Dorothy Parker’s succinct critique of Clara Bow in her career-defining film It was probably the last word on one aspect of Clara Bow’s visual appeal. As a response to the indefinable “It” Clara had, Dorothy wrote, “It, hell! She had Those!”
This is an enlightening statement. Clara Bow, although she had achieved the title of “America’s Flapper” with movie goers, was not the best representative for the flapper “type”. The “true” flapper style actually was informed by a female body along very boyish proportions. The ideal flapper was flat-chested and linear and sleek. The shortRoaring Twenties, more endowed in their upper decks, actually bound their larger breasts, flattening them uncomfortably against their chests to get “the look”. The straight-line shifts favored by flappers were borne of two things: 1) they accentuated the slim figure and downplayed the female form in a shapeless tube, and 2) in an era when many women still sewed their own clothing these dresses were very easy to make. This is the decade for which the phrase “One can never be too rich or too thin” fits best. The flapper came to represent sophistication – an esprit de corps the rabble did not have. The free-wheeling flapper did as she pleased and was widely emulated. [For one to truly appreciate the real flapper body type, although it is several years after the trend, Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) is exactly what the ideal flapper should look like. In this movie Colbert was slim with almost no womanly curves, had a boyish haircut, and wore clothing that did not stress her “femaleness”].
Clara was not sleek, she was zaftig. She was plush and battled a weight problem all her life, although she was never outright fat. But Clara had curves. Nude photos of her exist. One is an early, elegant arty full-length portrait shot. The other features a very sham-coy Clara standing in a photo studio, hair all wild and fluffed up, wearing nothing but a wide-eyed smirking leer. Her thighs are fleshy as are her calves. Clara also had a brief nude scene in her next movie after It (Wings) in which she is caught undressing by two soldiers. Her breasts are full, and her torso is not svelte. Clara was “healthy”; in the second of the two nude studio photos noted she is downright chubby. And yet there was no red-blooded man in America who did not find her sexually appealing or who did not want her [and writing this nearly a 100 years after her start in Hollywood I wholeheartedly agree – the woman is extremely and mysteriously sexually appealing].
Clara’s biggest problem after It hit big in 1927 was media sniping. Her carefree life-style was more scrutinized. Clara, with a few minor exceptions, while perhaps a man-eater of sorts, was really a serial monogamist. Her relationship with Arthur Jacobson ended when she took up with co-star Gilbert Roland in 1925.
Gilbert and Clara were together for about a year and a half. According to Clara, “I think we might have been happy together if outside things hadn't interfered so dreadfully. I don't know just what separated us, but Gilbert was working hard on one lot and I on another, and everyone came between us, and we were both very jealous. And at last we had a violent quarrel. I don't think either of us meant it, or dreamed it would be final. But it went on and on, and we were both too proud to make the first move, so the breach finally grew so wide and we were so far apart that we never made it up.”
The “outside things” and the “everyone came between us” can be reduced to one thing: director Victor Fleming. Clara makes it sound as if she and Gilbert Roland drifted apart. This is untrue. After meeting Victor Fleming in late 1925, she began a sexual relationship with him while still engaged to Roland. [Apparently the much older Victor Fleming left an impression on the young Clara Bow. She stated wistfully later, “Of all the men I've known, there was a man.”]. There can be no doubt when Roland found out about this (there were no secrets in Hollywood kept for long) it is certain he broke off their engagement. Fleming, for his part, seemed quite smitten with Clara, at least for awhile. He recalled that Clara was “like a Stradivarius. Touch her and she responded with genius”. This statement is oblique, however, and his context unclear: does he mean artistically as an actress, or sexually as a woman?
