July 29, 1905 – Clara Bow:
“They Are Snobs. Frightful Snobs. I’m a Curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a Big Freak, Because I’m Myself!”
I really do understand. I know firsthand the pain and shame of a brilliant acting career cut down by sex scandals, men, drugs, drink and mental problems. My flame also burned out all too soon. I was known briefly, and in a select circle, as the “It Guy”. I was forgotten all too soon, but you can still re-live the magic with my work on Beta, VHS, and DVDs. Sometimes the world is not ready for the heat that we sex symbols produce. Still, I have not yet been buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
In the 1920s, Clara Bow possessed the spirit and sex appeal that defined a new kind of liberated woman for the flapper era. Bow was Hollywood’s brightest light during this decade. She was known as the “It Girl”, and Clara Bow had “It”. The people she worked with in films wrote that she was full of charm and wit, and a consummate professional.
Bow was an actor of range and depth, but she mostly played manicurists, waitresses and store clerks. Yet, her films helped emancipate young American women from the restrictive morals of their parents. Bow’s characters were unabashed about being attracted to men. Her shop-girl in It (1927) spots her boss’s son and says:
“Oh Santa, get me him!“
Her characters wore their skirts short, bobbed their hair, drank and smoked in public, danced and stayed out all night long. At the apex of her career, Bow received 45,000 fan letters a week. She was the idol of working girls and the dream gal of blue-collar guys.
Despite her image, Bow was something of an innocent. She took people as she found them, treated them well and expected them to do likewise. Naturally, this goodwill was abused, first by the studio that stuck her on a treadmill of inappropriate roles in crappy films for short-term profit, and then, more shockingly, by her friends.
Her one-time confidant Daisy DeVoe knew all about the star’s active private life. She spilled the beans about Bow’s affairs with handsome stars, Gary Copper and Roland Gilbert, and then tried to blackmail her. It went to court, and the scandal sheets published the juicy gossip. Even though she won the case, Bow’s career certainly did suffer.
The It Girl was so hot and bright that it seems inevitable she would burn out personally and professionally. It is shocking to think that her career was over in 1933 when she was just 26 years old, after she had made millions for her studio, Paramount, and was one of the most recognized stars in the world. But, Bow was condemned by Conservative Christian America and the Hollywood old guard for her questionable morality.
Producer Budd Schulberg writes in his terrific book Moving Pictures: Memories Of A Hollywood Prince (1981):
“Hollywood was a cultural schizophrene: The anti-movie Old Guard with their chamber music & their religious pageants fighting a losing battle against the more dynamic culture who flaunted the bohemianism of Edna St. Vincent Millay and the socialism of Upton Sinclair. But, there was one subject on which staid old Hollywood establishment and the members of the new culture circle would agree: Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low-life and a disgrace to the community.“
When Bow was asked by the press to define the maddeningly elusive quality of “It” itself, she confessed, in her notoriously Brooklyn accent: “I ain’t real sure”.
“I am a madcap, the spirit of the jazz age, the premier flapper, as they call me.“
This was what the public wanted to hear and Bow accommodated them by adapting that screen persona. But fame is fickle and Bow’s film career was relatively short. Bow made her screen debut in 1922 and her final film was made in 1933, at 28 years old.
Scandal and talking pictures ruined Bow. She had a breakdown, mostly owed to her inability to conquer her fear of speaking on film, and she had to recover in a sanatorium.
She left films and Hollywood, moving to Nevada with her new husband, cowboy actor Rex Bell. They had two sons, but Clara Bow was battling mental illness. She was a doting mother to her sons but haunted by her weight gain and cursed with profound depression. Bow was eventually confined to a psychiatric hospital and not allowed to see her children again.
She died of a heart attack in her small bungalow in West Los Angeles on an early autumn night in 1965 while watching a Gary Cooper film on television. She was only 60 years old, living in poverty and obscurity.
Most of Bow’s films have been lost. Of her 56 films, silent and sound, only 27 exist in their entirety or in pieces. Only 16 are available on DVD. The remaining films that survive are in the Library Of Congress Film Archive. Her most famous work is in the classic Wings (1929) winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, the only fully silent film to win. Wings also has the distinction of being the first film to show two men kissing, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen during the deathbed finale.
Bow is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. I have visited her there. You can too. It is one of my favorite spots in Los Angeles.