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Clara Bow: The "It" Girl

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 1 0

Sex Doll

Clara Bow shed the filthy streets of Brooklyn in favor of the filthier streets of the overgrown cow town Hollywood. Hollywood in those days was actually a concept, a state of mind, and not a real incorporated city.  It was a planned suburb called “Hollywoodland” in the early 20th Century [the famous sign deteriorated over the years leaving only the iconic “Hollywood” letters standing].  The development never got off the ground as intended.  Hollywoodland, though, became the center of the film industry after 1912; the East Coast movie makers needed a place more conducive to shooting, and the pleasant weather and reliable Los Angeles sun made filming easier (no need for much in the way of artificial lighting).


original "Hollywoodland" sign
The Brooklyn Bonfire in Hollywoodland
Clara knew all about it, or so she thought, from having spent so much time watching the movies and from her bit parts in the four movies she worked on in 1922-1923. What she perhaps was not ready for was the cutthroat world of casting couches, petty jealousies, and behind-the-scene machinations rampant in the film industry.

It is almost certain Clara Bow was no virgin by the time she left New York City on July 22, 1923.   There is any number of reasons supposing this, not the least of which was how the poor lived in the slums of New York.  The street toughs (of which Clara was one) had no secrets about sex.  It was a casual part of their lives.  Clara was exposed at a very tender age to her unbalanced mother’s prostitution more than once, claiming she had sometimes been locked in a closet while her mother earned the daily bread when Robert was away.  The earlier story of her getting $80 to buy dresses from an estranged cousin is also probably a balm, a product of Clara’s imagination: the reality is she probably prostituted herself in a very big hurry to get the money to realize her movie dreams.  She had her first true boyfriend in 1923, the cameraman Arthur Jacobson.  She met him on the set of Grit in New York in 1923.  Jacobson, of course, was part of The Business, and sex for him was certainly an expectation.   Finally, she would claim her own father, Robert Bow, raped her when she was 15 or 16 [this story will be examined in its proper place].  Clara Bow may not have been a street tramp, but she was a “wise” girl, and it showed readily in how she carried herself and in the knowing look on her face.

For the purposes of keeping up appearances, Clara was assigned a chaperone for her trip from New York to Hollywood.  Her new studio, Preferred Pictures, had assigned a writer/agent named Maxine Alton to escort the not-quite-eighteen Clara Bow to Los Angeles [Clara’s birthday was a week away when she headed West].  This woman came to be a thorn in Clara’s side, and an obstacle to her creative development. Although it is likely Clara could have handled herself on the trip she was not well-traveled, having only been out of New York once in her life (for the location shooting in Massachusetts of 1922’s Down to the Sea in Ships). Clara was no naïve babe in the woods but, certainly, as a babe abroad the studio was right in having her chaperoned.

Maxine Alton, however, quickly became an albatross around Clara’s neck.  The two women lodged together in an apartment so Maxine could watch over Clara.  Clara, however, felt Maxine was nothing but a wet blanket – she was away from home for the first time, her father was in New York, she’d left Arthur Jacobson behind, she was ready to live a little. 

B.P. Schulberg founded Preferred Pictures (the independent studio Clara signed with) in 1919 when he was 27 years old.  Just before starting his own company he’d worked as a publicity manager at Famous Players-Lasky.  That studio was somehow embroiled in the morass of the forming of United Artists.  UA was the brainchild of the heavyweights of the era: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks started this company with A-list director D.W. Griffith so artists could control content in movies.  Schulberg lost his job at Famous Players-Lasky.

All Schulberg knew about Clara was what he’d heard from his advance man and what he could read in Motion Picture Classic magazine.  When Clara arrived at the studio to meet the boss for the first time in late July, she wore her high school track uniform. She told Schulberg she had won “several gold medals on the cinder track” wearing that uniform.  This sort of eccentricity is pure Clara Bow.  It is reasonable to believe she did this because she wanted to impress Schulberg with both her physique and her athleticism.  He was certainly impressed with the one – he sexually used Clara as he saw fit afterward, part of the industry's “casting couch” routine that was an open secret then.  Clara, however, seemed not to mind this treatment; it is likely she expected it [after all, who signs an unknown actress sight unseen unless there is some other incentive involved?]

Schulberg, however, was good with his word and he promoted and publicized Clara’s arrival in town.  He tested Clara for the studio’s archives (although she already had a part in the upcoming Maytime before getting there).  Schulberg made her screen tests available, as was customary, for reviews.  His company’s press release from early August gave Clara some cachet; Schulberg reported she was now part of Preferred’s “permanent stock” (meaning she was under contract and not just a walk-on or bit player).

