Clara Gordon Bow was born July 29, 1905 in Brooklyn, New York.
(Her birth year according to the US Census of 1910 and 1920 was 1905, however she claimed to have been born in 1906 and her gravestone inscription reads 1907)
Clara’s mother suffered with psychosis due to epilepsy, and from her earliest years she cared for her mother during the seizures and her psychotic episodes. Her father was manly absent, not fully knowing how to deal with an aggressively hostile wife who claimed she didn’t love him.
Clara later said her mother could be “mean” to her, but “didn’t mean to … she couldn’t help it”.
Still, she felt deprived of her childhood; “As a kid I took care of my mother, she didn’t take care of me”.
In the early 1920s, roughly 50 million Americans (half the population at that time)attended the movies every week.
As Clara grew into womanhood, her “tomboy” nature began to turn more and more ladylike.
On the silver screen, Clara found consolation; “For the first time in my life I knew there was beauty in the world. For the first time I saw distant lands, serene, lovely homes, romance, nobility, glamor”.
Against her mother’s wishes but with her father’s support, Clara competed in Brewster publications’ magazine’s annual nationwide acting contest; “Fame and Fortune”, in the fall of 1921.
In the contest’s final screen test Clara Bow was up against an already scene-experienced woman who did “a beautiful piece of acting”.
A set member later stated that when Clara did the scene she actually became her character and “lived it.”
In the January 1922 issue of Motion Picture Classics the contest jury, Howard Chandler Christy, Neysa Mcmein, and Harrison Fisher, concluded about Clara Bow:
“She is very young, only 16. But she is full of confidence, determination and ambition. She is endowed with a mentality far beyond her years. She has a genuine spark of divine fire. The five different screen tests she had, showed this very plainly, her emotional range of expression provoking a fine enthusiasm from every contest judge who saw the tests. She screens perfectly. Her personal appearance is almost enough to carry her to success without the aid of the brains she indubitably possesses.”
Clara Bow won an evening gown and a silver trophy and the publisher committed to help her “gain a role in films”, but nothing happened.
Her father told Clara to “haunt” Brewster’s office (located in Brooklyn) until they came up with something. “To get rid of me, or maybe they really meant to (give me) all the time and were just busy”, Bow was introduced to director Christy Cabanne who cast her in Beyond the Rainbow, produced late in 1921 in New York City and released February 19, 1922.
Clara Bow did five scenes, and even impressed Christy Cabanne with her true theatrical tears.
Then on one night in February of 1922, Clara awoke to a butcher knife held against her throat. She was able to fend off her mother’s attack and was forced to commit her mother to a sanatorium by her father.
Clara spoke about the incident later:
“It was snowing. My mother and I were cold and hungry. We had been cold and hungry for days. We lay in each others arms and cried and tried to keep warm. It grew worse and worse. So that night my mother – but I can’t tell you about it. Only when I remember it, it seems to me I can’t live.”
Encouraged by her father, Clara continued to visit studio agencies asking for parts.
“But there was always something. I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat.”
Eventually director Elmer Clifton needed a tomboy for his movie Down to the Sea in Ships, saw Clara Bow in Motion Picture Classic magazine and sent for her.
In an attempt to overcome her youthful looks, Clara put her hair up and arrived in a dress she “sneaked” from her mother.
Even Elmer Clifton said she was too old at first, but broke into laughter as the stammering Clara Bow made him believe she was the girl in the magazine.
Clifton decided to bring Clara with him and offered her $35 a week. She held out for $50 and Clifton agreed, but he could not say whether she would “fit the part.”
Clara later learned that one of Brewsters’ sub-editors had urged Clifton to give her a chance.
Down to the Sea in Ships was shot on location in New Bedford, Massachusetts, produced by Independent “The Whaling Film Corporation”, and documented the life, love and work in the whale-hunter community. The production relied on a few less-known actors and local talents. It premiered at “Olympia”, New Bedford, on September 25, 1922 and went on general distribution on March 4, 1923.
Clara Bow was billed 10th in the film, but shone through:
“Miss Bow will undoubtedly gain fame as a screen comedienne”.
“She scored a tremendous hit in Down to the Sea in Ships..(and).. has reached the front rank of motion picture principal players”.
“With her beauty, her brains, her personality and her genuine acting ability it should not be many moons before she enjoys stardom in the fullest sense of the word. You must see ‘Down to the Sea in Ships'”.
“In movie parlance, she ‘stole’ the picture … “.
Then on January 5, 1923, Clara’s mother died from epilepsy at the age of 43.
When relatives gathered for the funeral, Clara accused them of being “hypocrites” and became so mad she even tried to jump into the grave.