In the late 1920s she also had relationships with other men. One, a fresh actor named Marion Morrison, was two years Clara’s junior. He later changed his name to John Wayne and became a film legend. Another great affair of hers was with the then-unknown Bela Lugosi (he did not immortalize Dracula until 1931). He apparently worshipped Clara after their affair ended, and he procured one of her nude studio portraits which hung in his bedroom for the rest of his life. She also had a fling with the rookie actor Gary Cooper (formerly a Nevada cowboy) after meeting him in late 1927 on the set of her movie Children of Divorce. The pathologically jealous Cooper, however, could not handle Clara’s wild flirtations, and he shed himself of her rather quickly. Clara’s disillusionment led her to quip, “The more I see of men, the more I like dogs.”
Clara’s wild streak was well-known, but she was no push-over. She was a tough little broad from Brooklyn. She was one of the very first fiercely independent women in Hollywood, and her Paramount acting contracts bear out that she was not taken advantage of. Clara was also crass and vulgar – she did not put on airs. Her impoverished background was no secret and she never pretended she was anything other than who she was. Although most of the Hollywood élite also came from such backgrounds once the money started rolling in they distanced themselves from it as quickly as possible.
B.P. Schulberg’s son, Budd (in a memoir in 1981) was very harsh about Clara, however, deriding her acting skills and her morality. He described Clara, whom he first met when he was 10 years old, as “an easy winner of the dumbbell award” who “couldn't act”. He further compared her to a puppy that his father, B.P. Schulberg, “trained to become Lassie”. He also wrote, “Hollywood was a cultural schizophrene – the anti-movie Old Guard with their chamber music and their religious pageants fighting a losing battle against the more dynamic culture…who flaunted…bohemianism…and the socialism of Upton Sinclair. But there was one subject on which the 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.” Budd’s venom may be more the result of Clara’s early (probably coerced) sexual relationship with his father, the very married senior Schulberg. Certainly, the Missus Schulberg would have known of B.P.'s dalliances and not taken them quietly. To Budd, Clara was probably a home wrecker; his opinion of her must be considered tainted.
Clara Bow was a constant, vocal, and visible reminder that deep down they were all gutter kids playing at high-society. She told dirty jokes at parties when the conversation lulled. In the company of more priggish women, Clara delighted in making blatant remarks about the size and sexual performance of her lovers [this is nothing more than typical shock behavior].
Clara’s outrage at being snubbed by the Hollywood élite was barely contained. “They yell at me to be dignified. But what are the dignified people like? The people who are held up as examples to me? They are snobs. Frightful snobs. I'm a curiosity in Hollywood. I'm a big freak, because I'm myself!” A writer who’d worked on several of her films reported, “Clara is the total nonconformist. What she wants she gets if she can. What she desires to do she does. She has a big heart, a remarkable brain, and the most utter contempt for the world in general. Time doesn't exist for her, except that she thinks it will stop tomorrow. She has real courage, because she lives boldly. Who are we, after all, to say she is wrong?”
Others were much kinder and seemed to “get” Clara. Adolph Zukor wrote in his memoirs, “All the skill of directors and all the booming of press-agent drums will not make a star. Only the audiences can do it. We study audience reactions with great care.” Director William Wellman (who steered Clara in Wings in 1927) stated more simply, “Movie stardom isn't acting ability. It's personality and temperament. I once directed Clara Bow. She was mad and crazy but what a personality!” Another diarist in 1950 recorded, “If ever a star was made by public demand, it was Clara Bow.” And Clara’s closest female competition of the time Louise Brooks wrote, “She became a star without nobody's [sic] help.” Even her early flapper rival Colleen Moore grudgingly had to admit later Clara was professional about her acting if nothing else.
If Clara wanted a particular man she could have him. However, the press of the time and Hollywood royalty (not particularly caring for her brazenness when it came to her love life) rumored many things about her during her break-out period. Ugly untruths developed right at the time of her greatest success with It, and some of these rumors persisted as part of the Clara Bow mythos until relatively recently (in the 1980s).
