramount cancel her contract, B.P. Schulberg
did everything he could to get rid of "Crisis-a-day
Clara." Now that public opinion had turned against
the "ain't girl" (her films Kick In
and No Limit flopped and were even banned
in California and Texas), he considered her a worthless
has-been. But in the end, it was Clara who, after
a surprisingly successful attempt at a comeback, decided
to release herself from all contracts and retreat
from the noise of public life and the accusatory gaze
of the public eye.
girl who lived to act made her last movie in 1933,
at the age of 28. It is an unfounded myth that Clara
went down with the Silents. Though her kinetic acting
style was more suited to cinema's original form than
the more static, dialogue-heavy talkies, she braved
criticism of her untrained voice and the resulting
mike fright to make more than a few, well-received
talking pictures. The best of these was the strange
and seemingly autobiographical Call her Savage
(her personal favorite along with It
and Mantrap). The last was Hoopla.
her role as a cooch dancer reformed by love left a
lot to be desired, like clothes, she was once again
lauded for the depth and maturity of her acting. But,
by this time, she had had enough of Hollywood hypocrisy
and decided to take her life into her own hands. "I
don't wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn't
do nothin' but take her clothes off. I want somethin'
and tired of her role as America's sex symbol and
scapegoat and on the verge of a nervous breakdown,
Clara left Hollywood for the desolate tranquility
of the Nevada desert. Instead of death, the screen's
first truly modern woman sought a more traditional
way out. Hoping to find happiness and salvation in
the very mold she had tried to break, she became the
wife of cowboy actor turned politician Rex Bell and,
a few years later, the mother of two boys.
the change from working actress to desert housewife
was too abrupt. As Rex began to travel more and as
his growing popularity as a public figure threatened
to drag her back into the domain that she had fled,
Clara became increasingly fearful and insecure. The
fairytale became her nightmare. The house of her dreams
transformed into her prison. Haunted by demons of
her childhood and scandal, she was plagued by the
private illnesses of insomnia and hypochondria. Desperate,
she tried to end the torment of her lonely life with
pills, but failed. After intensive psychotherapy at
several clinics, it was discovered that Clara Bow,
the unknowing victim of America's schizophrenia, was,
clinically, a schizophrenic herself, just like her
mother—and grandmother—before her. If
acting kept her madness at bay before, now only complete
solitude could save her. So, in 1950, she separated
from Rex and moved back to Los Angeles.
Bow lived out the rest of her years as a total recluse,
a ghost of Hollywood's shameful, silent past. Alone
except for a live-in nurse, she refused all but a
few visitors (ex-fiancé Gilbert Roland, favorite
actor Marlon Brando) and spent her days reading books
and newspapers, painting, recording dramatic readings
and writing letters to old fans and powerful figures
of the day.
Bow was watching an old Gary Cooper western when her
heart stopped on September 26, 1965. Now that the
flapper has given way to feminism's third wave and
magazine covers flaunt the faces of Hollywood's newest
generation of actresses (Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie,
Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore), the time has come to
re-discover Clara Bow.
last, efforts are being made to preserve Clara's memory
and give her back the credit she deserves. The web
is crawling with sites devoted to her (the best is
at www.clarabow.net). Thanks to the efforts of silent
film lovers like biographer David Stenn, dusty, disintegrating
reels of Clara's films are being recovered and restored.
Whenever they are screened, such as at NYC's Film
Forum retrospective last year, the "It girl"
movies brings in huge crowds of newly amorous, appreciative
almost 70 years of silence, it seems that Clara Bow
is finally being allowed to speak her mind. Seduced
by her bedroom eyes and rock-a-bye tears, we may just
be ready to listen.