The movie Maytime (thought to have been lost until a copy was discovered in New Zealand in 2010) was Clara’s first in Hollywood.  It loosely followed the popular operetta Maytime, where Clara interpreted the “Alice Tremaine” role.  Schulberg (as most studio heads in that day did) wanted his money’s worth out of Clara, though.  Before Maytime was finished, he told the press she was given the lead in the studio's Poisoned Paradise.  Before Clara could start on this new movie for Preferred, Schulberg loaned her out to co-star in a screen adaptation of Gertrude Atherton's 1923 bestseller Black Oxen (shot in October).  For the same loan studio she started Painted People (in November). 

stills from "Maytime" & "Black Oxen" (1923)

Her part in Black Oxen was almost a fluke.  The film’s director Frank Lloyd was casting the part of a high-society flapper named “Janet Oglethorpe”.  More than fifty aspirants, almost all of them with previous screen experience, turned out.  Somebody (probably Schulberg) had suggested Clara to Lloyd.  When she went to see about the part (per her boss’ instructions) she said Lloyd “looked just tickled to death”.  Lloyd raved to the press that Clara personified “the ideal aristocratic flapper, mischievous, pretty, aggressive, quick-tempered, and deeply sentimental”. Those words actually described Clara very well. They also accurately describe a person suffering from a bi-polar disorder (manic-depression). Given Clara’s later behaviors, Lloyd’s innocent rhapsodizing might have served as a diagnosis of her developing mental illness.

Clara was indeed a hellion, and she was quickly noted for her manic energy levels and extremes in moods.  All of this came through on the screen to the delight of her handlers and the studio’s backers.  Clara quickly proved to be box office gold.  Most critics adored her from the start.  Reviews for her efforts in Black Oxen, upon release in January 1924, were embarrassingly gushing:  

New York Times: “The flapper, impersonated by a young actress, Clara Bow, had five speaking titles, and every one of them was so entirely in accord with the character and the mood of the scene that it drew a laugh from what, in film circles, is termed a ‘hard-boiled’ audience.”

Variety: “...the horrid little flapper is adorably played...”

In short: they loved her.

Clara adapted quickly to her Hollywood routine and this young woman worked as she had never worked before.  She learned about filming, its lighting and staging techniques.  Clara (already used to getting her way early in her Hollywood career) quickly found out, however, not everyone was as enamored of her as Schulberg and Frank Lloyd. 

Another actress vied for America’s Flapper.  Colleen Moore, a vivacious “veteran” in the Jazz Baby mold, had actually beaten Clara’s Black Oxen flapper Janet to the screen by several weeks.  Flaming Youth, based on the slightly racy novel of the same name, debuted with Colleen Moore in November 1923.  So, Colleen had a leg up on Clara. 

Black Oxen was still in post-production before Flaming Youth was released.  In this off time, Clara was loaned out by Schulberg for Painted People.  Clara was supposed to play the kid sister of Colleen Moore in this movie.  Colleen was a pro, earning $1200 a week (versus Clara’s $200).  Her role in this movie was a baseball-playing tomboy, exactly the sort of thing Clara loved.  Clara raised a stink at the loan studio, wanting Colleen’s tomboy part.  Colleen, married to a studio executive, wanted none of Clara’s politicking, and she successfully lobbied to not only keep her own part in the film, but she also insured (through her influence) that the film’s director gave Clara no close-ups (death for an actor in a silent film).

This was toward the end of 1923, and Clara’s beau Arthur Jacobson had arrived from New York.  The teenaged Clara was incensed at her diminished role in Painted People, and she blamed Colleen.  She told Arthur, “I'll get that bitch”.  Clara contrived for some surgery on her sinuses (she had sinus troubles, but the surgery could have waited until filming was finished).  Bandaged, she could not work the movie.  The abandoned part was filled with another actress. 

Flaming Youth and Black Oxen brought the yin-yang of flapper behavior to the public.  Clara’s was rougher, while Colleen Moore’s flapper was described as “whimsical”.  The public preferred the wild child, Clara Bow. In May 1924, Colleen Moore starred as “her” flapper in The Perfect Flapper.  The film was produced by her husband; it reviewed well, but Colleen perhaps saw this characterization was ultimately not for her.  Despite good press she suddenly withdrew from the flapper chase. The Los Angeles Times had seemingly given Clara the flapper crown already: “Clara Bow is the one outstanding type. She has almost immediately been elected for all the recent flapper parts.” Colleen Moore, in the wake of The Perfect Flapper, conceded defeat (semi-graciously).  “No more flappers.  They have served their purpose.  People are tired of soda-pop love affairs,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Clara likened this in-fighting to any movie made about the French Revolution where “women are hollering and waving pitchforks twice as violently as any of the guys.  The only ladies in sight are the ones getting their heads cut off”.

