Joan Crawford, Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore, Norma Talmadge, Norma Shearer: actresses with careers during the Roaring 20’s, famous names of their time. Then, as now, becoming a fashion icon is part of the allure for some performers, of being ‘in movies’ . All of the above shared a similar style: bobbed, cropped or sculpted hair; shorter than usual hemlines; low, semi-Empire cut waistlines, low-fronted strappy frocks. The all-new image of the ‘flapper’. The flapper I want to write about is one-time screen legend Clara Bow. But first, what is a flapper?
Popular flapper Louise Brooks
Out with the Gibson Girl
The term ‘flapper’ has derived from the old slang for ‘prostitute’, but also referred to what we know in mid twentieth century parlance as a teenager. A teenage girl during the much earlier part of last century was not yet considered old enough to wear her hair up, so still retained a plait which ‘flapped’ when she moved.
Flappers became synonymous with the young female culture and changing times of the 1920’s. As well as the new style mentioned earlier, it was also a time of changing behaviours. More liberal attitudes towards sex and female independence made it more acceptable for women to work, drive cars, and smoke in public. The more lively girls went all out for a good time: parties, dancing, flirtation, fully embracing the jazz age. Out went the former young female ideal, the soft and ladylike ‘Gibson Girl’, content to wait for a suitable husband. In burst the brash flapper – cheeky, playful and boyish.
Moving towards talking pictures
In the world of cinema at the time, things were changing too. Silent films, featuring heavily made-up performers using over-exaggerated expressions and actions to emphasise drama and emotion to compensate for lack of dialogue, were suddenly being replaced by ‘talkies’. With the advent of 1927’s The Jazz Singer, some of the stars evolved and successfully made the transition. The world waited, agog, to hear Garbo’s first words. The huskily delivered line ‘Gimme a whisky…’ from ‘Anna Christie’ did not disappoint. Others, such as Alice Terry and Vilma Banky, the latter who had starred opposite Rudolph Valentino, found the new medium unsuitable. Talking pictures snapped the trap on their careers, and many others besides.
Bow to the fore
Clara Bow, born July 29 1905 into a poor neighbourhood in Brooklyn, was the frowzy-haired daughter of a mentally ill and epileptic mother, and a father who allegedly abused her. Not content with her lot, Clara won a competition and a bit-part in 1922 film ‘Beyond the Rainbow’ – though her ‘bits’ were eventually snipped.
‘Down to the Sea in Ships’ was her breakthrough movie. She went on to make a total of 57 films between 1922 and 1933. Clara’s first proper talkie came in 1929, ‘The Wild Party’, co-starring Frederic March. Her films, some of which are sadly now lost, included ‘Get your Man’, ‘Mantrap’, ‘Call Her Savage’, ‘Hoopla’ and ‘The Plastic Age’. Starring alongside an often glittery cast: Eddie Cantor, Richard Arlen, Gilbert Roland, Billie Dove, Donald Keith and Josephine Dunne amongst others, all huge names from the 20’s and 30’s, she often stole the show.
Bow was renowned for her fun, flirtatious characters; feisty and spirited, but with a heart of gold. Brilliant in both comedy and serious drama, she fought, lured, loved, danced, sang and shone.
The IT Girl
In 1927 Bow played Betty-Lou Spence, a naughty-but-nice shopgirl, hellbent on getting groovy with her boss. Inspired by a novella by Elinor Glyn, everyone was asking what IT actually was – whatever amalgam of qualities made up IT, Betty-Lou, and obviously Clara Bow, had them in abundance.
At the height of her career, Clara received as many as 45,000 fan letters in a month, had a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, was second in Box Office only to Joan Crawford in 1930, and was the actress upon whom Max Fleischer’s cartoon Betty Boop was modeled.
With so much popularity, then, how came this hectic career to an end after only 11 years? Where does the influence and legend of Clara Bow fit into both cinematic history, and the film world of today?
I’ll explore it further in part 2.