Clara Bow: a biography
Born on July 29, 1905 in Brooklyn, New York, Clara Bow is the queen of silent film and one of the most popular Hollywood movie actresses ever. She appeared in 46 silent films and 11 talkies.
She was a huge movie star of the 1920s, perhaps the equivalent of Angelina Jolie today. She was a sex symbol of Marilyn Monroe stature. She was an important influence on 20s fashion. Indeed she was the flapper of the 1920s, the Lady Gaga of her day to follow a theme.
Biography of Clara Bow, actress, movie star, it girl, flapper
Clara’s grandparents were English and Scottish on her father’s side. On her mother’s side: a French grandmother and Scottish grandfather. Her parents met as neighbours in a New York State farming neighbourhood. Clara’s mother Sarah was not keen to marry but felt the pressure from her family. Sarah suffered a severe head injury as a child which may have affected her mental health in later life. Clara’s father Robert was well-meaning but somewhat irresponsible. After losing two children soon after birth, Clara was born and survived against the odds. She grew up in a poverty-stricken and tough Brooklyn neighbourhood.
Clara Bow was an athletic tomboy growing up with an overworked and often absent father and mentally-frail mother (who then died in 1923). At age five, Clara saw her beloved Scottish grandfather drop dead before her. At age nine her best friend Johnny’s clothes caught fire. Despite Clara’s successful efforts to put out the flames, he died in her arms.
Clara left school at 16 years old and got a job selling hotdogs at Coney Island. She harboured ambitions to be a silent movie actress which had resulted in her schoolwork being neglected to the despair of her mother. Clara felt bad but she was a bit of a loner and did not find her experience at school a pleasant one.
Although her father was not around much, he encouraged her to pursue her dream. But Clara’s mother’s mental state worsened. One night she attacked Clara in bed with a knife in a schizophrenic episode. Clara managed to fight her off. Despite Clara’s unhinged and impoverished upbringing, Clara loved her parents dearly and has always defended their seemingly brutal behaviour. Clara believed they were victims of circumstance who had suffered so much from fighting against many odds.
The lure of silent movies
One potential way of getting into motion pictures for an impoverished young girl was to enter the annual motion picture acting/beauty competition held by Motion Picture Magazine. Called “Fame and Fortune” it was a typical contest of its type in 1922 the year Clara entered the competition at 16 years old. It promised a part in a film and lots of publicity. Clara was no beauty with her tomboy looks, red unruly hair and shabby clothes. But she was hopeful that her ambition to act would help her. And it did. She eventually won the competition. Her ability to cry convingingly on cue was noted. It became an acting trait that served her well in later films. Clara later admitted that recalling the memory of watching her friend die and her experiences at home helped with her tearful, emotional performances.
It was through winning this competition that Clara was spotted and cast in Beyond The Rainbow (1922). Her few scenes were dropped from the movie without her knowing (although the scenes were added after she had made a name for herself). Clara was devastated. She was ridiculed by the girls at school who did not believe that Clara had won the competition nor was capable of being a movie star.
However, Clara Bow kept on pushing the New York studios for a part until one day, they needed a tomboyish girl for a role in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). She convinced the director to take her on. Clara was paid $50 a week. A dream wage for a girl from the Brooklyn tenements.
Clara then had a small uncredited role in Enemies of Women (1923). Her mother was gravely ill at the time. Clara talked about this experience in Photoplay Magazine, 1928:
“It was only a bit in the picture. I danced on a table. All the time I had to be laughing, romping wildly, displaying nothing for the camera but pleasure and the joy of life. As I say, it was only a bit, but no matter what parts I have been called upon to play as a star, or ever will be, not one of them could compare in difficulty to that role. I’d go home at night and help take care of mother; I’d cry my eyes out when I left her in the morning – and then go and dance on a table. I think I used to be half-hysterical, but the director thought it was wonderful.”
Clara’s mother died whilst she was shooting the film and this experience had made Clara ill and not want to be involved in the motion picture business anymore. But her father encouraged her to follow her dream if she wanted to.
Clara won a part in the The Daring Years (1923) and another tomboy role in Grit (1924) – a story written by F Scott Fitzgerald. She also first met director Frank Tuttle. Most of the motion pictures she played in had been filmed in New York but a new opportunity was soon to call her down to the bright lights of Hollywood.