Soon after, Clara Bow danced half nude, on a table, uncredited in William Randolph Hearst’s 1923 film Enemies of Women starring Lionel Barrymore.
That spring she got a part in The Daring Years, where she befriended actress Mary Carr, who taught her how to use make-up.
That summer, Clara got a “tomboy” part in Grit, a story, which dealt with juvenile crime and was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
There, Clara met her first boyfriend, cameraman Arthur Jacobson, and she got to know director Frank Tuttle, with whom she worked in five later productions.
Tuttle later remembered:
“Her emotions were close to the surface. She could cry on demand, opening the floodgate of tears almost as soon as I asked her to weep. She was dynamite, full of nervous energy and vitality and pitifully eager to please everyone”.
Grit was released on January 7, 1924. Variety reviewed;
“… Clara Bow lingers in the eye, long after the picture has gone.”
While shooting Grit at Pyramid Studios, in Astoria, New York, Clara Bow was approached by Jack Bachman of independent Hollywood studio Preferred Pictures. He wanted to contract her for a three months trial, fare paid and $50 a week.
So on July 22, 1923, Clara Bow left New York, her father, and her boyfriend behind for Hollywood.
As chaperone for the journey and her subsequent southern California stay, the studio appointed writer/agent Maxine Alton, whom Clara later branded a liar.
In late July, Clara entered studio chief B. P. Schulberg’s office wearing a simple high-school uniform in which she “had won several gold medals on the cinder track”.
She was tested and a press-release from early August said Clara Bow had become a member of Preferred Picture’s “permanent stock”.
Maytime was Clara Bow’s first Hollywood picture, an adaptation of the popular operetta Maytime in which she essayed “Alice Tremaine”. Before Maytime was finished, Schulberg announced that Clara was given the lead in the studio’s biggest seasonal assessment, Poisoned Paradise, but first she was lent to First National Pictures to co-star in the adaptation of Gertrude Atherton’s 1923 best seller Black Oxen, shot in October, and to co-star with Colleen Moore in Painted People, shot in November.
Director Frank Lloyd was casting for the part of high society flapper Janet Oglethorpe, and more than fifty women, most with previous screen experience, auditioned.
Clara would later reminisce: “He had not found exactly what he wanted and finally somebody suggested me to him. When I came into his office a big smile came over his face and he looked just tickled to death”. Lloyd told the press; “Bow is the personification of the ideal aristocratic flapper, mischievous, pretty, aggressive, quick-tempered and deeply sentimental.
The The New York Times said “The flapper, impersonated by a young actress, Clara Bow, had five speaking titles, and every one of them was so entirely in accord with the character and the mood of the scene that it drew a laugh from what, in film circles, is termed a “hard-boiled” audience”, while the Los Angeles Times commented that “Clara Bow, the prize vulgarian of the lot…was amusing and spirited…but didn’t belong in the picture”.
By New Year 1924, Clara defied the possessive Maxine Alton and brought her father to Hollywood.
Clara later remembered their reunion; “I didn’t care a rap, for (Maxine Alton), or B. P. Schulberg, or my motion picture career, or Clara Bow, I just threw myself into his arms and kissed and kissed him, and we both cried like a couple of fool kids. Oh, it was wonderful”.
Clara Bow appeared in eight films during 1924.
In Poisoned Paradise, released on February 29, 1924, Clara Bow got her first lead. “… the clever little newcomer whose work wins fresh recommendations with every new picture in which she appears”.
Then loaned out to Universal, Clara Bow top-starred, for the first time, in the prohibition, bootleg drama/comedy Wine, released on August 20, 1924.
“Don’t miss Wine. It’s a thoroughly refreshing draught … there are only about five actresses who give me a real thrill on the screen — and Clara is nearly five of them”.
Alma Whitaker of The Los Angeles Times observed on September 7, 1924:
She radiates sex appeal tempered with an impish sense of humor … She hennas her blond hair so that it will photograph dark in the pictures … Her social decorum is of that natural, good-natured, pleasantly informal kind … She can act on or off the screen — takes a joyous delight in accepting a challenge to vamp any selected male — the more unpromising specimen the better. When the hapless victim is scared into speechlessness she gurgles with naughty delight and tries another.
In 1925, Clara appeared in fourteen productions: six for her contract owner, Preferred Pictures, and eight as an “out-loan”.
Then Clara began to date her co-star Gilbert Roland, who became her first fiancé.
In June of 1925, Clara Bow was credited for being the first to wear hand-painted legs in public and was reported to have many followers at the Californian beaches.
In 1926, Clara Bow appeared in eight releases: five for Paramount, including the film version of the musical Kid Boots with Eddie Cantor, and three loan-outs that had been filmed in 1925.