Meanwhile, during “The Flapper Wars” Maxine Alton (Clara’s manager/roommate, assigned to her by Preferred Pictures) truly became Clara’s worst enemy. 

Clara Bow (vulnerable)
Maxine purposefully undermined Clara’s confidence. [Recall, this is a slum girl used to having nothing.  For Clara, the fear of losing everything she’d just gained in her first few months in Hollywood was enough to keep her terrorized and working slavishly to make sure that didn’t happen].  Maxine preyed upon Clara’s insecurities, telling her repeatedly the studios (both Preferred and the out-loan studios she’d already worked for) weren’t happy with her.  Clara’s fear, of course, was she’d be bundled off to New York and obscurity. Maxine’s manipulations led Clara to give up much of her business authority to Maxine.  She yielded the reins because she thought initially Maxine was an ally who could dissuade “the bosses” from sending her home. “She wanted to keep a hold on me so she made me think I wasn't getting over and that nothing but her clever management kept me going,” Clara told an interviewer in 1928.   

Anything Clara could do to vex the woman, she did.  A real sticking point in the arrangement between Maxine and Clara, however, made its presence known almost as soon as they reached Hollywood in July.  Clara made it abundantly clear she would send for her father Robert to come live in California when she made it as an actress (meaning she could provide for him).  [Clara’s desire to have her father with her flies directly in the face of allegations she would make later that he had raped her as a teen and been sexually abusive to her.  These allegations stem probably from Clara’s loosening grip on reality or a need on her part to embellish her already bad childhood into something more hellish.  In either case, it seems unlikely she would bother to care about what happened to Robert or to waste any attentions or money on him if he had truly been her sexual abuser.  A few years before leaving Hollywood for good, she said, “My father is the only person I care for, really”.  In context, she made this statement before she met her future husband, Rex Bell]

Maxine Alton made it very clear that Robert Bow’s presence in Clara’s California life was not welcomed and would be bad for her career.  She advised Clara that relatives always caused

Clara (random)
trouble for stars.  Clara paraphrased Maxine’s threat: “It would make the bosses sore around the studios if my father came interfering. I believed her. I knew so little about things, and what with working the whole time and trying to enjoy myself in spare moments I was - just dumb, I guess.”  She defied Maxine, however, and sent for her dad anyway.  He arrived by train in Hollywood in early January 1924.  Clara described their reunion (she hadn’t seen him in about six months): “I didn't care a rap, for Maxine, or B.P. Schulberg, or my motion picture career, or Clara Bow, I just threw myself into his arms and kissed and kissed him, and we both cried like a couple of fool kids. Oh, it was wonderful.” [Again, these do not seem like the actions of a rape victim toward her rapist].
Clara got away from Maxine, and she and Robert moved in together into a modest place in Beverly Hills [Clara, although she would later be the highest paid actress of the 1920s, never lived beyond ordinary middle-class means, even though she could well afford it. Her thriftiness in most things probably came from her childhood poverty. She tended toward less ostentation in her home.  She preferred playing poker with her servants over attending her own premieres.  When it came to her personal antics and activities, however, that was different.  Extravagances such as milk baths were duly noted in the press.  She lavished money on two Chow dogs, both dyed the exact shade of red as her hair; she routinely tore around Hollywood with the dogs in an open-topped car, showing off]. Scandalously, Arthur Jacobson, Clara’s boyfriend, moved in with them.  Arthur was also now working for Schulberg at Preferred Studios. 

Schulberg found out about their curious living arrangements and fired Arthur Jacobson.  His reason? He thought the living-in-sin issue would potentially get Clara, his biggest star, embroiled in a scandal. [This “reason” reeks of hypocrisy.  The reality is Schulberg jealously didn’t relish the idea of having Clara’s body tied up with another man].  Clara found out about Arthur’s firing and stormed into Schulberg's office.  She ripped up her contract (although very dramatic, it is legally a meaningless gesture), then threw the pieces in Schulberg’s face.  She screamed at him that he couldn't run her private life.  Schulberg, of course, could do nothing punitive to her – Clara was money in the bank for Preferred already, and her out-loan profits to Schulberg were tremendous.

