“You Only Need One”

One time Orson Welles was waxing eloquent to me on the subject of the divine Greta Garbo, whose mystery and magical artistry he adored[…]

I said[…]wasn’t it too bad that, of all her more than two dozen silent and sound films, she had acted in only two really great pictures?

Welles looked at me for a long moment, then said quietly, “You only need one…”

– Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich says Greta Garbo’s only ‘great movies’ are “Camille” and “Ninotchka”*. I consider “Queen Christina” her third great movie next to those and agree that it’s too bad she didn’t make more. Like Bogdanovich, I want my favourite stars to be in many. At the same time, I think it’s healthy to think like Orson Welles and just be grateful if a revered star gets to make even one great movie. There’s no guarantee that any star ever will.

I realized this after watching some films starring an actress who seemed to spend most of her career being a consistent pleasure of inconsistent movies. In her prime, she made two major movies. One won a best picture Oscar. The other made her an icon. Neither achieved greatness more than fleetingly. This was Clara Bow’s fate.

Bow was one of the most gorgeous, pure, and engagingly charismatic women ever captured on film. Her every gesture and movement feels excitingly uninhibited. It’s a shame when one with such presence can rarely find productions worthy of her gifts. She earned iconic status with a magnificently spirited and modern performance in “It”. I wish the movie’s plot and other characters had matched her energy and originality. She is at a higher level.

The Oscar-winning “Wings” is a painfully bloated epic that triumphs in technical achievement much more than storytelling. Powerful moments are outnumbered by clunky scenes that go on too long. Provoked by my experiences watching these flawed Clara Bow movies, I embarked on a quest to find a more satisfying one. I wanted to see Bow’s always ebullient acting serve a story told with restraint and substance. I wanted a movie that deserved her.

My search for the ultimate Clara Bow classic took a promising turn when I found a quote from her fellow 1920s movie legend Louise Brooks. A film historian once neglected to mention Bow in a book about silent cinema. Brooks responded to his oversight with a letter that included the following words of self-deprecating outrage:

“You brush off Clara Bow
For some old nothing like [me].
Clara made three pictures
That will never be surpassed:
Dancing Mothers, Mantrap, and It.”

I have read reviews for many Clara Bow movies, including “It” and “Dancing Mothers”. They all have the same basic opinion: “She’s great. The movie is not.” I agree with this assessment of “It”. “Dancing Mothers” sounds very similar to “It”. “Mantrap” is a different story. I immediately became excited when I discovered that it was directed by Victor Fleming and places Bow (she of the hip ‘city girl’ persona) in Canadian wilderness! I remembered Fleming’s sumptuous visual style from seminal films “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” and I always get a kick out of seeing my home country showcased in a classy Old Hollywood production.

I was further intrigued after learning about Bow’s opinion of “Mantrap”. She once sent photos from it to her children. In an attached note, she wrote: “From the best silent picture I ever made”(!) I’m not sure if “Mantrap” is her best movie. It’s certainly special.

In some moments, Bow has the funny, goofy enthusiasm of a child. In others, she beguiles male co-stars with the very adult confidence of an exquisitely sensual coquette. I’ve said Kay Francis is my favourite flirt in the movies. Clara Bow challenges Francis for that title in “Mantrap”. Victor Fleming directed the movie beautifully, giving it a dreamily romantic ambiance. Bow and the Canadian landscape are shown off in luscious detail, her beauty at its peak.

“Mantrap” was a welcome change and an improvement from the last few Clara Bow movies I’d watched. While probably not the best Clara Bow movie ever, it’s at least a treat for her fans. I feel lucky to have observed another enchanting performance from the star, this time in distinctively lush surroundings. She does things I loved in her urban movies, while fascinatingly dealing with new challenges.

The flaws of “Mantrap” are a derivative plot, weak male leads, and disappointing story developments. Despite such problems, the movie and its leading lady are always beautiful. I want the films of my favourite stars to have many qualities. Sometimes I only need one.

* Peter Bogdanovich’s blog entry about “Camille” can be found here.


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