Clara Bow has always been one of my favorites. However, I have put off an analysis of her life for some time. Her films make me incredibly happy, but her life story has a way of making me severely depressed. Nonetheless, this is one woman well worth investigating. With a name like Clara Bow, which needed no alteration when she hit Hollywood, it seemed like this diamond in the rough was bound for a life in lights. However, the truth of Clara's history, upbringing, and experiences in show business tell quite a different story. She was one of the first successful personas to enter the film business in its second generation. The world of Hollywood was on a major high by the time the 1920s hit. The collision of film's solid foundation with a quickly changing world would be simultaneously fabulous and fatal. Clara's peers would come of age in an industry built on shattered dreams. Former top-notch celebs like Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Wallace Reid were some of the fallen stars whose reputations uncovered then destroyed the illusion of Tinsel Town's perfection. Clara's gang of "flappers" would be more real. They rebelled against Hollywood's established ideals while embracing and running amok with the glamour. However, there was a price to be paid for this frivolity, for now that the public knew that its Golden Gods weren't impenetrable, they seemed even more intent on breaking them down than they once had been on building them up. Clara would be one of the first and the worst victims of this tragedy. Her sad fate is no shocker considering how she began. Once upon a time in Brooklyn...
...Clara was born. Two elder siblings had died at birth, making her the third-times-the-charm child of Robert Bow and Sarah Gordon on July 29, 1905. Unfortunately, her birth wasn't all that "wanted." In fact, her mentally unstable mother resented her own life and marriage to Robert to such an extent that she had hoped to die in child birth. Clara was, thus, forever punished for not killing her mother. She too was punished for surviving. Her mother's erratic behavior, mood swings, and psychotic episodes-- including violent death threats-- were co-mingled with Robert's lack of interest in familial responsibility and avid participation in alcoholism, philandering, wife-beating, and the eventual sexual abuse of his 16-year-old daughter. Growing up in impoverished tenements, Clara had few friends, save one that she witnessed burned alive. Mocked by the girls in class for the scraps that served as her clothing and her crippling stutter, Clara got along slightly better with neighborhood boys, playing stick ball and offering up a left hook to any punk who thought he could elbow his way around her. She was forced to leave her education behind at the age of 14 to help support her family, which she did by getting a job slicing buns at Nathan's hot dog stand in "Coney Island." Despite the harsh nature of her life, Clara's nature was never harsh. She continually blamed herself for her parents' actions, sought to appease them, and defended them when necessary. When Robert first caved and decided to take Sarah to a mental institution, Clara begged him to let her mother remain at home. Clara knew that Sarah wasn't right in the head, and she believed that deep down she really loved her. She was willing to do whatever it took to find that love.
Another solution in this quest for adoration was cinema. Clara wished to be the recipient of the same level of awe and respect that she had given her idols, one of whom was Mary Pickford. She knew if she could get on the big screen, she could change her life and the lives of her family. It seemed like a hopelessly desperate dream, but when Clara saw the opportunity, she seized it. She entered Brewster Publications' "Fame and Fortune" contest in 1921 and was shocked to find herself a finalist. Her naturalism and pep during her audition was a far cry from the other ladies, who had walked through their actions with contrived posture... and rudeness. The majority of the girls made fun of Clara's paltry outfit. She had the last laugh on that count when she won the big prize-- a bit part in a major motion picture! Her mother's congratulations was calling her a "hoor." Clara's first project as an actress was in Beyond the Rainbow. Little was expected from her, and her hard-won role wound up on the cutting room floor. Right after the film's release, Clara woke to find her mother brandishing a knife over her bed. As a result, Sarah Bow was institutionalized yet again on Feb. 24, 1922. Despite this upset and the dismal outlook of her cinematic future, which the Movies had assuredly already tossed in the scrap heap, Clara put herself to work, trying to find auditions and other acting gigs. She heard all the worst: too young, too fat, too short, etc. When Elmer Clifton took a chance on her, casting her in Down to the Sea in Ships, it changed her life. It was a contest that brought Clara into the world of film, but by God it was her talent that was going to keep her there!
