Actualizing ‘It’: Clara Bow and the Scrutinised Star Persona

It (1927)

“Everything was against my coming here at all, everything was against my staying here… When I have told you about my short life, maybe you will understand why I am the spirit of the jazz age.” Quoted in Photoplay magazine in 1928, actress Clara Bow describes her brief, tumultuous, yet wildly successful Hollywood career as the ‘it’ girl of the 1920s. This persona was established with her role in Clarence Badger’s romantic comedy, It, based on author Elinor Glyn’s popular Cosmopolitan serial which defined ‘it’ as “an inner magic, an animal magnetism.” Produced at the height of Hollywood’s silent film era, the story follows Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow), a vivacious department store clerk who tries to gain the romantic interest of her employer, Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (Antonio Moreno), but on her own terms. Following its initial critical and popular acclaim, the film disappeared from Paramount Pictures’ archives, until a single copy was recovered in the 1960s. Its rediscovery in a period that prioritized film preservation, and the cultural impact of film changes It’s understanding to a producer of women’s social identities and is emblematic of the themes of liberation and consumerism that defined the 1920s. 

Paramount producer Ben Schulberg’s $50,000 investment to secure Glyn’s Cosmopolitan story along with her authoritative endorsement of starlet Clara Bow as having ‘It’ paid off immensely in terms of critical success (Stenn, 81). According to entertainment publication Film Daily, Bow “gets a real chance and carries it off with honors”. Photoplay fan magazine held Bow as “…the only person who will fill the niche in Paramount stardom left vacant by Gloria Swanson”. While publications praised the film’s direction under Badger, it became undeniable that Bow was filling theater seats. Paramount quickly capitalized on Bow’s rising stardom by creating promotional material that referred to her as Hollywood’s ‘It’ girl (see fig. 1). Readers of these fan magazines, especially women, saw both in Betty Lou’s story and the actress’s life a fantasy world of sexual freedom and consumerism that they could indulge in, while still conforming to the constricting morals for most women of the 1920s (Orgeron, 89). Fans began to demand the details of Bow’s life – from hair dye, to fashion choices, to romantic relationships – and the actress, perhaps unknowingly, started ‘to become an object (and agent) of consumption’ (ibid, 79). 

Motion Picture News, 28 Jan. 1927, 269–270.

While It remained a fan favorite after its initial release, rumors of Bow’s sexual promiscuity, tumultuous relationships, and on-set behavior were sensationalized by the press. Audiences projected Betty Lou’s representation of the 1920s uninhibited flapper lifestyle onto Bow following the release of It, but paradoxically criticized her when she didn’t make lifestyle choices assumed to be held by an ‘upright woman’ – especially marriage. Photoplay published a beautiful full-page portrait of Bow taken by Harold Dean Carsey a month after It premiered, but rather than focus on the film, the caption asked readers, “Will she or will she not get married?”.  While readers continued to fawn over the actress’ embodiment of her character in It, there was a noticeable increase of concern and scrutiny with her private life. 

Hollywood hegemony stood steady, but films that dealt with sexuality gained the attention of watchdogs looking to preserve a ‘morally upright’ cinema. Afraid of governmental regulation, industry leaders, including Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, created the internal censorship board, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association in 1922 (Desjardins, 517). While the board policed film content, studios needed help with their actors. The MPPDA created ‘the morals clause,’ which barred actors from acting publicly in a manner that could embarrass themselves, the studio, or land them in the headlines. Bow was the only actress at Paramount without a morals clause in her contract due to negotiating by her legal team. The studio instead set up a trust fund, where Bow would receive the cash bonus promised to her once her regular contract expired. But if she became “involved in a public scandal or subjected herself to public scorn or ridicule, or tended to offend the public sense of decency…[it] warrants the dismissal of the Artist by the Corporation” (Stenn, 72). 

