The “It” Girl

Clara Bow was one of the biggest stars of silent films. At the height of her fame, studios fought over her because of the huge audiences she attracted. She once made 15 films in a single year, working up to 15 hour days. At one point she was working on three films simultaneously. Although she never won an Oscar, she starred in Wings, the first movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Known as the “It” girl after one of her movies that referred to an indefinable quality having to do with sex appeal, Clara Bow was an unlikely candidate for movie stardom. She had a nightmarish Brooklyn childhood of poverty, an absent father, and an insane mother who threatened to kill her if she didn’t abandon her dream of show business, and a life where almost everyone she met exploited her.  She was naive and trusting, so her affairs, both financial and otherwise, were always in chaos. The studio hired a woman to act as Clara’s secretary and get her affairs in order. The woman embezzled over $40,000 from Clara, then when caught, published a book of sordid tales of Clara’s sexual exploits. (Stories Clara Bow’s biographer says are entirely fabricated.)

There was nothing remarkable about her appearance. She was attractive, but did not stop traffic. Average in height and build, Clara was maybe a little on the heavy side for an actress. She had no acting training or experience. She got her first movie role as a result of winning a contest when she was only 16. In her first movie role, she had to borrow money from a relative to buy two more dresses to wear. (She only owned two at the time). After all that, her minor part was cut from the final film. She had to go from studio to studio looking for parts before finally getting another minor one.

So if it wasn’t looks and it wasn’t training, and it wasn’t influential connections and it certainly wasn’t luck, what made Clara Bow a movie star? What did she have going for her? The answer is simple; for all her lack of sophistication and disadvantaged background, when Clara Bow was on the screen, she was dazzling. The poor girl from Brooklyn had a screen presence that overwhelmed anyone else in the scene. Variety Magazine said that when Clara Bow was in a scene, nothing else mattered. Another reviewer said  “Clara Bow lingers in the eye long after the picture is gone”. In an era when film actors used melodramatic and exaggerated gestures and facial expressions to convey emotion, Clara Bow’s actions were natural, even subtle, but conveyed every nuance of the role. So great was her skill that she seemed to be living the part, rather than acting it. Her gestures, body language, and facial expressions spoke volumes, and her energy and personality were part of every role she played. Even when she was playing a “bad girl”, audiences loved her. There was nobody like Clara Bow.

See for yourself. Pay particular attention to the scene on the boat from 2.06 to 2.23, where Clara Bow is playing the banjo/ukelele, then read the rest of this post.

If you saw the sequence between 2.06 and 2.23, can you answer the following questions?

—–How many people were in the scene with Clara Bow?

—–How many were women?

—–Can you describe the other women?

—–Can you describe any of the other women?

See what I mean? When Clara Bow was in a scene, no one else mattered.

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