The first of these legends to dispel is an allegation that Clara took on the entire winning football team of the 1927 University of Southern California in a group setting. It is highly unlikely these rough-and-tumble football playing college men would engage in such a blatantly homo-erotic act. In the 1980s (when a comprehensive biography was researched) a surviving USC team member, Morley Drury, was called upon to put this to rest. He commented that his team was “too damn innocent” to do anything like that, and his statement bears the ring of truth. Certainly this cannot be doubted; by the time he addressed the issue Clara had been dead for many years, and he would have nothing to lose by tooting his own horn and saying he’d had sex with the great Clara Bow. That would probably be a feather in his cap. Instead, he reported the incident never happened. And it didn’t.
Clara’s press worsened as time went on. The news media of that era (as it still does today) often printed outright fabrications in addition to the normal half-truths. A tabloid called The Coast Reporter published lurid allegations about her in 1931, accusing Clara of almost every known taboo act of the era: exhibitionism, incest, lesbianism, bestiality, drug addiction, and alcoholism. She was alleged to have contracted gonorrhea. The paper’s publisher then tried to blackmail Clara. He offered to stop printing his libels in exchange for $25,000 [He was subsequently arrested by federal agents and ultimately sentenced to eight years in prison].
What is most interesting is Clara’s reaction to this mess. She certainly was upset by the allegations and took reasonable care to make it stop. But she didn’t spend her time railing against the press. Furthermore, it was her celebrity that brought her such unwarranted attentions. [In direct contrast a close female friend of hers, not so well-known to the press, was an actress who started out with her given name of Lucille LaSeuer. She became Joan Crawford and she was much more promiscuous than Clara Bow; it was Joan’s multiple abortions that cost her the ability to have children, later requiring her to adopt to have them. The press did not bother with Joan overly much at the time – it wouldn’t be until about 1930 Joan would come into the limelight as a star].
Clara summed up her weariness with all things with the sad statement, “A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered.” This, from a jaded woman not yet 22 years old when she became immortalized.
Paramount Pictures Presents “Crisis-A-Day Clara”
Clara was keen on poetry and music but according to a contemporary of hers she lacked the attention span to appreciate novels. This, too, may go along with her bi-polar issues. She focused
Clara Bow did four movies in 1928. All of them are lost; fragments of two that survive. The first of that year was Red Hair, and the fragments that exist show what is the only known
The new technology of talking pictures shook the Hollywood establishment. Clara, like many of her fellow stars, did not embrace the new medium. Her opinion was much the same as that of silent-film actors Charlie Chaplin and Louise Brooks. “I hate talkies,” Clara said. “They're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.” For a young woman with Clara’s manic energy talking pictures were a bane. Silent actors had to act very broadly to convey the sense of any scene. It was all an elaborate pantomime, and required much physical energy to do. The new sound technology, at least initially, was horribly limiting. Microphones were placed awkwardly on the set in inconspicuous locations such as inside flower arrangements. The lack of sound sensitivity meant the actors usually had to stand woodenly within shouting range of the mic. The invention of the overhead microphone during this time (first devised by female director Dorothy Rainer who hung one from her set) compounded matters for the easily distracted Clara Bow. In her first talking film, The Wild Party, the overhead microphone was such a distraction that her eyes kept wandering up to it, and it became the focus of her acting. She had to call for retakes – the woman couldn’t help herself, and she finally learned to block it out.
It was not only actors who hated the talkies (and Charlie Chaplin’s later films, although firmly rooted in sound, feature very little in the way of dialog). Thomas Edison, the man who invented the motion picture camera, hated the mandated stiffness of the early talkies so much he refused to go see them. He contented himself instead with watching older silent movies with his favorites Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, and Chaplin.
