, California , United States
|| July 29, 1905
|Died||September 27, 1965
|Last Modifed||Thomas Walker|
Aug 20, 2008 12:52pm
|Info||Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 – September 27, 1965) was an American actress and sex symbol, who rose to fame in the silent film era of the 1920s. Bow was renowned for her sexual magnetism and became known around the world as "The It girl", where "It" was commonly understood to mean sex appeal. Though she had very low self-esteem and was painfully shy, she is known as the quintessential flapper. |
Bow was born in a tenement in Brooklyn, New York, the only surviving child of a dysfunctional family afflicted with mental illness, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse. She was the third child of Robert Bow and Sarah Gordon; the first two, also daughters, were short lived. One lived for two hours, the other for two days. Bow's mother, hoping that her third child would also die at birth, did not bother to call a doctor or get a birth certificate. Bow did not cry after she was born so her Mother thought her to be dead and tried to make sure of it by shaking her but miraculously, the baby awoke.
As a child, Bow was a tomboy and played games such as baseball in the streets with the boys. Bow's only true friend, Johnny, was severely burned and died in her arms when she was nine years old. Years later, she could make herself cry at will on a movie set by asking the band to play the lullaby "Rock-a-bye Baby". She said it reminded her of Johnny because that was the song Johnny's Mother would sing to help him fall asleep.
Bow's mother was an occasional prostitute who suffered from mental illness and epilepsy. She was noted for her frequent public affairs with local firemen. Bow's father, Robert Bow, was rarely present and may have had a mental impairment. Whenever he returned home, he was verbally and physically abusive to both wife and daughter. Bow's father reportedly molested her when she was between 15 and 16 years old.
Always an avid movie fan, Bow entered and won the Motion Picture Magazine's "Fame and Fortune" contest in 1921, the grand prize being a part in a film. According to the articles in February, March, and April 1928 in Motion Picture Classic, in which she told her life story, she asked her father for one dollar to have some pictures taken for the contest's judges. She went to a Brooklyn photographer, who took two pictures which she said "were terrible". Although she hated the pictures of her wearing a red tam and her only nice dress, the contest judges were impressed. After numerous screen tests, Bow was selected the winner. She won a part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922), but to her humiliation and disappointment, her scenes were cut from the final print and were not seen until the film was restored years later. Bow preferred playing poker with her cook, maid, and chauffeur over attending her movie premieres.
Bow had problems with her mother, who would tell Bow that being an actor was the same as being a prostitute. Bow's mother took to threatening to kill Bow. One night, Bow awoke to find her mother holding a butcher knife above her head. She said, "I'm gonna kill you, Clara. It'll be better." Bow ran and locked herself in a closet until her grandmother came home.
Bow's screen debut came with her next film, Down to the Sea in Ships. She began to appear in numerous small movie roles. All the while, she felt guilty over her mother's disapproval. In 1923, Bow was on the set when she learned that her mother had died. She was devastated, feeling that her acting was somehow responsible for her mother's insanity and death.
Her earliest films were all East Coast productions. Bow got her big break when an officer of Preferred Pictures approached her on the set. She offered Bow free train fare to make a screen test in Hollywood. The first time Preferred Pictures head B.P. Schulberg saw disheveled Bow in her one ragged dress, he was dismayed. He was reluctant even to give her a screen test, but when he finally did the results astounded him. Bow was already adept at pantomime, and she could cry on command.
Starting with Maytime (1923), Schulberg cast Bow in a series of small roles. She nearly always stole her scenes. However, instead of creating projects for her, he loaned her out to other studios. Nevertheless, Bow started to make a name for herself through these many small roles and was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1924.
As soon as Bow started to make money, she brought her father to live with her in Hollywood. For the next few years, she funded numerous business ventures for him, including a restaurant and a dry cleaner's, all of which failed. He soon became a drunken nuisance on her sets, where he would try to pick up young girls by telling them his daughter was Clara Bow. Despite the behavior of her unwanted relative, Bow was adored during this time of her career.
In 1925, Schulberg cast Bow in The Plastic Age. The movie was a huge hit, and Bow was suddenly the studio's most popular star. She also began to date her co-star Gilbert Roland, who would become the first of many fiancés. Bow followed her first big success with Mantrap (1926), directed by Victor Fleming. Though he was twice her age, Bow quickly fell in love with her director. She began seeing both Roland and Fleming at the same time.
