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The Silent Collection
Tammy Stone
Clara Bow
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Clara Bow Premium PhotoClara Bow Premium PhotoThere are some actresses who are adored by critics and the public alike, and some who find adulation with fans despite critical derision. Clara Bow falls into the latter category. Virtually ignored by the press in her day – the roaring 20s, when cinema’s silent days were approaching the highest levels of artistic achievement – Clara was the greatest sensation for legions of admirers. A lovely woman with ethereal beauty, Clara also had talent. This was a rare combination in her day, when the movie industry was still trying to figure out the best formulas for screen success, and when looks alone usually reigned most important. Because Clara could act as well, she was a shoe-in for outstanding roles and a dramatic career, albeit all-too-brief.

Her life didn’t begin as sweetly as it eventually became, though. Clara Gordon Bow was born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1905, exactly a decade after the birth of cinema. Her family was poverty stricken and prone to violence. Her father was both verbally and physically abusive, and her mother had more than a few mental problems. It was no wonder that young Clara took to the world of fantasy and dreamed of becoming a famous actress. Luckily, the time was ripe for a talented beauty like her. But her entry to the entertainment industry was not sanctioned by her parents; her mother attempted to slit her throat when she found out Clara’s career plans.

Clara thankfully made her escape, and found her way into acting when she won a beauty contest and got noticed by movie industry scouts. She began doing bit parts in 1922 and 1923. Instead of being launched right into stardom by the studio system – which often signed actors and actresses on and immediately gave them leading roles – she continued being a bit player. In 1923, she was signed by producer B.P. Schulberg, and worked consistently and zealously for two years. She worked for the Preferred film company, and was also loaned out on productions – altogether, she appeared in over 20 films during this time. While not quite famous yet, she really learned how to act, and became a friendly and familiar face across America.

It was in 1926 that Clara hit the big time, when Paramount signed her on and molded her into a star right from the start. Her first year with the studio, she appeared as Alice Joyce’s self-absorbed daughter in “Dancing Mothers”, and really became noticed for her stunning performances as a Klondike bride in “Mantrap”, and as star of “Kid Boots”. The next year, Clara made the film that would turn her into a star and movie icon: 1927’s “It”. The catchy title spawned a generation of fans who would know her as the “It Girl”. At the pinnacle of the roaring 20s, the “It girl”, as personified by the smoldering Clara Bow, would come to represent Jazz modernity, a fierce (feminine) independence, and above all, sexual freedom. She continued on a wave of success, churning out popular movies such as 1927’s “Children of Divorce” and “Wings”, and 1928’s “Ladies of the Mob.” Clara Bow 8x10 Double Weight Real Photo

Exotic and quintessentially modern, Clara nonetheless suffered when the talkies made their appearance by 1927.  Sound films required a whole new method of acting, more about subtlety and dialogue and less about dramatic gestures, that most silent stars could not manage. Not only was Clara’s voice not as attractive as her appearance, but she had a strong Brooklyn actors not befitting a glamorous movie star. Clara was not fond of the discipline of the talkies, which she felt limited her freedom as an actress. A few star vehicles made for her by Paramount flopped, and meanwhile, the fan magazines so popular at the time (as they are now!) started to berate her for what they believed was sexual promiscuity. This gossip stemmed from the fact that Clara was spending a lot of time in court fighting charges of unpaid tax and allegations that she was stealing other women’s wives from them. It was clear that Clara’s days in the limelight were quickly coming to an end.

Clara Bow on the cover of German film magazine Mein FilmIn the end, Clara made 11 talkies – including the modestly memorable “Call Her Savage” in 1932), but she was becoming very self-conscious, over-emotional and vulnerable. It was time for her to part ways with the movies. She moved with her new husband, cowboy star Rex Bell, to Nevada, and never made another film. She was 26.

She did, though, have two children she adored – two sons. But after she had her children she gained weight she was unable to lose, and became even more emotionally unstable as a result. Instead of returning to acting, which she wanted to do, she was forced to enter a sanitarium periodically, and couldn’t even spend as much time with her sons as she would have liked. She died on September 26, 1965, from a heart attack at the age of 60, in West Los Angeles. Her life did not end as glamorously as her career had begun, but today, as people become more and more interested in the silent film stars, it isn’t hard to remember that Clara Bow was not only the It Girl, but America’s first real sex symbol of the modern age.

Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. 



Other Clara Bow Pages:
Denny Jackson's Clara Bow Page --
One of the Great American Originals! The IT Girl!
The Clara Bow Page -- The Ultimate Clara Bow site!  Loaded with photographs (some available for sale), links, articles, information, filmography and more!  Best of all, Clara VHS tapes plus many other silent stars on video, Louise Brooks, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and many many more!