During the Silent Film Festival, I promised that I would do a profile of Clara Bow, who I think is probably one of the most alluring personalities to come out of the silent era, and beyond. As today, July 29, is her birthday, there is certainly no better time for a profile! Hers was a true rags-to-riches story, rising from the very lowest depths of poverty, abuse and trauma to being the most popular film star of her day, receiving 8,000 fan letters a week and earning the highest salary in all of Hollywood–$35,000 per week. For this reason alone she is a fascinating character–add that to the charming, exuberant, and adorable persona she exhibited onscreen, coexisting with an irresistible sex appeal, and you have the definition of what it means to be a star.
She suffered greatly throughout her life due to memories of her difficult childhood, and battled serious mental illness for much of her adult life, its trigger likely a combination of genetics from her mother (a paranoid schizophrenic) and a life that was beyond tolerable. However, through it all, she is remembered not for her troubles and struggles (as so many are), but for that singular “je ne sais quoi” that was her trademark onscreen.
Born on July 29, 1905 during an intense heat wave that was expected to kill her and her mother alike, Clara Bow’s parents never bothered to give her a birth certificate. Her mother was a diagnosed schizophrenic who was institutionalized when Clara was 16 after an attempt to kill her, and her father was a deadbeat alcoholic who some thought was mentally challenged, prone to abusive outbursts at his wife and daughter. One doesn’t have to look too deeply to notice what might have caused Clara’s later problems, but none of this deterred Clara, who was intent on becoming an actress. She applied for the Brewsters’ magazine “Fame and Fortune” contest in 1921, and to her surprise, won first place.
After a small part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922) that was cut out of the final print, Bow got her first real part–as that of a tomboy in Down to the Sea in Ships, which was released in 1923 and documented life in the whaling community. She was only 16 at the time and got 10th billing, but received considerable acclaim for her role and from there, her career took off.
She was signed to Preferred Pictures in 1923 and stayed with them until 1925, making such pictures as Grit (1924) and Helen’s Babies (also 1924) before signing with Paramount, where she made her biggest splash. The public immediately took to her bubbly, almost childlike presence onscreen that was juxtaposed with an intense sexuality, and she became the biggest box office draw in the business. She made 8 pictures in 1926 alone, and at the peak of her career during this period she was receiving 8,000 fan letters a week, more by far than any other Hollywood personality at that time. 1927 saw even bigger success, with It and Wings becoming the movies that defined her as a star. It provided her with the nickname “The ‘It’ Girl,” a name by which she is still known today.
Wings has the distinction of being the first film ever to win Best Picture.
With the popularization of sound after The Jazz Singer (1927), Clara Bow’s career looked uncertain. The studios were eager to make fewer and fewer silent films in preference for “talking pictures,” which spelled bigger profits for the studios but major problems for many silent stars. The main issue with Clara Bow was her strong Brooklyn accent that the studio found distracting and not suitable for sound movies. With her career in serious jeopardy, Clara managed to tone her accent down a bit for the sake of keeping work, and even sang some musical numbers.
However, even with these modifications, Clara was simply not cut out for sound films. Her career waned, and she made her last film in 1933, entitled Hoop-La. Clara married cowboy actor Rex Bell, later to become Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, in 1931, and the couple had 2 sons, Tony and George, to whom Clara devoted her recently unemployed life to raising. Shortly thereafter, she began to experience symptoms of a mental illness, which, after a stay at the Institute of Living, was diagnosed as schizophrenia, the same disease that had plagued her mother. As schizophrenia is strongly genetically linked, it is highly likely that she inherited it from her mother, and doctors pinpointed the beginning of the illness to the night when her mother tried to kill her. Numerous tests and treatments were tried on Clara, but eventually Clara tired of them and voluntarily left the institution, spending her last years alone at her home in Culver City. She died of a heart attack in 1965, at the age of 60.
On her birthday, I remember her vivacious, active spirit that graced so many films of the silent era, and all that she gave to the movies. She is one of the great icons in movie history, and it is always a pleasure and a joy to watch her onscreen or simply to see her in photos.
Happy birthday, Clara!