Happy Saturday to all! As fans on my Facebook page probably already know by now, today marks the first installment of a new weekly series here at the Daily Hottentots called Silent Star Saturday. Each week will feature the people who made Hollywood what it is today. You may recognize some of the names instantly (some of these stars went on to have lucrative careers in sound pictures), and there might be some you don’t recognize because their careers faded into obscurity once the silent era ended. Whatever the case might be, I hope that you find this new series informative and entertaining.
First up is Hollywood’s original “It Girl”, America’s first sex symbol, Clara Bow.
Clara was born into extreme poverty on July 29, 1905 in Brooklyn, New York. She had a terrible home life. Her mother was mentally ill and threatened to slit her throat in the middle of the night, causing Clara to suffer from insomnia for the rest of her life, and her father was an alcoholic who physically and mentally abused her.
In 1921, when Clara was just 16 years old, she entered the “Fame and Fortune” contest held by Motion Picture Magazine. She went to a photographer and paid a dollar to pose for photographs wearing her mother’s old, worn out dress. A short while later, she was called back for a screen test, and felt out-of-place among women she considered much prettier than herself, but Clara’s acting ability was so superb that the contest jury unanimously declared her the winner.
Bow went on to play bit parts for the next couple years. In 1922 she had what was initially an unimportant role (10th billing) in a picture called Down to the Sea in Ships, but she stole plenty of scenes and got moviegoers and movie makers talking. Two years later, she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star with a dozen other women who went on to have rather unimpressive careers.
She was a huge star by the time It came out in 1927, but it was that picture, based in part on Elinor Glyn‘s story of the same name, that made her a legend. She played a modern, single girl who lived on her own and worked in a large department store. Bow’s character had her eye on the department store’s owner (played by the handsome Antonio Moreno), and used “it” (a polite way of saying sex appeal) to get him. And, of course, she did get him. And Clara was forever known after the release of this film as the “Original It Girl”.
That same year, Clara starred in Wings, which won the very first Oscar for Best Picture.
Busy raking in the dough as one of Paramount’s biggest stars, Clara became a huge magnet for controversy. There were many stories about her sexual escapades in the tabloids, all of which were untrue. Clara didn’t need the tabloids to create hot romances for her. She did that well enough on her own, having very public affairs with Gary Cooper, Victor Fleming, and even Bela Lugosi. So she wasn’t exactly innocent by any stretch of the imagination, but she wasn’t nearly as sleazy as the rags made her out to be.
In 1931, she finally settled down with one man, cowboy actor turned Nevada politician Rex Bell. And around this time Clara uneasily entered into sound film. The microphones above her head made her nervous and she was unsure about the sound of her voice on film. Her behavior on the set became more volatile, her mental health deteriorating, making her hard to work with. And in 1933 after making 60 pictures (49 silent and 11 sound), Clara Bow retired from acting.
Her later years were full of mental breakdowns, suicide attempts, and other unhappiness, but that’s not the way I want to remember Clara. She was one of the stars who shaped Hollywood—and the attitudes in society today. She was an icon of youth, beauty, and the early sexual revolution. Wouldn’t you rather think of her this way? I think she deserves it.