How the It Girl Lost It: Clara Bow’s Breakthroughs and Breakdowns

It’s true to say I think that Clara Bow (1905-1965) is one those classic early stars whom much larger numbers of people love for her backstory and offscreen life and image than know her actual pictures. A couple remain pretty well known, especially It and Wings, both made in 1927. In her decade-long career she made 57 movies: 46 silents and 11 talkies. 21 of her films, or over a third, are lost.

Interestingly, there are ways her background is not unlike Chaplin’s. While her parents weren’t in show business like Chaplin’s she did have a mentally ill mother and a father who was frequently absent. There was poverty, hunger, cold in an unheated flat. This morning I learned that she was born and raised not far from my house, so I went to take a look. She was born at 697 Bergen Street in Brooklyn, in a room above a Baptist church. The church is long gone. In its stead now is this:

By the 1920 census, she and her family were living at this address: 33 Prospect Place. She was 15 at this time, and presumably she was still living there at the time when she entered a magazine contest (1921) that launched her movie career, and when she made her first movies in 1922 and 1923, which were shot in New Jersey, Astoria (Queens), and on location in New Bedford, Mass. The house still stands:

Like I say, the mother was mentally ill, subject to seizures and delusions, once fell out a window, and once held a knife to Clara’s throat in response to her budding movie career. The absentee father, on the other hand was generally supportive, and like many similar deadbeats throughout history became all too present in Clara’s life once she began making serious dough.

Like many children from unhappy homes, she was a dreamer and her primary avenue of escape was the movies. With her father’s encouragement, she entered that 1921 magazine contest and won. The prize was a walk-on role in a film called Beyond the Rainbow (her scenes were cut from the finished picture). This led to several small but eye catching roles at east coast film studios in 1922 and 1923, resulting in her being selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1924. Meantime she moved to Hollywood to be a contract player.

Apparently this is actually a picture of Madge Bellamy, but I think I’ll leave it here since it seems to make people crazy

Despite her love for playing tom boys, her feminine sexuality is palpable in just about all moving and still pictures. That might seem contradictory, but if you think about it, it’s pretty common among stars — after all, if you have that quality you’re attractive to EVERYBODY. She was also a natural actress, a dynamo, full of nervous energy. She could shed tears at will. Her first flapper pictures were released in early 1924. She became an instant star and one of the top box office stars in the country from the mid 20s through the end of her career. In fact, she was the number box office star in Hollywood in 1928 and 1929 following hits like Mantrap (1926), It (1927) Wings (1927), Red Hair (1928) and The Wild Party (1929). She weathered the transition to talkies seamlessly, and to watch her talkies is to feel real sadness about all the cool movies we missed, since she dropped out of the business so young.

With Gary Cooper in “Children of Divorce”, 1929

Along the way she was romantically involved with Gary Cooper, Harry Richman, Gilbert Roland, Victor Fleming, Howard Hughes, and if the gossip is to be believed, the entire USC football team. Most of the other Hollywood women shunned her, as did polite society in general. She felt no need to shed her earthy Brooklyn ways, used profanity, and preferred to socialize with her own servants, and the craftspeople and crew off the film sets.

There were two issues that brought about a final crash; and they seem interrelated: mental illness and scandal.  Her behavior had always been erratic. She had always been reckless, heedless, the quintessential Jazz Age party girl. But she was also overworked. The stress of cranking out so many pictures (and making so money for the studio and her own lifestyle), brought about a need to let off steam. A 1929 magazine article referred to bottles of sedatives next to her bed. By 1930 her friend and personal assistant (who’d been her hairdresser on the set of one of her films) Daisy DeVoe stole a bunch of her correspondence and tried to blackmail her about her lifestyle. Bow called the police and a trial ensued where DeVoe kept up her allegations, accusing her of, oh, promiscuity, lesbianism, sex with multiple simultaneous partners, drug and alcohol abuse, and the topper to end all toppers, SEX WITH DOGS. Not joking. That was publicly alleged, and printed. Oh, yes, and this has to be the origin of the “sex with entire football team” rumor. These slurs emerged in print in a magazine called the Coast Reporter in late 1930. She must have been a laughing stock every she went, or imagined that she was one, which amounts to the same thing. By 1931 Bow was approaching a breakdown and had to take a rest cure, dropping out of her final Paramount Picture City Streets.

At this point she married western star Rex Bell and rested and recuperated at their new Nevada ranch for several months before returning to Hollywood to make two moderately successful pictures for Fox in 1932, and then retiring for good. The couple had a child in 1934, briefly opened and closed a cafe in 1937, and then had another kid in 1938.

Then Bow’s mental illness started to flare again. She became extremely withdrawn and wouldn’t go out or see any people. Meanwhile Bell became involved with Nevada’s Republican Party, running for Congress as their candidate in 1944. In response, Bow attempted suicide (ho ho, not because he was a Republican but because she wanted to stay out of the limelight). Bell lost that election but he became the state party leader in 1948. In 1949 Bow complained of insomnia and abdominal pains and checked herself into a facility, where doctors could find no cause, essentially chalking the whole thing up to mental illness, administering shock treatment and other therapies. Bow left her family and moved to a small bungalow in Culver City, near the movie studios, living off her savings in total seclusion for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Bell became Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 1954. He continued to take occasional roles in westerns over the years. His last appearance was in The Misfits (1961). He died in 1962. Clara outlived him by three years.

It will probably always be an academic question whether her mental illness was inherited from her mother, or the result of childhood traumas, or brought on by substance abuse, or a breakdown caused by stresses of Hollywood, or all of the above. I do find it interesting and ironic though how someone who wanted to be a movie star SO BADLY abruptly did an about face and then wanted NOT to be a movie star so badly. The common denominator in both cases was escape.

For more on silent film consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.

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