Tag Archives: Clara Bow

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival: GET YOUR MAN (1927) and the Importance of Film Preservation

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The Castro district of San Francisco filled with silent film fans from around the world June 1-4, as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off for the 22nd year in a row. As loyal readers of this blog know, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a particular favorite of mine. The atmosphere is cozy and laid back, staffed by nearly all volunteers, and most of the sponsors are local small businesses.

While the festival’s operations reflect its San Francisco locale, the programming has a decidedly global feel. Every year, the program features silent films from such disparate places as Sweden, Germany, China, Bali, and Russia, in addition to the standard Hollywood fare that we’ve come to expect. To elevate what’s on the screen, world-class musicians play music live alongside the screen. One year, when they showed the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins, the festival brought in a full Balinese gamelan ensemble to provide the accompaniment. It was one of the most thrilling moments in the entirety of my filmgoing life.

The festival also makes it a habit to show new restorations, ones that either they collaborated on, or that are significant in some way. One of the featured restorations this year was Get Your Man (1927), directed by Dorothy Arzner and introduced by Cari Beauchamp. It was a delightful film, starring the always joyous Clara Bow, who remains one of the stars for whom I have a perpetual fascination. Out of all the grim childhoods that seem to precede Hollywood stardom, Clara Bow’s childhood was the most nightmarish I’ve ever read about. And yet she exudes such warmth, exuberance, and boundless positive energy onscreen, one would never guess the neglect, poverty, and abuse that had defined her life pre-Hollywood.

(In fact, if you’re looking for a great biography to read, David Stenn’s Runnin’ Wild about Clara Bow’s life is among the best biographies I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.)

Get Your Man is pure Clara Bow. Telling the story of a young woman who devises a scheme to get her crush out of an arranged marriage, she smiles, charms, and finagles her way into his heart–and ours.

Several scenes were severely damaged by nitrate deterioration, and when the Library of Congress restored the film, the preservationists were unable to save them. In the place of those scenes, they inserted photos taken on set during those scenes, to give the audience some idea of what was going on.

When I saw this technique, it immediately brought to mind the cuts that were made to A Star is Born (1954) when Jack Warner cut 30 minutes from the finished film, and the footage was promptly lost. During the restoration of the print in 1983, several cut scenes were found in the Warner Bros vault, but much of the missing footage had to be reconstructed using production photos.

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One of the stills used to replace lost footage in A Star is Born (1954)

Recognition of the importance of film preservation is relatively new. Before we had VCRs, DVDs, and other means of viewing films outside a theater, distributors and production companies had little reason to think that saving film stock had much benefit–it was expensive to preserve and took up valuable space. It is estimated that close to 75% of all silent films have been lost, due to the fragility of the stock and little interest in preserving the films. They were thrown out, burned, or buried in makeshift dumps to free space for things people deemed more important.

But technology has galloped along, giving us the ability to view these movies not only in our homes, but on our computers, phones, and tablets. Preservation equipment has also been perfected, with state-of-the-art restoration labs located in places like the Library of Congress, Lobster Films in Paris, and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY (a lab that also houses the Selznick School of Film Preservation). With this increased potential for visibility, interest in finding and saving these films grows, as does the urgency to preserve them.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s work to support preservation and preservationists is among the most active of any festival in the world. Since 2013, the festival has contributed to restorations undertaken by the BFI, MoMA, Cinémathèque Française, EYE Filmmuseum, Library of Congress, the Film Preservation Society, and Gosfilmofond, and has made it a priority to showcase films previously thought lost, to advance the cause of film preservation and increase awareness of the need to get these films preserved.

In the case of Get Your Man, preservation came too late to save the complete print. In the case of A Star is Born, no one cared enough to save it. But it is heartening that organizations like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are working tirelessly to make sure that we’re aware of how much these films mean to history, so we can save as much as we can.

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Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in Get Your Man (1927).

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PROFILE: Clara Bow

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.

“Down to the Sea in Ships,” 1923

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.

It, 1927

Wings, 1927

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!

Clara Bow and family–son Tony, husband Rex Bell, and son George.

Live from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 1–“Wings”

Well readers, the day has finally come! I have been anticipating this festival for many months, and July 12 has always seemed like an eternity away. But tonight, I arrived at the Castro at 6:00, and the evening began! I encountered Marya of YAM Magazine along the way along with fellow blogger Phil at Phil’s Film Adventures, and we schmoozed about movies, festivals and such until it was time to go in.