In 1927, Bow reached the heights of her popularity with the film It; the film was based on a story written by Elinor Glyn, and upon the film's release, Bow became known as "The It Girl". In Glynn's story, It, a character explains what "It" really is: "It...that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes...entirely unself-conscious...full of self-confidence...indifferent to the effect...she is producing and uninfluenced by others.") More commonly, "It" was taken to mean sex appeal. "It, hell," quipped Dorothy Parker, "She had those."
This image was enhanced by various off-screen love affairs publicized by the tabloid press. However, some Hollywood insiders considered her socially undesirable, especially in light of rumored sexual escapades with many famous men of the time. Bela Lugosi, Gary Cooper, Gilbert Roland, John Wayne, director Victor Fleming, and John Gilbert were all reputed to have been among her many lovers. In 1929, Lugosi's wife, Beatrice weeks, cited Bow as the other party in their divorce.
Bow's alleged alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness, were also becoming problems for the studios. Budd Schulberg, the producer's son, wrote in his memoir Moving Pictures, "There was one subject on which the staid old Hollywood establishment would agree: Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low life and a disgrace to the community."
However, Bow was praised for her vitality and enthusiasm — Adolph Zukor once said that "She danced even when her feet weren't moving" — though her roles rarely allowed her to show much range. In the early 1930s, Motion Picture magazine complained that the studio never gave her film plots any thought beyond "Hey, let's put Clara in a sailor suit!" At least one important film writer, Adela Rogers St. Johns, felt Bow had enormous promise that was never tapped by the studios.
Paramount went out of its way to humiliate the increasingly emotionally-frail actress by canceling her films, docking her pay, charging her for unreturned costumes, and insisting that she pay for her publicity photographs. Her contract also included a morality clause offering her a bonus of $500,000 for behaving like a lady and staying out of the newspapers.
In 1927, Bow starred in Wings, a war picture largely rewritten to accommodate her, as she was Paramount's biggest star at the time. The film went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1928, Bow wrote the foreword for a novelization of her film The Fleet's In. Between 1927 and 1930, Bow was one of Hollywood's top five box office attractions.
Bow's career continued with limited success into the early sound film era. She worried that her strong Brooklyn dialect would destroy much of her mystique. Bow began experiencing microphone fright on the sets of her sound films. A visibly nervous Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party, her first talkie, because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead. Greta Garbo was given two years to prepare for talking pictures, Bow was given only two weeks. Scandal and a damaging court trial involving former assistant Daisy DeVoe further tarnished Bow's image. Paramount released her from her contract in late 1931.
Following a brief period away from Hollywood, Bow signed a two-picture deal with Fox Film Corporation and returned to the screen in the early talkie classic Call Her Savage (1932). Although the film was a success, Bow opted for marriage and motherhood, and ended her film career after the release of Hoopla the following year.
The 1930 U.S. Census lists Bow's residence as 512 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills, California. Her home's value was listed as $25,000, higher than most others on her block at the time.
Bow and cowboy actor Rex Bell (actually George F. Beldon), later a Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, married in 1932 and had two sons, Tony Beldon (born 1934, changed name to Rex Anthony Bell, Jr.) and George Beldon, Jr. (born 1938). Bow retired from acting in 1933. Her last public exposure, albeit fleeting, was a guest appearance on the radio show Truth or Consequences in 1947; Bow provided the voice of "Mrs. Hush".
Clara Bow was actually one of the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939). However, when David O. Selznick examined the long list of names he decided to lean towards the screen testing of actresses who had the numbers 1 or 2 in terms of rating next to their names. Hence, Clara was never looked up to do a screen test.
In 1944, while her husband was running for the U.S. House of Representatives Bow tried to commit suicide. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1949, Bow entered a treatment regimen that included shock treatments. Later, her husband sent her to one of the top mental institutions in the nation. Doctors found out that Bow had been raped by her father at a young age.
Bow spent her last years living in a modest house, living off an estate worth about $500,000 at the time of her death. She died on September 27, 1965 of a heart attack and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
For her contributions to the motion picture industry, Bow was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1994, she was honored with an image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.