In 1927, novelist and author of erotica, Elinor Glyn, popularized the term “It”, “it” being sex appeal, sexuality. Because Glyn was so respectable (she looks like a society matron, with braids coiled around her head, and long flowing gowns) her endorsement of “It” as a concept was embraced by regular people. She made it okay to refer to sex. She wasn’t some vamp that society would want to shun. She tried to define “It”, and while the whole thing might seem rather silly now, it was a big deal at the time, and her definitions still hold. Sexiness may be overt, of course, but Glyn made the point that “indifference” was one of the key qualities of “It”. You KNOW you have “It”, so you don’t have to work too hard to show “It”. But that mix of confidence and indifference shows people that “you are not cold”. Some of the comments made about Elinor Glyn by her peers (Dorothy Parker, hilariously, said, “Elinor Glyn doesn’t have ‘It’. She has those.” hahaha) are hysterical, people who saw through the grande-dame pose, but the public loved the concept of “It”. Sex, in that context, was not dirty or “other” – it was something most people enjoyed, even “respectable” people, and why not have a little fun with it? Elinor Glyn sold her story “It” to Paramount for $50,000. She had listed a couple of people who had “It” and young Clara Bow, an up-and-coming actress, was one of them. The 1927 film It made Bow a superstar. She was the embodiment of the era, in the same way Zelda Fitzgerald was, and had the same manic voracious appetite for life. But, and this is key to her appeal, she wasn’t a “bad girl”, or a conniving manipulative gold-digger. She wanted to have fun, that’s all, like everyone did in the Roaring Twenties, and what’s wrong with a little fun?
Clara Bow was hot, that’s for sure: not just pretty, not just sexy, but hot. And yet it was that indifference to her own charms, her ease with herself, how she didn’t seem to have to work too hard to get attention, that made the persona so appealing. She wasn’t threatening. She didn’t appear as someone who would wreck the social fabric. Audiences adored her, and watching It today, it is not hard to see why. She is still adorable, still lovable, and still has that certain quality that cannot so easily be defined (sorry, Miss Glyn): it’s star quality. Movie stars very often are not the best actors, in terms of technical brilliance or subtlety of characterization. But that’s okay, they don’t need those qualities. They have something that cannot be counterfeited: personality. The 1930s and 1940s were the great eras of Personae in movie actors, something we have lost today a bit because of our different ways of valuing acting and what we think good acting is. The trend today is that “good actors” are the ones who can most transform themselves into something else. Being a chameleon is what is valued most now. (I am not saying this is either good or bad, I am just noting that it is the trend.) “Hey look, I can be a medieval princess AND I can be a meth junkie in Arkansas! Look at my range!” “I can do a Cockney accent and I can do an Appalachian accent. I am a good actress!” But in the 30s and 40s, what we had were great and solid personae, actors who found a niche through their own force of personality, and made movie after movie, either defining or expanding upon that personality. Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck … These people are giants still today. It is incorrect (and a huge pet peeve of mine) to dismiss them with, “They were just playing themselves.” As though “playing yourself” is an easy thing. This shows what is valued today, and how it colors how we judge good acting, which is a shame. Just because Barbara Stanwyck didn’t radically transform her appearance/accent in every single film doesn’t mean that what she was doing wasn’t powerful, and in my opinion it has left a mark in indelible ink, something that today’s chameleons may find challenging in years to come, when the trend passes. Ironically, the chameleons may find that their work “dates” itself in a more deadly way than the great stars of the 30s and 40s, who brought something universal and yet entirely specific to the craft. Time will tell.
So the Clara Bow persona, which pre-dates talkies, is one of the first examples of a mass-marketed star phenomenon. Her “persona” writ large in the cultural mindset. Everyone wanted hair/clothes/makeup/attitude like Clara Bow. Her very specific personality, something that she appears to have done with a totally natural ability, was captured in film after film (girl was a workhorse), and her offscreen shenanigans and scandals were highly reported. Perhaps she didn’t get the “props” that more serious actresses were given, but I would imagine that, again, the more serious films of the day don’t “date” as well as something like It, which is still fresh, funny, spontaneous, and intelligent.