Bow’s relationship with Paramount illuminated the exploitation of her character and star persona as commercial assets. The studio worked her long hours several days a week, and after collapsing on the set of her later film, Rough House Rosie, newspapers were quick to report on her ‘mental breakdown.’ They even went so far to label her a nymphomaniac because of a libelous account of her interaction with the USC football team (Stenn, 99, 105). Bow was often asked to comment on these faux pas, but her candor backfired as, “Hollywood and audiences did not want to hear the truth about destitution, abuse, family insanity, overwork, and loneliness…” (Smyth, 184).  Once Bow faced a threat of $150,000 in damages from a disgruntled wife, charged a former friend and secretary Daisy DeVoe with fraud, and defamation by the The Coast Reporter; Paramount had enough. In 1931, as “Clara had become more than she was worth,” (Stenn, 232) the actress and Paramount came to a mutual settlement to terminate her contract. Once heralded as the “quintessence of what the term ‘flapper’ signifies…” (ibid, 87) by author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bow left Paramount and the studio stored Bow’s films to defend themselves against time and poor storage conditions, moving on to the next star.

Why was there a practice of neglect by industry executives for even their most popular films? From a business perspective, film historian David Pierce notes that, “Since films had a limited commercial life..any expense toward better storage or preservation would reduce current profits with no future return” (Pierce, 13-14). While It’s success was bolstered by advertisements of the Paramount-Glyn partnership, enthusiasm wore thin and stopped altogether once Bow’s media troubles reflected poorly on the studio and their other films. While It was successful for both critics and audiences alike, its position just before the production of talkies – a critical time for Hollywood executives to attempt to maintain global dominance – and the characterization projected onto Bow, the film was rendered a fleeting memory of 1920s audiences. 

In the 1960s a single nitrate-based film copy of It was discovered in Prague by preservationists. This was remarkable considering many of Bows’ films of the late 1920s had either disintegrated or remained missing (Stenn, 282), and since Paramount didn’t formulate a film preservation plan until the 1980s (Pierce, 43). Many films experienced decay or fire that is symptomatic of nitrate. This is consequential to film history today, because out of 1,222 Paramount features released during its heyday in the silent era, 361 films have been found (ibid, 44). While studio executives in the silent era focused their attention on the next profit, they failed to recognize the potential in preserving successful films as historically significant.

Almost 40 years after discovery and 70 after the initial release, It made it to the official archive, formally inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2001 as meeting the “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” standard (Pub. L. No. 100-446).

The examination of It in the context of its rediscovery is based on its emblematic representation of a tumultuous and ever-evolving time in American history: the 1920s. It also reveals how Bow’s outward persona and her female fans’ fantasy world of the flapper lifestyle is created by the film’s promotion in fan magazines. At face value, these ads were integral in securing lifelong fans for Bow and filled seats in the theaters for It and other Paramount films. But the rediscovery of It changes the original perspective of the female fan participation to a deeper level as, ‘It documents the production of women’s cultural identities but also because Bow’s reputation hinged so greatly on the fictional identity of her on-screen roles in general’ (Orgeron, 77).  Fan magazines sold entire identities on what the ‘New Woman’ could look and act like, and this was juxtaposed by the true behavioral constraints normal women faced. Bow’s uninhibited lifestyle was inaccessible for many because of social norms as the country continued to prefer the moral, upright (white) woman, and this facilitated the tremendous public press backlash against her when her Betty Lou persona was no longer deemed appropriate outside the theater.

The reevaluation of It is also crucial to understanding the 1920s climate in the film industry and externally through the consciousness of audiences. The industry was aware of the eyes on it in terms of what content they produced, indicated by the creation of an internal censorship board. Armed with the power of influence, It and Bow herself demonstrate ‘…the cinema’s ability to transform the spectator…’ (Orgeron, 78). The film proceeded to depict the themes of the era and the nation’s consciousness, including consumerism as well as women’s sexual and social liberation, but also an eventual return to the conservative theme of marriage. Promotion of these themes and their embodiment by Betty Lou and Bow herself was successful. As one spectator noted in Movie Classic, “They went to see Clara, not a picture” (Jorgenson, 6).  These themes found in It are crucial for the contemporary understanding of the 1920s and how the film was left out of the canon. With rediscovery, historians are able to reflect on the height of the flapper and silent film era and the oncoming Great Depression and a return to more conservative social values.

Iris Barry stated, “If the great films of the past are not worth taking seriously and are not worth reexamination, then presumably neither are the ‘great films’ of today” (Barry, 136).  With the power of retrospect and historical empathy that Paramount did not possess for Bow or her films, historians now deem It as a critical producer of female cultural identity that was facilitated by both loyalty and influence by fan magazines and publications, and catalyzed/destroyed itself the career of one of the most popular and iconic actresses of the 1920s.

by Lauren Mattice

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