THE IRRESISTIBLE "IT" GIRL
by John Korcz
It, the irresistible cuteness. "It" encounters, then melts, frivolouss opposition. Natural charisma becomes legend. This is my own definition of what Clara Bow had.
Clara Bow. What images that name conjures up in the mindscreens of those who remember. That of the flirtatious flapper of the Roaring Twenties, speakeasys, and making whoopie. Her name also exhumes in some minds nasty rumors and scandalous trials and court battles.
A little background biographical information is necessary here to present a clear, complete picture of the origins of the "It" girl, a sobriquet she received from her stardom in It, a 1927 silent movie hit.
She was born on July 29, 1907, a date variously disputed by some film scribes, but nonetheless corropborated in reams of documented material.1 She misrepresented her age to enter a talent and beauty contest, that "fame and fortune" contest announced by Motion Picture Magazine, published by Brewster Publications in their January, 1921, issue. She was 13 and a half years old at the time. (David Stenn was not accurate in representing her age as 15 in his otherwise oustanding biography, Clara Bow: Running Wild.) That she was selected winner of this contest with virtually no formal training and using only one tattered dress for all the auditions and tests is the first indication of the talent that later made her a star of the first magnitude.2 The naivete which accompanies youth plagued her throughout her career. Perhaps the good-hearted innocence and loving nature of this person caused her downfall. If she was more like an animal, she would have survived. But more on that later.
Her mother Sarah never wanted her to be born and nearly killed her. Her father raped her. She was born into and lived in searing poverty. Compare this to the early years of Gloria Swanson, who was accepted and encouraged by her parents. Also compare this to the youth of Budd Schulberg, born rich, well-educated, already a young man of the world who, when he first met her, states, "Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low life and disgrace to the community."3 Again referring to Stenn's book, the author states in the "Aftermath" section, "B.P. Schulberg, Budd's father, never reattained the prestige he had known at Paramount. After his ignominious departure from the studio, he produced a series of unsuccessful films starring Sylvia Sidney and gambled away his fortune. Sidney left Schulberg after she found him in bed with two prostitutes. He died in 1957."
Schulberg, Sr., may have had an affair with Clara, possibly before she was of the legal age of consent, then abandoned her in favor of Sylmia Sidney. He also left his wife, Budd's mother, named Ad, to live with Sylvia. (See Schulberg, Memories of a Hollywood Prince.) Clara was usually dumped, surprising for such a desirable lady. By contrast, Gloria Swanson, a very diversified and talented actress, had the encouragement of loving parents. She also had the genius of Cecil B. De Mille as her director, and millions of dollars spent not only on production values, but sets and costumes as well. Gloria had the pick of the best parts and stories. (Hardly the same could be said for Clara.) The lion who put his paw on Gloria's bare back, Male and Female (1919), is a classic in film history.4 I am not intending to denigrate Ms. Swanson. How could I? I just wonder if Clara Bow could have survived better emotionally if she had had such psychological support. The point is Clara competed with other actresses, no less talented, who had manifestly more financial and personal advantages in surviving the Hollywood tempest.
Mary Pickford, another talented giant of the early days of film, lost her father at a young age, but with her mother's guidance and help drove very hard bargains and usually came out on top in her negotiations with such men as D.W. Griffith.5
The facts are that Pickford and Swanson had talent as well as allies. Clara, on the other hand, never had a mother and father when she needed them.6 Clara never really had any guidance at all. She left Brooklyn at 14 years old and arrived a week later in California at 16 or 17. She had to grow into the new part on time, I believe, so she considered sexual "maturity" her ticket to acceptance, which is something she deperately needed. She was helped to arrive at this conclusion by the great Benjamin Percival Schulberg.
In A Cast of Killers, Sidney D. Kirkpatrick writes, "...she had might be able to get hold of Taylor's diaries, a hot property that had circulated in Hollywood during the 1930s and been auctioned off with the Clara Bow sex letters and Valentino candid photo library." Those Clara letters referred to here must have been used as evidence in the DeVoe trial which ruined Bow's career. How could this material, which was stolen from her and used in blackmail, be sold or auctioned off without her approval or even knowledge? The answer is simple: Clara Bow was ripped off. Furthermore, in a skein of injustices, Clara was denied royalties by Paramount when her talkies were later licensed to television.
"Clara's frail condition forced Schulberg to cancel her next movie and give her a three-month vacation. Meanwhile, Paramount bombarded its biggest money-maker with picayune bills for unreturned wardrobe items. A sample invoice includes a net brassiere, valued at $1.25 and two black satin bloomers worth $5 apiece.... The 'It girl' was also charged twenty-five cents for every photograph of herself she requested."7
I doubt that Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford would have tolerated this. Would William Randolph Hearst have allowed Marion Davies to be robbed like this?8 In Stardom, Alexander Walker states, "..Paramount had prudently inserted a morality clause in her [Clara Bow's] contract guaranteeing her a $500,000 bonus at the expiration of it if she did not 'run wild' to publicity." After reading as much as I have about the early moguls of Hollywood, I find it difficult to believe that they wouln't have tried to find a way to cheat her out of it. How ironic is a "morality clause" designed by those with no morals themselves? Clara may well have been the only superstar of her time who had no one to protect her from these monstrously selfish men. Clara had her Paramount troubles, but is is intriguing to consider if she would have been better off under the tutelage of MGM and Louis B. Mayer. Moreover, how would Clara's obvious comedic talents been cutivated under the guidance of Mack Sennett or Hal Roach?