A Woman of Action

There is no way Clara Bow can compare to Greta Garbo! But if you think about it, why not?

Had Clara’s screen image been as carefully crafted as Garbo’s, screen immortality would have been hers. Garbo had the luxury of having the great leading men opposite her. Clara did not.

Garbo had a great camera man in William Daniels, and had great directors.

Clara, for the most part, did not. Being thrown bad stories and little preparation for the talkies, Clara was set up for disaster.

Clara would later say,

“I had made [Paramount] millions with what I and many critics thought were lousy pictures,
but I received nothing but a salary,
untrained leading men, and any old story they fished out of the wastebaskets.”

– From article “The ‘It Girl’ of the Twenties”,
Written by Rudy Behmler
Published through “Films in Review” magazine

For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about this question: can someone be a great star without making a lot of great movies? Some people say “no”, because value as a star is determined largely by the quality and consistency of one’s films. I used to agree…until I discovered Clara Bow movies. Over the past 12 months, I have watched 7. I don’t consider any of them classics. I believe they’re full of wasted potential, disappointing writing, undercooked characters, implausible plot developments, and unsatisfying endings.

In spite of these issues, Clara Bow is without a doubt my favourite of all the movie stars I’ve watched in 2014. No matter what problems may plague them, Clara Bow movies will always have a key advantage over countless others: her. Some of my favourite film critics have eloquently reflected on what makes her special. Their words were an inspiration towards my attempt to explain that.

The manic, wide-eyed flapper Clara Bow[…]

Clara Bow, whose vitality was awesome and was combined with a childlike vulnerability, was for her period something like what Marilyn Monroe was for hers (and when she was past her peak, she, too, was celebrated by intellectuals.)

Bow’s infantile sexuality is high-voltage; she’s both repulsive and irresistible.

– Pauline Kael, Film Critic

Critic Leonard Maltin has called Bow “irrepressible”, “uninhibited”, “indefatigable” and “amazingly sensual”. Bow’s appeal has two sides and these words address each. She moves and speaks with the enthusiasm and playfulness of an anxious child, yet there’s an undeniably adult element to her. She is confidently, proudly, and openly flirtatious. The phrase “infantile sexuality” is accurate.

Children can have a sense of wonder in their eyes that isn’t possible later in life…except when Clara Bow has it. I see that in her eyes when she’s attracted to a man in my favourite of her performances. She comes up with methods of winning his affection that are immoral, dishonest, selfish, or dangerous…and makes them adorable too. Her actions are never mean-spirited. She seems to flirt because it feels more natural to her than anything else in the world.

Clara Bow wasn’t as elegantly dressed and groomed or fluid in movement as many desirable Old Hollywood stars. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, for example, had their hair and make-up very carefully arranged before slinking across the screen in smooth, aristocratic motions. Much of the time, Bow had messy hair, unglamorous clothing, and a rather dirty look. The description “both repulsive and irresistible” makes sense to me. I can see how her sloppy, aggressive quality could be a turn-on and a turn-off.

We’re pretty much playing basic emotions: love, anger, fear, pity. So the trick is whether you can come up with any fresh choices to present these common emotions.

– George C. Scott, Actor

From time to time I’m reminded of George C. Scott’s Rule No. 3 for judging movie acting: “Is there a joy of performance? Can you tell that the actors are having fun?”

– Roger Ebert, Film Critic

There’s so much joy of performance in Clara Bow’s acting. Many of her characters look high on life…as if just released from a cage and placed where they most want to be. She moves and expresses herself more freely and joyously than anyone else. Bow’s performances remind me of the old saying ‘Like a kid in a candy store’. Bow has been called a ‘whirlwind’, ‘wild child’, and ‘dynamite’. She could also be described as a ‘Human tornado’ and ‘Human fireworks display’.

I hate talkies. 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. [But] I can’t buck progress. I have to do the best I can.

– Clara Bow,
“Motion Picture Classic” magazine, 1930

Bow felt most comfortable in action-heavy roles. That doesn’t mean she was over-the-top or incapable of subtlety. She had a lot of naturalness and sincerity. Her facial expressions infused words on silent movie title cards with tangible emotion, attitude, and personality. I can’t think of any actress who did that better. Her characters had enormous passion. Once a Clara Bow character starts to love a man, you can be sure she’ll never stop, and there’s gonna be some big trouble for him if he doesn’t love her back!

My introduction to Clara Bow was 1929’s “Dangerous Curves”. In that movie, she plays someone in love with a weak, foolish character. This guy was like a metaphor for most movies in her career – unworthy of her heart, soul, and effort. Watching “Dangerous Curves”, I immediately liked Bow’s eager, high-pitched voice and rough New York accent, but didn’t quite love her yet.

I think the movie’s dumb, obvious characters and story got in the way of me fully appreciating Bow, even though I found her performance cute, genuine, and touching. After “It” (another movie I don’t like very much), my feelings towards Bow changed. I knew that even if her movies have huge deficiencies, I’d always be happy to watch her. Once I’ve started, I can’t stop. Just like her.

Further reading:

1. The Unknown Clara Bow
2. ‘You Only Need One’ (my first Clara Bow post)