Much has been made of the myth that talking pictures killed Clara Bow’s career allegedly because of her thick Brooklyn accent. This is untrue. Clara made eleven talking films (out of a career total of 57 movies) before she voluntarily quit the business. She didn’t like the talkies, but she did them anyway, resigning herself: “I can't buck progress. I have to do the best I can.” To put this golem to a much deserved rest: Clara’s voice was not a problem translating on film. Neither Paramount (who would not have forced this on her if they knew it wouldn’t pan out at the box office) nor her fans seemed concerned about her voice. Her fans still came to see her and there is nothing wrong with how she sounds in these movies. [As proof of this myth’s falsehood, watch this clip from 1930’s True to the Navy. Clara not only has a scene with what appears to be Hattie McDaniel – later to appear in Gone With the Wind – but she also sings a little song, too! She is very charming in this little vignette; although she may not have been comfortable with sound she is not unlistenable or otherwise off-putting. The coming of the talkies had nothing to do with Clara’s leaving Hollywood]
Clara Bow made only three movies in 1929, all of them talkies. As final vindication that sound did no damage to her career, she kept her place as the top box-office draw and her public crown as Queen of Hollywood.
There is one last myth to debunk about Clara Bow, and it is more whimsical. The cartoon flapper/good-time girl Betty Boop (first introduced in animation as an anthropomorphic female poodle in 1931) was presumed by many to have been based upon Clara Bow. She was not. She was modeled after a comedic actress and singer named Helen Kane whose “Boop-boop-a-doop” tag line and baby-girl singing voice were her trademarks. Clara never had any part as the model for Betty Boop. [And Helen Kane later tried to sue Boop creator Maxblack songstress she’d seen in Harlem’s Cotton Club in the early 1920s named “Baby Esther”. The case was thrown out. One other little fun fact about Betty Boop – she is a teenager!! Max Fleischer, despite Betty’s autonomy and very adult adventures, visualized and conceived her as a teenage girl of 16 years. In fact, she is a runaway!].
Clara’s celebrity star still blazed, however. In 1930 she played herself in the feature Paramount on Parade. Her characters livened True to the Navy, Love Among the Millionaires, and Her Wedding Night. Clara’s amazement at singing in 1930’s True to the Navy is self-effacing: “Now they're having me sing. I sort of half-sing, half-talk, with hips-and-eye stuff. You know what I mean — like Maurice Chevalier. I used to sing at home and people would say, 'Pipe down! You're terrible!' But the studio thinks my voice is great.” [The singing technique to which Clara refers is called “sprechgesang”, a term she probably never heard in her life]. That year she took second in box-office draw to her buddy, Joan Crawford.
Clara’s pressure was mounting internally, however. She had her emotional outbursts and manic behavior to deal with. Neither she nor anyone in her camp realized her mental illness was worsening or she was having a breakdown until it happened. Between the press haranguing she guarded against daily, the pressures of fame, and overwork (Clara had made over four dozen movies in about eight years by the end of 1930) she was at her wits’ end.
Court drama interfered as well. Clara was hammered for unpaid taxes and was named in a divorce case for “stealing” a woman’s husband (unfounded – this was a publicity ploy not of her making). Adding to this turmoil was a problem she had with her personal secretary, a loathsome opportunist named Daisy DeVoe. DeVoe, who had also been Clara’s friend, or so she thought, had been caught embezzling from Clara. Clara fired her; Daisy had to go to court to answer charges at which time she told the court and the press uncensored details of Clara's sex life. She also added much in the way of exaggeration. The press gleefully accepted Daisy’s tales at face value; they slavered for these juicy details and dutifully printed every salacious tidbit. [It was during this time that early friend and supporter, sob sister Louella Parsons, would heroically defend Clara in her widely read gossip column].
Clara’s mental state was at the breaking point; she was agitated and a shambles on-set. She was clearly headed for a breakdown and her now manager B.P. Schulberg, apparently dismissing her fragile emotional health and mental fatigue, started referring to her as “Crisis-a-day Clara”. Schulberg’s lack of caring aside, it is clear he noted something was wrong with her.