Clara Bow in 1920s Hollywood
Preferred Pictures had asked Clara to come to their Hollywood studio and be part of their stock of actors. In 1923 she left New York for Hollywood to give it a shot. Her wages were to be similar to the $50 dollars she had received per week for her previous films.
Her first movie for the studio was Maytime (1923). Then she was loaned to First National Pictures to shoot Black Oxen (1924) directed by Frank Lloyd, in which she first played the role of a flapper girl and Painted People (alongside fellow flapper Colleen Moore). After a couple of scenes, Clara didn’t like her part and was released from the picture. The two women were deemed as great flapper rivals from then on until Moore left the flapper image behind in 1924 leaving the door wide open for Clara, ‘The Brooklyn Bonfire’, to step in.
Clara Bow appeared in eight movies in 1924 and lived the life of a flapper girl on and off screen. This got her plenty of media attention. Fans began to follow her fashion choices off screen as well as the flapper roles played out in the movies of the day. Clara represented the spirit of the age for urban young women: liberated working girls, rebellious, dressing as they please and cutting their hair, driving cars, going out on dates and out dancing all night at parties. Clara’s image for them encouraged a freedom for them to choose a life for themselves instead of what was expected of them. As Clara Bow famously said:
“Marriage ain’t woman’s only job no more.”
In 1925 she appeared in fourteen movies for Preferred Pictures, including The Plastic Age. She also worked as an actress on-loan. Clara was rent-a-flapper. However popular she may have been, Clara was overworked and underpaid by the studio compared to Colleen Moore and fellow silent film stars of the 1920s.
Also, in 1925, Preferred Pictures went bankrupt as many independent Hollywood studios did at the time. The Big Three studios were on the final push in their conspiracy to create an elite monopoly and the modern studio system as we know it.
The Paramount Years, 1926 – 1931
Clara Bow and Preferred Pictures’ producer B P Schulberg signed up for a five-year contract with Paramount Pictures (one of the Big Three studios) In 1926 she appeared in eight movies both for Paramount and on-loan to other studios.
In 1927 she appeared in six movies for Paramount and in 1928 she appeared in four releases for the studio. It was in 1927 that she became known as the “It Girl” – a nickname that defined the silent movie star to such an extent that it is carved on her tombstone. The movie she starred in was called, simply, It.
Based on the novel of the same name, Clara plays ‘shopgirl’ Betty Lou Spence who charms her boss with “it”. Shopgirls don’t quite have the same reputation these days, but in the 1920s shopgirls were independent, sassy-mouthed, modernistas of the jazz age. They were forward-thinking working girls who chose to look after themselves financially. It had become thoroughly modern to be the girl to snag the boss. In one daring scene Clara takes a pair of scissors to her dress to make it look a little more sexy but later gives her boss a good old-fashioned slap when he tries to kiss her.
By 1928, Clara Bow was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. She is appearing on the cover of movie magazines and her love life was studied, gossiped about and publicised endlessly by the media. At this point in time Clara had been involved with director Victor Fleming and then actor Gary Cooper but had had several affairs also.
Clara’s love life came under scrutiny and earned her a reputation that, although fitting for a flapper girl, was also frowned upon by the establishment. Clara got a reputation for being too flirtatious, outspoken and unpredictable at Hollywood social events. She said in 1928:
Is that so many romances for a girl of twenty-two? Haven’t most girls been engaged two or three times, before they’re twenty-two? Yet just because I am Clara Bow and it is always printed, it sounds as though I were a regular flapper vamp. And I’m not at all.
Arrival of The Talkies, 1927
Even with the advent of talkies, in full force by 1929, Clara still remained the biggest box office attraction. However, like many of her silent film star contemporaries, Clara disliked talkies.
The first talkies were rather stilted and stiff and, believe it or not, they lacked the action and dynamics of the silent movies. They were not well-received to begin with. Silent films can draw you in to the emotional drama of the scene whereas talkies felt the need to converse and explain everything. It was a big change to the medium. The actors were not accustomed to acting in this way and came across as a little overwhelmed.