Silent film directors were masters at telling stories with the least amount of words possible. It almost became a contest: how few title-cards you could get away with. Can the story be told mostly through behavior and inference? In It, the title cards are witty and brief. Some serve as narration, others are dialogue. One title-card reads: “Every night in America, 18 million blondes get ready to go out to dinner with gentlemen friends.” Because we’ve already seen Clara Bow in the picture, with her vibrant dark hair, it’s already a funny line, and puts funny pictures in our heads, of ranks and ranks of blondes primping in front of vanity mirrors. But there’s another level: the inference that blondes may be the ideal beauty in American culture, but no blonde has what Clara Bow has, and they know it, and they’re pissed. The film is constructed entirely around the awareness of Clara Bow’s special-ness and appeal, her “It”-ness: every frame, every shot, has that overriding objective. It is the quintessential star vehicle. It wouldn’t work without Clara Bow.
The story is quite conventional, a Cinderella tale, a Pretty Woman tale, the lowly shopgirl entering high society, but doing so on her own terms. Clara Bow plays Betty, who works behind the lingerie counter (naturally), at Waltham’s Department Store (the symbol of democratic economic status in the early part of the 20th century, and, I suppose, to some degree, now.) Mr. Cyrul Waltham Jr. (played by Antonio Moreno, another person whom Elinor Glyn decreed had “It”) has inherited the running of the store from his father. He is a bit of a stuffed shoit. He is all business. He huddles over his palatial desk going over numbers, completely oblivious to the female charms behind every counter. He has a sidekick, a leering vaguely gay gentleman named Monty Montgomery (played by William Austin), who shows Mr. Cyrus a recent article in Cosmopolitan by “Elinor Glyn” called “It”. Monty huddles over the magazine, agog at the frank talk of sex appeal, and immediately has to rush to the mirror to check himself out, to see if he’s “got it”. He glances at his friend, Cyrus, a handsome chap, but so serious and humorless that Monty shakes his head mournfully. Nope. He hasn’t got “it”. During a tour of the department store, Monty, now obsessed with the concept of “It”, goes up to every woman working behind all the counters, peering at her piercingly, before shaking his head. Nope. She doesn’t have “It”. An example of sexual harassment, pretty awful, actually, but he doesn’t mean any harm by it. (I imagine the same working conditions go on nowadays at places like American Apparel, if you believe the rumors.) The story construction is quite good, though, because if the script had made Cyrus Waltham, Jr., the leading man, be the one obsessed with “It”, leering at his own employees, the power dynamic would have been too far tipped in his favor, and therefore he would not be the sort of man that deserved Clara Bow. She needed a man who could resist her, initially. That was part of the fun of it. It made her more relatable as well.
For while Clara Bow (the persona, anyway) was fun, she wasn’t easy. We see that later in the film when Cyrus kisses her after a date, and she slaps him, saying, “Oh, so you’re one of those Minute Men, huh? Know a girl for one minute and think you can kiss her?’ Her outrage here is not completely genuine, as most girls trying to navigate the shoals of sexual life would understand. You can’t “put out”, but you are thrilled when a man at least tries. Men who spend their lives being bitter about this situation (they’re the ones who complain that women don’t like “nice guys”) don’t understand the Game, as it should be played. And it is a Game. She says to him later, “You aren’t mad cause I slapped you, are you? You know how these things are.” He does. He tells her he is “crazy about her”, and she replies, “I love you”, not realizing that his words are quite revealing. “Crazy about” isn’t “love”. He wants to give her diamonds. Betty, as played by Clara Bow, then realizes what is being offered her. He wants “one of those left-hand arrangements”, she’ll be the “side girl”, the kept woman, not valid enough to be seen in public with him, and boy, will she have none of that! She walks out on him, and her outrage here is real, mixed with heartbreak, which Bow was always able to portray convincingly. When her feelings get hurt, you know it, you feel for her. It’s not put on.