On the screen upon entrance was a long montage of pictures celebrating the festival, Wings, and the 100th anniversary of Paramount Pictures. Most of the images were focused on Clara Bow (the star of Wings), but there were a number of other films represented through photos and lobby cards–notably a colorful, eye-catching lobby card of The Spanish Dancer, to be shown later at the festival. Interspersed between the photos were sponsors’ ads, as well as  bits of trivia about Clara Bow, Wings, and Paramount Pictures. Here are some of the bits that I found particularly interesting:

  • After Clara Bow made Ladies of the Mob, her fan mail urged her to stick to comedy. One letter read: “We don’t want to see you suffer. You stand for happiness with us. Keep on dancing and laughing.”
  • At the height of her fame, Bow received more fan mail than any other star–in the form of 8,000 fan letters per week.
  • The company of Wings once waited around for 18 days in order to get the most perfectly clouded sky to meet director William Wellman’s satisfaction for the aviation scenes.

Before the film, the president of the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival came up to speak about the theme of the festival this year–the 100th anniversary of Paramount Pictures. He gave a brief history of the company, beginning with its foundation as the Famous Players Lasky studio, to its eventual merger with W. Hutchinson to become Paramount Pictures. It turns out that Paramount Pictures was founded on July 12, 2012–precisely 100 years to the day of the start of this festival. He also introduced the orchestra that would be performing live accompaniment, the MonAlto Motion Picture Orchestra, and also a team of foley directors that would be providing a creative touch to the film–adding a layer of foley sound that would complement the music and the action onscreen. The largest bulk of the foley set was a gigantic bicycle that was used to make airplane sounds during the aviation scenes–the foley artist would spin the bicycle wheel and run a strip of cardboard across the rubber to make a whooshing noise such as fighter airplanes do in the sky. It was remarkably well done, and a fantastic idea.

The bicycles used for sound effects.

Next to speak was William Wellman, Jr., the son of director William Wellman. He gave some insight into the making of the film, and how his father was chosen as director. B.P. Schulberg, the assistant producer at Paramount, advised the studio to choose Wellman because he believed that only an experienced fighter pilot could do justice to such a story. Wellman was a decorated army veteran, and upon being chosen to direct the film, he not only produced one of the most monumental aviation pictures ever made, but he invented the technology that paved the way for all the rest. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and in my opinion, nothing like it has really been done since.

Wings is a movie that stands the test of time in many ways. A gripping account of the lives of soldiers during World War I, it is at different points suspenseful, sad, sweet, and funny, and the movie works all the emotions with great aplomb. It also tells the story of mistaken and forsaken love, and above all, the importance of deep friendship. It could easily have been made today, as the story is timeless  and classic and the technology extremely advanced. There are many scenes that are very affecting, and certain points nearly brought me to tears. It is truly an epic film in every sense of the word.

After the movie was over, there was an opening night party, but as I had to get back home to write this post, I couldn’t stay. It was already very late by the time the movie got out, and though I would have loved to have stayed, I had to think about this post and about getting up early for the festival lineup tomorrow.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my commentary so far, stay tuned for tomorrow’s update! Tomorrow’s schedule is jam-packed!

A Sneak Peek at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Well readers, I am back, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed from my cello master class, and ready to tackle Backlots’ next big event, which is my coverage of the renowned San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Leonard Maltin referred to the festival as “in a class all by itself,” and I feel honored and privileged to have been granted press credentials to such an event. Here is a peek at what I will be covering.

Thursday,
July 12
7:00 pm Opening Night Film
WINGS (1927)
9:30 pm Opening Night Party at
McRoskey Mattress Company
Friday,
July 13
10:30 am Amazing Tales from
the Archives
1:00 pm LITTLE TOYS (1933)
4:00 pm THE LOVES OF PHARAOH (1922)
7:00 pm MANTRAP (1926)
9:15 pm THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA (1929)
Saturday,
July 14
10:00 am FELIX THE CAT SILENT CARTOONS (1925-1929)
12:00 noon THE SPANISH DANCER (1923)
2:30 pm THE CANADIAN (1926)
5:00 pm SOUTH (1919)
7:00 pm Centerpiece Film
PANDORA’S BOX (1929)
10:00 pm THE OVERCOAT (1926)
Sunday,
July 15
10:00 am THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920)
12:00 noon THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928)
2:00 pm EROTIKON (1920)
4:30 pm STELLA DALLAS (1925)
7:30 pm THE CAMERAMAN (1928)

Please check back throughout the weekend of July 12 for continuing festival updates!