Clara plowed through two films in early 1931, No Limit and Kick In. Clara’s box office slipped, putting her in fifth place. She was increasingly agitated and on edge. She finally snapped in April 1931 and was committed to an institution for what the press euphemistically called “shattered nerves”. She then asked Paramount for some time off, and they graciously (and surprisingly) relieved her of her contractually obligated last film.
Clara convalesced. She met cowboy actor Rex Bell (né Beldam). She and Rex Bell married in Las Vegas in December 1931 – Clara was 26, Bell two years older. Rex Bell was a stabilizing influence in Clara's life. She returned to Hollywood in early 1932 as a free agent, and she signed a limited two-picture deal with Fox Film Corporation. In 1932, Clara gloriously returned to the screen in Call Her Savage (for which she was paid $125,000). She finished her Fox deal in 1933 with Hoop-La. Both movies were great successes, although some preferred Hoop-La to Call Her Savage: “A more mature performance...she looks and photographs extremely well”. Clara, once again, had to wear a revealing costume in Hoop-La. Her husband, Rex, apparently was upset enough by this to accuse her of enjoying showing herself off. In true Clara Bow spitfire mode, she reported, “Then I got a little sore. He knew darn well I was doing it because we could use a little money these days. Who can't?”
Clara’s new marriage, combined with the continued stressors of Hollywood and her shaky mental state (bordering on schizophrenic) led to her decision to quit the movies at the age of 28. For her time on the big screen and as Hollywood’s first truly wild child, Clara Bow made no apologies. “My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I'm sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can't do that by being Mrs. Alcott's idea of a Little Women [sic].”
Clara and Rex soon bought a ranch in Nevada and retired to it. Over the years, Rex and Clara entertained many famous figures from their old Hollywood stomping grounds, including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Errol Flynn, and Lionel Barrymore. The Walking Box Ranch was a 400,000 acre spread in Clark County, Nevada (near Las Vegas) [today the ranch is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but is only now 160 acres with four buildings on the property].
Their first child was Tony Beldam (born in 1934, he later changed his name to Rex Anthony Bell, Jr., to capitalize on his father’s fame when he started acting himself). In September 1937, she and her husband opened a small bistro near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. Appropriately, the venture was called The 'It' Café. However, it was not successful, and closed soon enough. Their second son, George, was born in 1938.
Clara’s weight became an issue for her and her mental instability increased over the next few years. Rex Bell threw his hat into the political ring in the early 1940s. In 1944, while Rex ran for a U.S. House of Representatives seat, Clara tried to kill herself. She had composed a note that read she preferred being dead to the public life of a politician's wife.
Clara’s last performance appearance was a bit she did on the radio show Truth or Consequences in March 1948. She guest starred, doing the voice work of a character called, “Mrs. Hush”.
Clara’s mental problems worsened during the 1940s. In 1949 Rex found an institution he thought could help her. She checked in voluntarily and was then subjected to a mental health regimen that unfortunately included shock treatments (a “therapy” of dubious value to begin with, now thoroughly discredited). She also complained routinely of diffuse abdominal pains but these were never properly diagnosed or treated.
While institutionalized she was subjected to a battery of psychological exams and tests. Her IQ was discovered in “bright normal” IQ range (111–119; average is 100). During her stay, though, other doctors determined she was unable to reason, had poor judgment, and displayed inappropriate or even bizarre behavior (all typical of the bi-polar personality which they failed to note). Her abdominal pains were considered delusional and she was diagnosed with schizophrenia despite experiencing neither sound or vision hallucinations nor psychosis.
Clara also suffered from lifelong insomnia. The staff at the hospital tried to ascribe this and the onset of her mental illness to her mother’s butcher knife attack on her when she was younger. Clara Bow may have been flighty and a free spirit, but she was rational, and she wasn’t buying the analysts' conclusions. She finally rejected their efforts and left the institution.