Clara jumped off the screen in Down to the Sea in Ships, stealing every scene she was in, and making memorable a film that would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill dud. Her innate charisma and emotional instinct brought more attention and another role in Enemies of Women. While filming, Clara would learn that her mother, who still protested against her chosen profession, was dead. She received the news from her father while she danced on a table for one particular scene. She would always carry the guilt that it was the one thing in life that brought her the most joy that killed her "Mama." Robert, on the other hand, was ecstatic about Clara's career. The money and the increasing fame was working out well where he was concerned, as was his access to beautiful women, whom he made certain to introduce himself to on Clara's sets. Clara overlooked his behavior, believing that he was all she had left. When she started work on Grit and met 2nd cameraman Artie Jacobson, she would meet the first of many men that would sincerely care for her. The two fell for each other quickly, and after Clara made the move from New York to Hollywood, she and Artie would even begin scandalously and un-apologetically living together in sin. Clara's lack of qualm when it came to her personal life would cause quite a furor later on, but for now she was not quite popular enough for it to matter. Her new "boss," Ben Schulberg of Preferred Pictures, would make sure that she became plenty famous in due time.
Clara's popularity started taking off in The Plastic Age, but it was the iconic It that solidified her as a bona fide star, not to mention legend. With the publicity boost of the infamous Elinor Glyn dubbing Clara the 'It' girl, Clara became the leader in a legion of women who were embracing the new found freedom of the roaring-est decade in American history. Clara's heroine in It was more or less copied in her following films: all were openly sensual women living life on their own terms. They liked to dance, laugh, tease, and have fun where they may. Yet, they too were strong, sassy, and warm. Clara's own soulful sadness and world-weary knowledge would give her brazen females a gravity and honesty that rendered their spirited antics celebratory instead of defamatory. Clara's girls were basically good girls in the end, so all of the spunk Clara projected was digestible to the more uptight members of the American audience. Everyone seemed to agree that the It girl indeed had it, and their worship of her and clamoring for her films made her Hollywood's biggest star. (Louise Brooks was a huge fan). Clara was full of life, magnetic, electric, and yet kind. She too was a real girl, approachable-- incredibly beautiful with big, liquid eyes, but still un-intimidating. She wasn't a goddess on a pedestal like some of the other silent film Queens-- Gloria Swanson or Norma Talmadge, for example. She was a kid from Brooklyn, and a kid most importantly. In an era where the flaming youth notoriously burned the candle at both ends, Clara was the heat that ignited the wick.
Clara too continued to impress her directors, who marveled at her ability to so easily vacillate between giggles and tears. She so naturally was able to indicate her characters' hidden feelings and articulate their outward impulses that the director needed to tell her little more than where to stand-- not that she ever was able to stand in one place anyway. She drove her devoted cameramen crazy by whirling around the set, making it nearly impossible for them to keep up with her jazzy tempo. Her films continued to do sensational business: Wings, Get Your Man, Red Hair, etc. Having transferred to Paramount with B.P. Schulberg, she was the studio's number one cash veal. As a result, Schulberg worked her like a dog, putting her on a back-breaking filming schedule with little room for respite. Clara never complained, being in love with her work, but she did have moments of nervous exhaustion. In addition, the material she was given plummeted in integrity after It. Paramount had discovered that audiences would come to see the It girl no matter What, so they bothered little with structuring interesting plot-lines around her or trying to build her reputation. They let her charisma ride and watched the receipts roll in. Clara yearned for dramatic roles and the chance to prove the depths of her great emotion and experience, but the chances kept passing her by. This would hurt her later on.
Her reputation was already in danger considering her candid demeanor and scandalous love-life. Clara had been taught as a child, by her mother Sarah, that men were dogs and not to be trusted. One must use her sexual wiles to control them without falling into their traps. Clara absorbed this lesson while hiding in a childhood cupboard when her mother was forced to entertain various "Uncles" during one of Robert Bow's countless absences. Money was short, and Sarah's heart grew harder. Clara was a much warmer and more loving woman than her mother had ever been, but emotional closeness was still difficult for her as a result of her childhood experiences. As such, she made a switch on the gender roles and often strung multiple men along at once-- most infamously juggling Victor Fleming, Gary Cooper, and Gilbert Roland all at the same time. Ideally, she wanted to settle down and be a normal, family gal, but the energy in her bones did not take well to domination. Eventually, she would need a safe place; for now, she made hay while the sun shined.
Clara's demise came from three hefty punches: the talkies, the depression, and the public. With a heavy New-Yawkuh accent and a stutter that reappeared in moments of stress, Clara was bewildered by the talkie revolution. The mic became a foe, and an unnecessary one, for Clara's charms and voice transferred well to sound. Yet, her "mic fright"-- which was exemplified when her eyes continually rose upward in search of it while she was performing her scenes-- was a symptom of something much more debilitating in her psyche. Only in her early twenties, Clara was already exhausted. She dealt with her father and extended family feeding off her, she was betrayed by countless friends, was taken for a song by her business manager, and her studio still gave her no respect. Despite her popularity, she still earned far less than her contemporaries. Her desire to keep moving to keep from feeling was also catching up with her-- as was a series of broken hearts.