However, it was studio politics which drove the silent film stars away from talkies as well as their failure to adapt to the new technology. Box-office numbers had been falling due to the rising popularity of radio. It’s also hard to believe that Clara Bow was only 23 at the time yet she was at the pinnacle of her movie career. Her voice was not a problem so much for talkies, she could hold her own. The characters she played were not out of place with her Brooklyn accent (which she learned to refine) and she had personality. Other stars were not so fortunate. But Clara was nervous of the microphone on set and having to memorise dialogue.
Clara was suffering greatly at the hands of the publicity machine at this time. She was victim to a stream of negative publicity and with little support from Paramount. The backlash to the flapper girl of the 1920s had begun. The jazz age of excess, high living and rebellion was coming to an end as America succumbed to the Wall Street Crash of late 1929. Silent film starts to look old-fashioned and uncommercial.
Clara Bow Scandal
It may have been studio politics or just an opportunist journalist hack. There had been many rumours spread around Hollywood about Clara Bow regarding her apparent fast and loose sexual exploits. Many of these came from an editor at The Coast Reporter who was secretly attempting to blackmail Clara at the time. Clara’s biographer David Stenn finally put those rumours to rest when he researched her story.
But at the time, court battles over unpaid taxes, jealous wives, embezzlement by her secretary, gambling debts haunted Clara’s life. There were many things that Hollywood establishment despised about Clara Bow: her lack of class; her accent; her honest, shameless talk about sex; her uninhibited honesty; talking openly about her mother’s mental illness and her poor upbringing; her high spirits and temper. During the high-profile court case with her secretary, Clara’s private affairs were embellished and became the latest subject of gossip and wild rumours. But no-one could deny her appeal at the box office matched with a real ability to convey emotional honesty through wordless acting performances.
In many ways the stress from all the scandals and rumours had a worse effect on Clara’s mental health than the advent of talkies ever could.
Clara Bow Beyond the 1920s
1930: enter Joan Crawford, the next huge box office attraction and fellow flapper girl. Clara Bow and Joan Crawford were friends rather than an out-and-out rivals.
But by 1931 the pressures of overwork, the legal case against her secretary, the exaggerated rumours, brought Clara close to mental breakdown. She entered a Sanatorium releasing her from her latest film City Streets. Soon after this, Paramount lost its footing as a major studio to MGM. Clara said of the time:
“When I decided to leave the screen, I told Ben Schulberg I would not finish my contract or ever work again for anyone. He yelled and threatened to sue me and I said, ‘Go ahead, Ben, sue me. I’ve fought a thief and a blackmailer and, if after such heartaches I am forced to fight you and the studio, so be it’.”
Clara Bow had been a huge money earner for the studio at the box-office and her leaving the industry left a big box-office-shaped hole. After marrying fellow actor Rex Bell in Las Vegas in 1931 and settling in a ranch in Nevada, Bow ended her career in 1933 with two films for Fox: Call Her Savage and Hoop-La. She had several long-term contracts offered to her but she turned them down for the two-picture deal. She did these last films only to make enough money to live comfortably in Nevada and settled down to married life with two children.
Clara had been overworked for years and, at first, was significantly underpaid compared to her contemporaries. It seems very clear that Clara Bow, the actress, Clara Bow, the flapper of the 1920s, Clara Bow, the ‘it’ girl, just simply became exhausted with it all physically and mentally.
By the 1940s, Clara became more and more reclusive, wishing to stay away from her public life and persona and suffered mental health problems similar to her mother’s. It was later confirmed that she had also been treated for schizophrenia.
Clara Bow died in Los Angeles in 1965, following a heart attack. Clara Bow has been ignored for decades. Perhaps her box office popularity and huge output in such a short period of time has led many to disregard her acting talents and success. Perhaps it is because many of her films have been lost or just not that available for viewing. I think it is only in recent years that the general public has recognised the contribution she made to the early years of Hollywood.
Sources and recommended reading
Clara Bow: Discovering the “It” Girl (1999)
The “It” Girl – The Incredible Story of Clara Bow by Joseph Morella (1976)
Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn (1988)
Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel (2007)
The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (History of the American Cinema) by Donald Crafton (University of California Press, 1999)
Photoplay magazine: issues 2, 3 and 4 (1928)
Find out more about all of Clara’s films and watch clips of her in action here at V is for Vintage:
Clara Bow filmography 1922-1925
Clara Bow filmography 1926-1933
Also, find out how to recreate the 1920s flapper look here.