She and Rex returned to marital domesticity. Rex later became Lieutenant Governor of Nevada. He returned to the big screen with a bit part in 1960’s doomed classic The Misfits
Clara’s mental and physical health was dodgy, and she lived out her last few years in Culver City (Los Angeles) under a nurse's constant care. She died on September 27, 1965, aged 60, of a heart attack. Her autopsy revealed she suffered from heart disease that had actually developed in early adolescence. Clara’s heart also displayed the tell-tale scarring of an earlier, undiagnosed heart attack (this heart attack could easily have been the “diffuse abdominal pains” of which Clara complained to no avail in 1949).
By not living terribly extravagantly in her hey-day Clara lived comfortably in these later years, a legend quietly in the decline. Her estate was worth about $500,000 when she died. She was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California, where she shares a vault with her husband Rex Bell. George Burns and Gracie Allen are her neighbors. Boxer Jack Dempsey was one of her pallbearers.
As a final bit of intrigue Clara’s year of birth is embossed on her crypt as 1907. This is wrong. It is unknown if this is an honest error or if Clara purposefully at some time in her life shaved two years off her age. US Census data from both the 1910 Census and the 1920 Census supports Clara’s actual birth year as the accepted 1905. It is more likely that Sarah Bow, upon Clara’s touch-and-go birth, facing the uncertainty of Clara’s survival in the world (having already lost two babies in infancy), probably did not file a complete or timely birth certificate, if at all. Certainly, however, Sarah knew how old Clara was for the Census takers and would have given her age accurately regardless.
The Legacy of “It”
Clara Bow has her much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1994, the United States Postal Service issued stamps of the silent-era screen stars drawn in caricature format. In this limited group was
Clara Bow spent her last few years in complete anonymity with no one really caring about her at all. But with the popularity of home video and now DVD people have had the chance to rediscover this wonderfully kooky, sexy, sensitive woman’s antics in her films. A major problem with her oeuvre, however, is many of her movies have been lost; of the 57 films she made, only 37 exist (either in their entirety or as fragments). Of this number only 16 titles (of which 11 are silent movies) are generally available on DVD. All of her surviving films, however, are archived, most of them in the Library of Congress. All of her best known movies are available on DVD, including her first talking film, The Wild Party.
Beyond being an actress and early sex symbol there is that special something about Clara Bow that has wormed its way into pop culture. It may even be subliminal on some level, but
Bernadette Peters, an actress/singer/entertainer had the good fortune to actually be born looking like Clara Bow’s long lost sister. Very early in her career Bernadette played up her Clara Bow connection with great aplomb and charm (and Bernadette today is about as old as Clara was when she died, so she gives the world a pretty good idea of what an aging Clara Bow might have looked like -- not bad at all!).
The singer Madonna has studiously deconstructed classic film icons and recycled and integrated them into her persona for years. Clara Bow is one of these. Madonna’s classic “Vogue” music video (despite the visual references in a couple of cases to Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow) also
Rose McGowan, a classically beautiful actress in her own right, sat for a pastiche of Clara’s character in Call
Clara Bow had one other thing, though, that was critical to her success and allure. She had fire. She had energy and a goofy energy that glowed brilliantly on the screen. Probably the closest thing to the true “spirit” of Clara Bow living today is the actress Drew Barrymore. Drew does not look much like Clara – it’s her mannerisms, her spontaneity and oftentimes inappropriate lack of inhibition and her recklessness that makes her today’s Clara. Drew embodies the living spirit of Clara Bow.
She was the slum girl who wanted to be a star. She became everyone’s "It" Girl, immortalized. The iconic Clara Bow (had she lived longer) perhaps would not have understood her renewed popularity [and Clara has her fans – there are many Web sites dedicated to her, and with YouTube her film clips are watched by
Clara’s summation on the subject of Hollywood, fame, and her career is typical cut-to-the-chase Clara: “We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. I used to whiz down Sunset Boulevard in my open Kissel, with several red Chow dogs to match my hair. Today, they're sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun.”
More fun, indeed. Thank you, Clara Bow.
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