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.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald
Made at the height of the Roaring Twenties and the peak of Clara Bow’s fame, It was based less on the eponymous novel by Elinor Glyn, than on the idea of “IT.” Although “Madame” Glyn, in a cameo appearance, says “IT” is “something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold,” Clara Bow’s definition on-screen was a lot more sensual. And if Bow personified It, then romance novelist and self-created social arbiter Elinor Glyn was its godmother, tireless promoter, and profiteer. As screenwriter and novelist Anita Loos wrote, “If Hollywood had not existed, Elinor Glyn would have had to invent it.”
Clara Bow was the daughter of an estranged, unloving father and an abusive mother. She escaped into the dream life of a Hollywood film star at the age of 17. With the naiveté born of a seventh grade education and a worldview confined to the Brooklyn tenements where she grew up, Bow went on to become the unhappy pawn of a studio system willing to sacrifice the mental health of its star properties for the sake of a quick profit. It was her 37th film in five years. She would make 20 more films in the next five years before becoming a Hollywood dropout at the tender age of 28.
Bow’s ticket out of poverty and her miserable family life was winning a beauty contest in 1922. The prize was a small part in a movie, to be filmed in one of the then-thriving movie studios on Long Island. Her performance ended up on the cutting room floor, but she soon won another part in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). A studio talent scout saw her performance and recommended her to B.P. Schulberg, head of Preferred Pictures. Upon arrival in California, she was taken directly to the offices of Schulberg, without even an opportunity to clean up from the train trip. One look at this disheveled street urchin with a Brooklyn accent made Schulberg wonder what he had been talked into. After seeing her screen test, he was won over. Her naturalness and ability to convey emotion was undeniable. Bow was rushed into one film after another, becoming so popular and so much of a cash cow for Schulberg and his studio that he was able to merge with the more established Paramount in 1925.
By the time Bow arrived in Hollywood, Elinor Glyn had already been there two years. Born in England in 1864, Glyn married into landed gentry, but the marriage was unfulfilling and the couple drifted apart. Taken up by the mistress of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Glyn moved into the higher echelons of society. She began to write novels at first to amuse herself, and later, as her profligate husband went through his fortune, as a way of supplementing her income. In 1907, she wrote Three Weeks, a novel about a brief and passionate affair between a young Englishman and a mysterious older woman. It scandalized Edwardian London and ostracized Glyn from high society. Undaunted, she continued to write her racy novels. In 1920, she sold The Great Moment to the movies and went to Hollywood as a consultant. She wrote screenplays for three films based on her novels, partied with the Hollywood elite, and made pronouncements about society, style, and romance that were taken as gospel by Hollywood bumpkins awed at “Madame” Glyn’s British credentials. In 1926, Glyn wrote IT, a novella that first appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine and later in book form. Suddenly, newspapers and magazines were full of speculation about who had IT and who didn’t.
Bow meanwhile had become Paramount’s hottest property. Schulberg read It and offered Glyn $50,000 not only for the rights to film the story, but also to declare Bow Hollywood’s “IT Girl.” To sweeten the deal, Glyn was offered a cameo appearance in the film. She agreed and quickly declared, “Of all the lovely young ladies I’ve met in Hollywood, Clara Bow has IT.” For awhile, the two could he seen riding around town together in Bow’s red Packard roadster. Bow, however, had no patience with Glyn’s pretentiousness and the friendship soon cooled. Glyn returned to England in 1929, where she directed two films in 1930. She continued writing and remained one of Britain’s best-selling novelists until her death in 1943.
During the production of It, Bow demonstrated her unique acting style. She was completely natural and depended on a highly unpredictable degree of improvisation, which frustrated many directors. Initially aggravated by her inability to take direction, It director Clarence Badger watched in amazement during the filming of one particular scene as Clara ran the gamut of emotions — from love to lust to playfulness. He immediately stopped filming and demanded to know what she thought she was doing. He recalled her explanation years later:
“That first expression was for the love-sick dames in the audience, and that second expression, that passionate stuff, was for the boys and their paps, and that third expression — well Mr. Badger, just about the time all the old women in the audience had become shacked and scandalized by that passionate part, they’d suddenly see the third expression, become absorbed in it, and change their minds about me having naughty ideas and go home thinking how pare and innocent I was; and having got me mixed up with my character I’m playing, they’d come again when my next picture came out.”
Bow focused her passionate gaze on a young bit player in It named Gary Cooper, who played a newspaper reporter. They had a brief, hot romance. Her uninhibited private life and her openness about it began to raise eyebrows in Hollywood. Yet another threat to her career loomed: sound. The studio did not take the time to train her voice properly, and she was embarrassed by her heavy Brooklyn accent. She became paralyzed by mike fright. The coming of sound also coincided with the start of the Depression and the end of the flapper era. Clara Bow, the ultimate flapper, was passé.
It proved to be the apex of Bow’s career. She made 20 more films between 1927 and 1933 then retired to a Nevada ranch with husband Rex Bell, who had been her leading man in True to the Navy (1930). His decision to enter politics took him away from home for long periods of time, isolating Bow to raise their two sons by herself. She increasingly suffered from bouts of insomnia and depression, which led to a suicide attempt in 1943. Her remaining years were spent in and out of sanitariums, until she finally resettled in Los Angeles. The original “IT Girl” died in 1965, at the dawn of a new era of sexual freedom.
Presented at SFSFF 2005 with live music by Clark Wilson on the Mighty Wurlitzer