If ever an actress has transcended the sum of her parts and if ever a star has been completely under-estimated then that must be Clara Bow.
In her relatively short career from a 17-year old in Down to the Sea in Ships in 1922 to a wise-cracking, talkie comedienne in Hoop-la in 1932… Clara made very few classic films. She never had something like The Crowd, Pandoras Box or The Wind, to show what she could do dramatically but, in every one of the films she did make, there is ample evidence that she was an actress of considerable ability.
But there was more than acting and there was something genuine and heartfelt about her that, coupled with her good looks and outstanding curves, earned her the love and respect of a large part of the cinema-going audience through these years.
Watching It years later, her eldest son Rex Bell Jnr, remarked that he could see all of the expressions and feeling he had seen from “mom” on a daily basis: she wasn’t just acting she was giving part of herself to the watcher. When called on to cry she would call on a childhood memory of one of her friends dying in her arms after being consumed in a house fire: those huge shining eyes would well up with genuine tears of sorrow.
Clara had had it tough and maybe that’s why she seemed to relish her time on screen so much.
It is undoubtedly one of her best films and, whilst it doesn’t have a great depth of sophistication, it is a well-crafted comedy completely uplifted by the verve of Bow’s performance. You can’t take your eyes off her throughout the whole film and this is not just the compulsion of trying to find new angles on that prettiness but because she’s suffused with such joyful energy!
She is It and she’s supposed to be. A tough role when you think about it, no one ever had to live up to a billing founded on such an uncompromising premise: there’s no “it or miss” you have to be on target with the casting.
Based on Elinor Glyn’s story, they paid the English writer some $50,000 to appear in one scene in order to clarify just what “it” meant and, needless to say, this was considerably more than the vastly underpaid main star had accumulated from her previous half dozen features...
Things start off in the large family-run Waltham’s department store (I love 20’s stores!) where the heir to the business is about to take over following his father’s departure to spend more time with his gun. Junior’s best friend is reading an excerpt form “It” in Cosmopolitan and trying to interest his friend in the concept.
Whilst Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno) focuses on his new responsibilities, his pal Monty (William Austin), scans the store looking for an assistant with “it”. His eyes alight on Clara’s character, Betty Lou, and he knows he’s found “it”. But, try as he might, he cannot get Cyrus’ attention even though Betty already has him in her sights.
Monty agrees to take Betty to the Ritz and returns to her apartment where she has been helping a sick, widowed, friend look after her baby. The two make an evening dress out of Betty’s work clothes and she sets off in pursuit of her boss.
Cyrus is with his intended at the restaurant and, after his conversation with Madame Glyn and some near misses, finally spies Betty. His eyes light up and it seems that things are going to resolve themselves far too easily.
But no. Betty pretends to be the mother of her friend’s baby in order to keep the social services from taking it away. This story makes the press and gets to Cyrus…relayed by a shocked Monty. Even though he is now smitten, Cyrus can’t overlook Betty’s status as a fallen woman and offers her only the role of a mistress.
She is appalled by this and resolves to have nothing more to do with him. Only Monty’s discovery of the baby’s real mother enables the truth to come out but by now Betty is hurt by Cyrus’ inability to see beyond to convention and resolves to humiliate him herself.
All the players gather on Cyrus’ yacht as the final act is played out. Betty plays the banjo, Monty crashes the ship and the lovers go overboard in a sequence that reveals Bow to be a strong swimmer.
It’s fun throughout and Clara is well-supported by William Austin, nostrils flared like Kenneth Williams and Antonio Moreno who just about convinces as her love interest even though there’s no way he had the same amount of “it”!
I watched the Kino DVD which has a decent print (the Milestone Collection DVD is supposed to be even better) making the absence of good quality Clara all the more frustrating. Aside from Wings and a few others, there’s very little officially released - hopefully the success of the former will enable more reconstruction and help recover the reputation of one of the true greats of this period.
There’s a documentary on the DVD which is provides a good summary of Bow’s life and career. David Stenn, author of the excellent Bow biography “Running Wild” is an executive on the project and it shows in the balanced view of this talented but troubled woman. I’d recommend Stenn’s book though for more in-depth detail.
Clara Bow lit up our living room for a few hours last night – she’s still got It!
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