The Depression didn't hut her financially, as her savings were in a trust for the most part, but the national temper had altered. Living fast and frolicking like there was no tomorrow made no sense to a country that saw only infinite, darkening clouds. Therefore, her usually un-stoppable film formula no longer worked as well. Then, the press started haranguing Clara out to dry, as it were. One of the first victims of harsh, gossip rag mags and swill publications, Clara was publicly defamed as a whore. She must have heard her mother's voice crying at her from the grave: "Hoor!" Her sex life became public, exaggerated, inaccurate knowledge, and before Clara knew it, she was being accused of screwing everything from her pet Great Dane to the USC football team. Why? Because she never concealed who she was or who she was currently infatuated with. Other starlets lived the same lifestyle, but wore masks of deceit and contrived innocence. As the times wound down, society no longer wanted "fast" girls, and Clara quite simply couldn't take it slow.
After an emotionally draining court case against her secretary Daisy DeVoe and a nervous breakdown, Clara escaped from Hollywood with her latest and most loyal beloved, Rex Bell, to a ranch in Nevada. Betrayed by those she had trusted, defamed by the fans who had made her famous, Clara decided to try something she never had: old-fashioned happiness. She and Rex were married. It worked... for awhile. While Rex supported her with his own acting and growing political career, Clara enjoyed the peace and serenity of isolation. It was a welcome relief. She returned to Hollywood to make two final features-- Call her Savage and Hoop-la-- and then she retired permanently. Part of the reason was her newly discovered psychiatric condition: schizophrenia. The condition slowly pulled her apart at the seams and pulled her away from her family, which had grown to include sons Tony and George. A failed suicide attempt and her increasingly erratic and unendurable behavior made Rex fearful of his wife and sons' safety, as well as his own sanity. The boys were sent to military school, Clara lived on her own-- in apartments and occasionally at sanatoriums-- and Rex continued earning the bread and butter. A sweet, generous, and charismatic guy, he continued to put on a brave face as Lt. Governor of Nevada, even though Clara and he were married in name only. He never obtained a divorce-- even when Clara's normally decent and entertaining behavior became vindictive-- remaining loyal to the woman who couldn't help herself. Clara became sad and even a litte bitter with the distance, but too quaked in fear at the idea of being in a domestic atmosphere. The pressure and responsibility of family life is what surprisingly sent her on her downward spiral. She accepted that she was better off where she was, yet she still missed the dream life she once had and felt continual guilt toward her husband and sons as a result.
She too missed the movies, of which she remained a devoted fan. She adored Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. She spent her time keeping up with new Hollywood, reading innumerable books- normally historical non-fiction-- and keeping up on her correspondence. Still, like Garbo, she allowed few visitors, save for perhaps her sons and Gilbert Roland, who had remained a devoted friend. It seemed the world had forgotten her, though she did obtain fan letters all the time, proof that she was indeed remembered and still adored. People wanted more Clara; Clara had no more to give. She passed away peacefully on Sept. 27th 1965 just past midnight. She was watching her ex-lover Gary Cooper in The Virginian as it played on Television. She probably sat thinking about the good old days and the magic that she had encountered when she was a part of that distant world of the movies.
Though her ending seems tragic, Clara wouldn't have accepted pity. She never did. She never felt sorry for herself, nor did she harbor any resentment against a world that had dealt her such repeated, dirty knocks. The same vivacious spirit and emotional generosity that she shared in her performances, which made her the studio favorite of every crew she ever worked with, is also the same quality that continues to intrigue modern audience. Dorothy Arzner said of her: "They all called Clara 'the "It" Girl,' the outstanding 'flaming youth.' Well, she was all that, but I think she was also the one flaming youth that thought." It is ironic that a woman who devoted her brief career in film to escaping her demons was worshipped because the sincerity of her personal horrors always infiltrated her performances and gave them truth. Because Clara was always able to relate to her characters, we were always able to relate to her. Most importantly, even after her death, she continues to give of herself in order to make others feel better. Clara was and is fun. Her Cinderella story didn't end with a happily-ever-after, but whoever wanted a perfect heroine anyway? It was Clara's earthy, brazen, unpretentious personality that surprisingly made her brief tenure as the Queen of Hollywood as unexpected as it is enduring.