Continuing my look at 1920’s and 30’s screen icon Clara Bow, which concludes with my general wonderment as to whether she was actually forgotten or just confined now to the annals of history…
Clara had got some rather unfair bad press in the early part of the thirties. A lot of newspapers and magazines thrived on sensations and scandals. Then, as now, a lot of stuff was either heavily embellished or completely fabricated. There had been some trouble, Clara had a breakdown, and retired from pictures to the peace and quiet of her Nevada ranch with husband Rex Bell.
As Bell became more heavily involved in politics, Bow withdrew, and the mental instability of her late mother came genetically to inflict itself upon the daughter. This may have been partly due to an incident which took place when Clara was a girl. Her mother, during a fit of psychosis, had attacked her daughter, holding a knife to her throat. This haunted Clara ever after.
Her mother died in an institution not many years after this event, but Clara’s father kept turning up in his daughter’s life, receiving hand-outs, even moving in and living off her earnings. In later life, Clara lived reclusively in a bungalow, receiving few visitors, dying in 1965 aged just 60.
Taking a bow
That’s enough of the history bit.
Earlier this year I watched a short documentary which flew through bits of Bow’s life. In amongst this was an interview with a former fellow flapper – a much older, and more dignified Louise Brooks. She seemed more than a smidge indignant that for all Clara Bow’s past fame, notoriety, and hard work, she seemed all but forgotten in latter times. This interview wasn’t a recent one, as Brooks died in 1985. A book on the silent film era entitled ‘The Parade’s Gone By’, published in 1968, spoke much of the legacy left by many of the stars, including Brooks herself, but not one single mention was there of Clara Bow, who’s contribution to said legacy was considerable. Suitably disgruntled, Louise Brooks wrote a rather angry letter to the book’s author Kevin Brownlow, to ask how he’d come by such an omission!
It got me to wondering – which is always dangerous – that although I’ve watched plenty of Clara’s films, they were not that easy to get hold of, not on our High Street anyway. I collect film star postcards and photos. Out of the many I’ve flicked through at antique fairs and fleamarkets, not one of Clara have I ever spotted amongst the plentiful tinted Gladys Coopers (from theatrical days), the profusion of Charles Chaplin – Himself, and the ubiquitous Joan Crawfords. One day I may let lucky!
Now I’m not short of thick volumes on the silver screen, so in a pique of curiosity I’ve dug them out to test the forgotten flapper theme. Here are my findings.
Film Lovers’ Annual from the 1930’s
41/2 lines of a paragraph in a feature entitled ‘What happens to a star’s clothes?’, telling us that Clara ‘invariably purchases the negligees and lacy unmentionables in which she displays the IT figure for her public’. There’s even a small photo. My thought: wouldn’t she just be wearing these things privately at home after they were used for filming, not walking round Sunset Boulevard in them?
A bigger photo, accompanying a page about stars’ accomplishments. Clara is apparently adept with a rifle, no doubt down to days at her ranch where she is ‘regaining her health’. My thought: I’m glad they’re putting a positive spin on the nervous breakdown.
Another mention of Clara leaving Hollywood 3 years earlier amid the storm of the Daisy De Voe affair, to be replaced by Sylvia Sydney. De Voe was Clara’s personal secretary, wrongly accused of Grand Theft from Clara’s accounts.
Clara in lacy unmentionables in my Film Lovers’ Annual
Talking Pictures – The story of Hollywood by Barry Norman
A couple of lines only to say that Clara did not make the transition to talkies very well. Although she preferred Silent, me, myself and I reckon the talking pictures were good enough. I don’t believe Clara retired for exactly that reason.
Another brief mention of her being the IT Girl.
St. Michael’s Book on Great Movies
One whole paragraph, and large picture in the A-Z of stars (there’s no A incidentally) which briefly describes her career and some films.
The Hollywood Musical by Clive Hirshhorn
Named in a list under contract to Paramount.
Short synopsis and small picture of ‘Love Among the Millionaires’, a ’30’s musical.
A mention as the star of ‘True to the Navy’, the original of later re-make ‘The Fleet’s In’.
The MGM Story by John Douglas Eames
Mentioned in article ‘Success all over 1926’, ‘…featured new flappers Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, the first to become a legend…’.
A line stating that Lana Turner is hailed as the new Clara Bow (in 1939) Had somebody changed their mind then, from Sylvia Sydney? Or was SS just replacing Clara in a film?
So that’s all folks…
All in all, not a vast amount considering that Joan Crawford was everywhere. I think there is a Bow-ography out there somewhere, but I’m yet to discover it. Maybe where there’s an Ebay, there’s a way, but that would take the fun out of carbooting, and sniffing round in charity shops. There is merchandise out there, mouse mats for instance (we have one). Maybe in these days of more easily resourced information, and t’internet, there will be a resurgence of not just the likes of Mary Pickford and Buster Keaton who are still pretty widely recognised, but also the lesser known stars who were big in their day: Collette Colbert, Evelyn Brent, Theda Bara, and of course the incomparable Clara Bow!