Clara Bow plays a woman who of course wants to dine at The Ritz, but wants to do so on her own terms. She is liberated. But she has integrity. Perhaps she is liberated because she has integrity. She knows her own boundaries, what she will put up with, what she won’t. Despite her flaming red hair, she is not the equivalent of Jean Harlow’s “red-headed woman”, a ruthless unprincipled gold-digger. Material objects really hold no allure for the Clara Bow persona, not really. Oh, sure, she would rather not live in poverty. But she’s not interested in “fitting in”, or doing whatever it takes to be rich. She wants to marry the rich man because she loves him, not because he’s rich. It’s a crucial difference, and Bow embodies it with such an effortless humor and sense of character that it is easy to see why the public fell in love with her. She was one of them.
She has many excellent moments in It, and is a wonderful example of how much can be done without language. She doesn’t “telegraph” so much, her work is not presentational: it’s natural. When she laughs, she’s really laughing. When tears well up in her eyes (and she does it within one single take at one point, so that you can see the feeling rise up in her spontaneously), it seems real. There’s an insouciant quality to her body language, a careless ease which is nearly impossible to counterfeit. There is a racy section where she gets ready to go to dinner at The Ritz. She has nothing to wear. She and her roommate (Priscilla Bonner, lovely here) cut up her everyday dress, so that it becomes a cocktail dress with a revealing neckline, Priscilla wielding the scissors on the front of Bow’s dress, showing the slip underneath. They’re having fun. Then we see Bow in closeup, and she’s obviously naked, her shoulders bare, and her friend is slapping powder on her skin, her neck, her back, and Bow is laughing. The scene may be risque, lots of skin, but Bow plays it as though it is the most natural thing in the world. She takes such joy in herself that it is difficult to resist her. She thinks she looks fabulous. Of course, when she gets to The Ritz, all the snooty people look down on her, but she refuses to be shamed. She has great survival instincts. She looks at the menu, which is entirely in French, and sits, stunned, unaware of what she should do. Her date orders something, and she puts the menu down firmly and says, “I’ll have the same.” I love her for moments like that. She thinks on her feet. She is wearing a torn-apart dress, cheap shoes, and has wound a piece of gauze over her hair. But she doesn’t slink through the crowd, shamed because she is different. She has every right to be there as those snooty dames do, and whatever, “I’ll have what he’s having, thankyouverymuch.”
Cyrus, of course, is ensnared with a society blonde (one of the 18 million blondes in America), and yet he finds himself taken by this shopgirl, impacted by her “It”. She shakes him out of his torpor. She treats him humorously, flirtatiously, and is clearly on the level – so different from the uptight socially-conscious women around him in his own class. (There is a class critique in It which strikes me as so wholly American that it could be taught in history classes. Those who say Americans are not class-conscious clearly are not paying attention, and while power is not passed down through genetic lineage, at least not overtly, there is a higher-up society closed to entry from us schlubs down below. It is aware of that, and in its own devastating way, makes the point that having sex appeal has nothing to do with having money. You never know who will have “it”. Money cannot confer it on you. Sex appeal is the great social equalizer, a radical modern idea, and one that It has a lot of fun with. Everyone wants money, sure, but a more primal desire is to be desired, to be one of those people that other people “want”. It’s a desire that many people don’t want to admit, but it’s there, it’s visceral, it is how we are made.)