Clara Bow (one tough dame)

Arthur said of the matter, “Clara was the sweetest girl in the world, but you didn't cross her and you didn't do her wrong”.  Later that year, Arthur apparently still lived with Clara and her father as the September 17, 1924, issue of the Los Angeles Times ran a piece describing Clara thusly: “A dangerous little devil is Clara, impish, appealing, but oh, how she can act!”  Maxine Alton was out of Clara’s business stable by then; her father was described as her “business manager”.  Arthur Jacobson is archly described in the article as Clara’s brother.

Clara’s “business manager” needed some help getting by, however.  For the next few years, she funded several ventures for him, including a restaurant and a dry cleaning service.  They all failed.  He soon became a drunken nuisance, showing up on the set (as Maxine had warned), trying to pick up bit players and starlets by telling them his daughter was Clara Bow.

Clara got her first lead part in February 1924, in Poisoned Paradise, playing a flapper.  In 1924's Daughters of Pleasure, Clara gets physical with a villain in the film, throwing punches and fighting.  Most roles called for the flapper Clara had developed so well.  One film, though, stood out.  In Wine, Clara plays an innocent seduced by the world of bootleg liquor, ultimately transforming into, what one reviewer called, "A red-hot mama!” Carl Sandburg (America’s great poet, slumming as a hack critic) wrote, “If not taken as information, it is cracking good entertainment.”

The press hyperbole was fantastic: “She radiates sex appeal tempered with an impish sense of humor...She hennas her blond [sic] hair so that it will photograph dark in the pictures...Her social decorum is of that natural, good-natured, pleasantly informal kind ... She can act on or off the screen — takes a joyous delight in accepting a challenge to vamp any selected male — the more unpromising specimen the better. When the hapless victim is scared into speechlessness she gurgles with naughty delight and tries another.”  Clara’s own take on her screen charm was simple enough: “All this time I was running wild, I guess, in the sense of trying to have a good time...maybe this was a good thing, because I suppose a lot of that excitement, that joy of life, got onto the screen.”

She appeared in eight full-length feature films in 1924, a grueling schedule considering she shuttled between working for Preferred and out-loan studios.  At one time she worked on three films simultaneously.  Her nerves were frazzled (personal tensions, her work stresses, and her mental issues starting to take hold).  But those eight movies were nothing compared to the fifteen she would make in 1925!

In 1925 Preferred Pictures (and B.P. Schulberg personally) was making a mint off the monster that was Clara Bow.  She’d been in town for less than two years, and Schulberg demanded loan-out fees for her ranging from $1500 to $2000 a week.  And the producers receiving her skills for that sum were glad to pay it. She was a box-office guarantee.  

Clara’s star during that year shone blindingly bright.  Her activities and persona were having an effect on the pop culture of the 1920s.  Her red-hennaed hair and its frowsy style (post-coital tangled look) were widely imitated.  Many male admirers followed her around whenever she went to the shore.  Clara's natural Cupid’s bow lips were enhanced by her studied application of her lipstick into the now-famous heart shape.  Women adopted this look quickly, and the phrase “putting on a Clara Bow” came into use when women put on their lipstick in the trademarked outline.

The Plastic Age was Clara’s last film for Preferred Pictures.  It shot in the summer of 1925, and it was her biggest hit so far.  She played a college girl of the naughty-but-nice type.  The influential Photoplay hated it.  “The college atmosphere is implausible and Clara Bow is not our idea of a college girl,” they sniffed.  Theater owners sang a completely different tune, however.  “The picture is the biggest sensation we ever had in our theater.  It is 100 per cent at the box-office.”  Still others felt she was breaking fresh ground, branching out in her characters.  “She presents a whimsical touch to her work that adds greater laurels to her fast ascending star of screen popularity,” one raved.  Time, like another earlier reviewer, credited Clara with saving this movie: “Only the amusing and facile acting of Clara Bow rescues the picture from the limbo of the impossible.”

Clara’s famously torrid love life (both real and imagined) truly began with the making of this movie.  Arthur Jacobson was yesterday’s newspapers, and Clara began a relationship with her co-star, Gilbert Roland.  They became engaged later on.  

