In the America of the 1920s a new kind of woman emerged. A product of her times, she epitomised the free-living, energetic, sexually open, scandalous aspirations of her generation. By the end of the decade, in the years of the depression, she would come to be scorned as the epitome of decadence and waste. She was the flapper and the most famous of them all was Clara Bow, the world’s first ‘it girl’.
In the mainstream American cinema of the 1920s, perhaps more than at any other time in its history, actors were associated with particular genres and character types. This was the golden age of type-casting. Clara Bow’s onscreen persona came to be almost absurdly closely associated with her real life personality. She might play a Betty, or a Mary or Cynthia but her audience always saw Clara. As if to emphasise this link, in at least one of her films she played a character called Clara while in others the storylines toyed knowingly with the audience’s knowledge of her scandalous private life.
At the height of her fame, she was America’s biggest female box office draw for two consecutive years and near the top of the list in other years. She was a huge star with great mass appeal. On screen she was youthful, beautiful, uninhibited, strong-willed, sexy, subtle and vulnerable. She was strong willed and uninhibited enough to believably achieve her goals, sexy enough to seduce her onscreen lovers and vulnerable enough that the audience could believe in the possibility that it all might fall apart. And Clara Bow was subtle enough as an actress to make all of these competing emotions work. Subtlety is one of the few things that Bow was probably never accused of, but her acting shows this quality in spades.
While she had received good notices from the beginning of her career and appeared in a number of films previously, It (1927) cemented her reputation as the consummate flapper. The story is simple – Bow plays Betty Lou, a shop assistant at a large department store. She sets her sights on the owner’s son (Antonio Moreno) and is pursued by his friend (William Austin) who identifies Betty as possessing ‘it’. Comic misunderstandings threaten to derail the romance and set up a slapstick happily ever after finale.
“It” is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “It” you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man.
‘It’, the concept, is defined numerous times throughout the film and is, of course, meaningless. Based on an article by English novelist Elinor Glyn, an introductory title card defines it as above. In the film characters all talk about the concept, read the article, talk about reading the article and even discuss it with writer herself, in a brief cameo. ‘It’ soon becomes irritating and as a basis for a film is flimsy in the extreme. There is even, I feel, a hint of mockery towards the concept in William Austin’s early examinations of people to test for ‘it’.
Needless to say, Bow is found to have ‘it’. She is introduced as she lays eyes on Antonio Moreno for the first time. She announces her attraction to her colleagues, who mock her, and then ogles him openly. This look is extraordinary – it is a look of pure lust, a look that stakes her claim and her intentions to the audience. It helps win the audience over to Betty almost immediately because it seems honest – she is genuinely attracted to him – and rescues her from being a gold-digging character. It is also an example of Bow’s spectacular ability with emotional expression. Through one seemingly simple look she is able to show a whole flurry of thoughts racing through her mind. The same look shows the contrasting dreamlike innocence and the sexually aggressive sides of her attraction. I can imagine her planning a future with him in those few brief moments and plotting her way to his heart. In short, in one look, Bow tells us everything that we need to know about her character.
Clara Bow is a merciless thief in It. She steals every scene she is in and is absolutely magnetic. Whenever she is on camera the eye is drawn to her energy, her charisma. She is beautiful, of course, but she is also a dominating physical presence on screen. Like a dancer, she seems very aware of the significance of her movements and in silent cinema movement is hugely important. Without dialogue to resort to, everything must be shown visually.
In her performance, Bow also shows off her comic timing. Whether its her thwarted efforts to grab Moreno’s attentions, her dodging of Austin’s affections, a hilarious sequence where she rescues her friend’s baby from being taken into care or the yacht-bound finale where lovers are won, lost and swapped, Bow is always on top form. William Austin is also a excellent and seems comfortable in the role of the affable buffoon. His mishap on the boat is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and he has one of the funniest title cards when he announces to Betty that he has come to forgive her.
Aside from the irritating repetitions of the ‘it’ concept, the writing is effective enough, telling its story in a lean way, piling on enough comedy and, surprisingly for a storyline with a baby being taken into care, limiting the melodrama. The direction, by Clarence Badger, is fairly loose, allowing the cast the freedom to explore the comic potential of the material. While remaining fairly anonymous for the most part, there are a number of effective sight gags and, in the fairground sequence, a technically impressive scene where the camera follows the couple down a slide, spinning with and around them right down to the bottom.
It should be nothing special – a frothy romantic comedy it has neither outstanding writing nor direction. It is special though and it is Clara Bow that makes it that way. She raises the material and carries the film. Nowadays she is more remembered as a brief icon of her time rather than as a skilled actress, but watching her work on film reveals a truly talented actress. Her surviving screen work offers frustrating glimpses at what could have been – with better material and given the chance to explore her range, she would almost certainly have been one of the greatest stars of the talkies. As it was, she would be continually squandered on sub par formula films, her confidence gradually eroded and thrown, under-prepared into the talkie revolution. It predates this, however, and shows Bow beginning the ascent to the peak of her popularity. Just as in the film, Clara Bow had ‘it’.
© Calum Campbell 2012