Betty plans her first date with Cyrus (her boss, essentially), and she takes him to a Fun House. It is a wonderful sequence (clip below). There is only one title-card for this sequence, you don’t need any more. The fun they are having is real. She is in her element, and through her own ease with herself, he relaxes, and (to echo poor Cary Grant at the end of Bringing Up Baby) has “never had a better time”. The scene gives the audience ample opportunity to see Clara Bow’s knickers, rather difficult to conceal when you are being whipped around off a rotating wheel, or sliding down a giant slide. But the key for me, here, is how none of it seems dirty. I feel protective of young actresses, I can’t help it. If they seem in charge, then I stop worrying. Clara Bow, in the fun house sequence, rolls around on the floor, laughing her head off, trying to pull her skirt down (but it’s a losing battle when you’re turning upside down), and is no one to be worried about. As a matter of fact, if you’re at a party, you would hope to be hanging out with a girl like Betty. She’s not a “fallen woman”, although there is an easiness about her manner, and watching Antonio Moreno, up until this point in the film very reserved and stuffy, rolling around with her in the Fun House, with genuine laughter, is to see this man fall in love. It takes him some time to get it, but that’s okay. We often resist the very thing we most need. I love this sequence for so many reasons: it’s brilliantly conceived and filmed, first of all. Yet another one of those scenes that is constructed to make us fall head over heels in love with Ms. Bow. I love her casual outfit, no more worrying about cutting up her own clothes to go to the Ritz. I love how she eats her hamburger, with a friendly fun manner (she’s so natural, in everything she does), and then the fun sequences of the games they play. That rotating wheel, with people, one by one, being thrown off of it. The slide. The boats in heavy seas. It’s a manic sequence and captures what it feels like to be swept away by another human being. To have the “best date” ever. You can also see that, unlike the chilly blonde he is about to be engaged to, here, with Betty, Cyrus can relax. He’s much more handsome when he relaxes. Relaxation actually suits him, and it takes a pretty vivacious redhead, a straightforward and yet sexy girl, the embodiment of “It”, to show him the way to his true personality.
I love how she runs her fingers musingly over her lips at the very end of that clip. Her gestures are not thought-out or planned, they do not seem like Gestures(TM), but an uninhibited expression of her inner experience. That’s a perfect example. She is pleased, she is happy, she had a great date, she is over the moon. It feels good to touch your own lips. She does it in an unconscious manner that is so recognizable, I know I have had such moments!
There is a complicated side-plot, which has far-reaching consequences for our lovable heroine: Betty’s roommate is about to lose her child (it’s not clear where the father is) to what amounts to Child Protective Services, and Betty vehemently intervenes, declaring that she has a job, and it is HER baby, so buzz off. A reporter happens to be on the scene (he is played by a young gorgeous Gary Cooper, who goes “uncredited” for It, but he is immediately recognizable), and he writes a newspaper article about the scandal, and the unwed mother named Betty. Cyrus then drops poor Betty like a hot potato. She is fired. She is furious at Cyrus, and all of those who would judge her without knowing all the facts. She will get her way, come hell or high water. She will clear her name.
Often the stars who so perfectly embody a specific era do not survive that era, cannot adjust when times change, when trends and sensibilities change. However, as I mentioned earlier, I think the Great Stars of the early age of cinema have a strength and staying power that today’s more chameleon-like stars could only dream of. Clara Bow was a jazz baby, a flapper, a perfect example of the breaking-down of class barriers, and the resultant desire to just have fun while you can. She made a couple of talkies, but mental problems (probably genetic) began to assail her, and she spent much of her life in sanatariums, or in total seclusion. Her movies remain a testament to a specific time in American life, but, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection Tales of the Jazz Age, or his debut novel This Side of Paradise, the appeal is universal. If it’s a tale well-told, it will last. More trendy topical books of the day have not aged well, but Fitzgerald’s do. And Clara Bow’s films do as well. Clara Bow is not just a butterfly drowned in amber, caught in time. If you watch her performance in It, you can still see her appeal, her naturalness, her talent of personality and expression. She is known for a lot of things, her Betty Boop figure, her off-screen scandals, her love affairs, her freedom with sex. Her movies are not as known or popular today due to the difficulty of convincing people nowadays to watch a silent movie. That’s a shame. Watch her in action and you will watch an original and unique talent, a woman who had the natural genius to seem offhandedly and gloriously herself, in literally every frame, and that is one of the true definitions of a movie star.
You can watch It right now on Fandor!