23 May 2011

15 Minutes of Fame: Clara Bow

by Lorelie Brown

Clara Bow was the It Girl of a generation, and yet today people hardly know her name.

Born in a Brooklyn tenement in 1905, Clara did not have an easy life. Her mother, Sara, had suffered a head injury at 16 and suffered from “psychosis due to epilepsy.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, Clara’s father was apparently a useless case who couldn’t keep a job and often disappeared for long periods. Clara became Sara’s primary caretaker through psychotic episodes and fits of madness. In 1922, Clara even woke up to a butcher knife held at her throat by Sarah.

Unsurprisingly, Clara didn’t have a lot of friends. She lived for the movies and went as often as she could. She entered a talent contest run by movie magazines and won it in 1921 at 16. The terms of the contest were supposed to get her a movie part, but it seems like hanging around the New York studios eventually proved the better part of valor. She pestered them into giving her a real role. Luckily it turned out she could act. Handy, that was.

Over the next few years, Clara Bow took the movies by storm. First working out of New York (yeah, did you know that Hollywood wasn’t the original home of the movies? Nope, certainly weren’t.) she moved to California in 1923 to work for Preferred Pictures as a contract actress.

Bow was first cast as a flapper, the eponymous female of the 20s generation, in 1923’s “Black Oxen.” Reviews on Bow’s performance were mixed, but one thing was for sure. Clara was apparently the perfect flapper. Free spirited, lively, with a messy mop of red hair (she used henna to amp up her natural color) and a lush mouth that was perfectly accented with lipstick. Such a naughty girl! That air of naughtiness always kept her set slightly apart from most of Hollywood’s social elite. She wasn’t fancy enough, essentially. Cussing like a sailor tends to mark a girl out as...let’s say rougher class, shall we? Beyond that though, Clara wasn’t really that bad. A few love affairs, a couple broken engagements that were partly publicized to emphasis her flapper-girl status. But her outsider status as a whole left her vulnerable to vicious rumors.
Despite that, Clara kept working at a steady pace. The apex of her career was 1927, when she starred in “It,” as the most famous flapper role ever. (For the record, “it” is sex appeal, which had been only very sparingly used in the movies prior to Clara, who had it in spades.)

General assumption is that Clara didn’t make the transition to the talkie pictures well due to her Brooklyn accent and slight stutter. But that’s not true at all. She actually starred in eleven talking pictures.[Image] The real problem came in 1931 when she had a nervous break down. The stress of making too many pictures at once, combined with her slightly fragile mental health to begin with, became too much. She was checked into a mental health facility for a stay. Still, she was well enough by the end of the year to marry cowboy star Rex Bell. They semi-retired to Nevada, where they owned a ranch and Bell entered politics. Still, Clara was never exactly well. She returned to the screen in 1933 for only two pictures, driven by financial needs, but afterwards went back to her ranch to have two children. She fought mental health issues most of her life, eventually dying in California at the age of 60.

Lorelie Brown's first book, JAZZ BABY, is currently available from Samhain Publishing in both e-book and paperback formats. Her second romance, an 1880s-set western, will be published by Carina Press on 18 July.