On April 12, 1926, Clara Bow signed her first contract with Paramount: “…to retain your services as an actress for the period of six months from June 6th, 1926 to December 6th, 1926, at a salary of $750.00 per week…”.
Then on August 16, 1926, Clara Bow’s agreement with Paramount was renewed into a five-year deal: “Her salary will start at $1700 a week and advance yearly to $4000 a week for the last year.”
Bow added that she intended to leave the motion picture business at the expiration of the contract, i.e. 1931.
In 1927, Clara Bow appeared in six Paramount releases: It, Children of Divorce, Rough House Rosie, Wings, Hula and Get Your Man. In the Cinderella story It, the poor shop-girl Betty Lou Spence (Bow) conquers the heart of her employer Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno). The personal quality —It— provides the magic to make it happen. The film gave Bow her nickname, “The It Girl.”
Later in 1927, Clara Bow starred in Wings, a war picture rewritten to accommodate her, as she was Paramount’s biggest star, but wasn’t happy about her part: “(Wings is)..a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie”. The film went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture.
With “talkies” The Wild Party, Dangerous Curves, and The Saturday Night Kid, Clara Bow kept her position as the top box-office draw and queen of Hollywood.
The quality of her voice, her Brooklyn accent, was not an issue to Clara, her fans or Paramount. However, Clara, like Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks and most other silent film-stars didn’t embrace the novelty: “I hate talkies,” she said, “they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”
A visibly nervous Clara Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead. “I can’t buck progress,” Clara sighed. “I have to do the best I can.”
By October of 1929, Clara described her nerves as “all shot”, and that she had reached “the breaking point.”
“Now they’re having me sing. I sort of half-sing, half-talk, with hips-and-eye stuff. You know what I mean — like Maurice Chevalier. I used to sing at home and people would say, ‘Pipe down! You’re terrible!’ But the studio thinks my voice is great.”
With Paramount on Parade, True to the Navy, Love Among the Millionaires, and Her Wedding Night, Clara Bow was second at the box-office only to her chum, Joan Crawford, in 1930.
But the pressures of fame, public scandals, overwork, and a damaging court trial charging her secretary Daisy DeVoe with financial mismanagement, took their toll on Clara Bow’s fragile emotional health.
As she slipped closer to a major breakdown, her manager B.P. Schulberg began referring to her as “Crisis-a-day-Clara”.
In April, Clara was brought to a sanatorium, and at her request, Paramount released her from her final undertaking: City Streets.
At the age of 25, her career was essentially over.
Clara Bow left Hollywood for Rex Bell’s ranch in Nevada, her “desert paradise”, in June and married him in the then small-town of Las Vegas during December.
In an interview on December 17, Clara Bow detailed her way back to health: sleep, exercise, and food, and the day after she returned to Hollywood “for the sole purpose of making enough money to be able to stay out of it.”
Soon, every studio in Hollywood (except for Paramount) and even overseas wanted her services.
On April 28, 1932, Clara Bow signed a two-picture deal with Fox Film Corporation; Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La (1933).
Clara Bow commented on her revealing costume in Hoop-La: “Rex accused me of enjoying showing myself off. Then I got a little sore. He knew darn well I was doing it because we could use a little money these days. Who can’t?”
Bow reflected on her career:
“My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I’m sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can’t do that by being Mrs. Alcott’s idea of a Little Women”.
Clara Bow retired from acting in 1933.
Clara and Rex Bell (later a Lieutenant governor of Nevada), had two sons.
Her last public exposure, albeit fleeting, was on the radio show Truth or Consequences.
Clara was the mystery voice in the “Miss Hush” contest.
She eventually began showing symptoms of psychiatric illness, became socially withdrawn, and although she refused to socialize with her husband, she also refused to let him leave the house alone.
In 1944, while Rex was running for the U.S. House of Representatives, Clara tried to commit suicide.
A note was found in which Clara stated she preferred death to a public life.
In 1949, she checked in to The Institute of Living to be treated for her chronic insomnia and diffuse abdominal pains.
After being told she was delusional and diagnosed with schizophrenia, she rejected any treatment and left the institute.
Clara did not however return to her family. After leaving the institution, Clara lived alone in a bungalow in Culver City under the constant care of a nurse.
Clara Bow died September 27, 1965 of a heart attack at the age of 60.
An autopsy revealed that she suffered from atherosclerosis, a disease of the heart that can begin in early adolescence. Her heart showed scarring from an earlier undetected heart attack.
She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Today, Clara Bow is considered the original “It” Girl and is described as the leading sex symbol of the Roaring Twenties.
In 1999 film historian Leonard Maltin said, “You think of Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, all these great names, great actresses, Clara Bow was more popular in terms of box-office dollars, in terms of consistently bringing audiences into the theaters, she was right on top.”
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