Preferred Pictures was in trouble, however.  The three largest filmmakers in Hollywood had a virtual monopoly on the business, and smaller independents struggled to remain solvent.  In October 1925, Schulberg declared Preferred Pictures bankrupt.  He survived, however, because three days after filing he joined Adolph Zukor and became an associate producer of Paramount Pictures.  He brought his “permanent stock”, most importantly, Clara Bow, with him. [It seems unreal with the cash cow Clara Bow in the house that Preferred had to fold its tent, but it did.  Total assets, by the time the accounting was completed for the bankruptcy filing, amounted to about $1400 in cash].
Clara Bow was an unstoppable force by then. She was a consummate natural actress, but she hated rehearsals.  “Rehearsals sap my pep" she explained in 1929.  From the very start of her career she relied almost exclusively on immediate direction: “Tell me what I have to do, and I'll do it.” She would wing it, and got it right almost every time.  Clara’s focal point in any film was the scene she was in at that moment.  Her last-second “creativity” made directors call in extra cameras to cover her spontaneity, rather than stop her if she was onto something lively and unscripted. 

Her salary at Paramount rose to $750 a week, and she burned off a quickie called Dancing Mothers in late 1925 (released in 1926).  Clara’s move to Paramount (one of the Big Three

Clara Bow (stylish)
whose stranglehold on Hollywood had actually squeezed Preferred Pictures out of The Business) netted her very first smash hit, Mantrap.  Victor Fleming directed this film.  He and Clara would go on to have a passionate affair (while she was still attached to fiancé Gilbert Roland).  This is the film that put her firmly on the star map.  Audiences were entranced.  Clara was new to Paramount, a huge operation with a major publicity department at work (compared to Preferred); many people reacted to Clara as if she were a fresh face on the scene (despite already having over two dozen films to her credit).  The press reaction bordered on hysteria.  Variety exclaimed, “Clara Bow! And how! What a 'Mantrap' she is! And how this picture is going to make her! Miss Bow just walks away with the picture from the moment she steps into camera range.”  Even the previously hostile Photoplay came around to loving her: “When she is on the screen nothing else matters. When she is off, the same is true.”  Carl Sandburg, given to more prosaic speech, wrote, “The smartest and swiftest work as yet seen from Miss Clara Bow.”  Another journal already had her throwing dirt on another actress’s grave: “Clara Bow is taking the place of Gloria Swanson, filling a long need for a popular taste movie actress”.  [Gloria Swanson, who was no slouch, was the Hollywood Queen Bee at the time of Clara’s arrival.  This was quite a shot across the old guard’s bow].

Clara’s value was quickly recognized and rewarded by Paramount.  Her first contract was for a mere six months.  Her renewal deal was for five years, starting at $1700 per week, going up yearly and capping at $4000 a week for the fifth year.  At the signing of this contract, Clara prophetically mentioned she intended to leave the motion picture business when her contract ran out in 1931. She had made eight movies that year. The best was just around the corner in the New Year, however.

Goodbye, Brooklyn Bonfire
Elinor Glyn was a successful, wry, British author of mild female erotica and other works.  She was a well-respected writer who transitioned to film work writing screenplays and

"It" movie poster, 1927
adaptations in Hollywood.  It was she who co-produced the movie that defined Clara Bow, immortalizing her for all time.  The movie was simply titled It.
The film is a Cinderella story.  Clara’s character is a shop girl whose boss can’t help but succumb to her charms.  The movie uses the socially awkward situation of a boss/employee love affair as its comic vehicle.  Her boss asks her out, and Clara prepares with the help of a female friend.   During one scene she starts hacking at a dress with scissors to make it look sexier.  The picture coyly inserted slightly risqué dialog on its placards.  In one scene her shop-girl spies her boss’ son and the title card exclaims, “Oh, Santa, gimme him!” 

Elinor Glyn, the stolid Brit, and Clara Bow, street tough, became great friends.  Elinor was asked by a reporter after the movie’s opening success to name some things that had “It” (since Elinor had created the concept of indefinable sex appeal as “It”).  Perhaps facetiously she stated Clara Bow had “It” as did a particular racehorse she’d seen once.  And at that Clara became known then and forever afterward as “The ‘It’ Girl”.  The 21-year old

Clara (disshevelled)
Clara (courtesy of her horrific grammar and her Noo Yawk accent), when asked what “It” was, gave the unintentionally hilarious reply, “I ain't real sure.” [Imagine singer Cindy Lauper delivering the same line and the humor is obvious].

The picture debuted in New York City February 5, 1927.  The reviews were stellar.  Again, Clara was credited with carrying the movie.  Carl Sandburg wrote, “It is smart, funny and real. It makes a full-sized star of Clara Bow.” Variety gushed, “You can't get away from this Clara Bow girl. She certainly has that certain 'It'...and she just runs away with the film.”

Dorothy Parker, columnist and all-around wit, probably had the last and best word on the subject: “It, hell! She had Those.”


Part 1 – Clara Bow: The Brooklyn Bonfire
Part 3 – Clara Bow: The Later Legend



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