Friday, August 25, 2006

It



"We had individuality. We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. I'd 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." -- Clara Bow, 1951.

Silent film star Clara Bow, known as the "'It girl," was born on this day in 1905 in Brooklyn, New York.

Clara was rescued from her impoverished home (her father was a Coney Island waiter) when she won a movie fan magazine beauty contest at 16. After a succession of bit parts, she hit the big time in 1925 when producer B.P. Schulberg turned the Paramount Studios publicity machine on, reinventing Bow as an energetic, carefree flapper, a party-girl who leaped out of the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with her bobbed red hair, cute bee-stung lips and bright brown eyes. In 1927, she starred in Elinor Glyn's It, and Glyn endorsed the casting choice, pronouncing Bow the greatest living example of "it" -- a quality which subsumed sex appeal and an unconscious, animal-like vitality. In fact, Glyn said four people in Hollywood had "it": Bow; actor Tony Moreno; Rex, the wild stallion (a Hal Roach animal star); and the Ambassador Hotel doorman. Her portrayal of the flirtatious ambulance driver in William Wellman's Wings (1927) was another notable success.

Before the end of the silent period, however, Bow's popularity began to decline, with rumors of her gargantuan sexual appetite (exaggerated, especially the untrue story that she once serviced the entire USC football team) stimulating an ounce of Midwestern moral outrage of the type felt in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle and Wallace Reid scandals. In the late 1920s, she suffered from mental and physical exhaustion, but tried her hand at a few talking pictures nonetheless. True, her Brooklyn accent did not rest easily on the ears, but it was no worse than the accent of early talking star May McAvoy; the truth was that the time of the flapper had passed, and America was uncomfortable with the loose-living alcoholic daughters it had suffered during the Jazz Age.

Miss Bow was a hangover memory when she eloped with cowboy actor (and later lieutenant governor of Nevada) Rex Bell in 1931. While Bell led his public life, Bow spent a great deal of time in sanitariums. She died in 1965.

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