For an interesting perspective on morality in ancient Hollywood, I recommend Neal Gabler's fine book, An Empire of Their Own...Clara is not mentioned here but it is nevertheless a worthwhile read. Another major work in which Clara is not mentioned is Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By. I didn't expect Gabler's book to mention her because, after all, it wasn't about actresses. Brownlow was recommended by Louise Brooks to interview Bow. "You know, I talked to Kevin Brownlow about her. I was so mad when he didn't go to see her in Hollywood. He said: 'Well, I don't think she's so much.' And in that year she died. 1965."9 Clara Bow's name is not mentioned one time in Brownlow's excellent book. Perhaps this unfortunate oversight has been brought to his attention since because he and David Gill produced that well-known series, Film on Film: The History of Hollywood. Chapter 12 is titled, Star Treatment: Clara Bow and John Gilbert. It had much newsreel footage impossible to see elsewhere and I sincerely congratulate these men on a fine accomplishment. But something needs to be said here and now. The journalist is never more important than the artist he observes and criticizes, no matter how clever or astute he may be. I feel that if the reading public is stupid enough to allow itself to be spoonfed notions that the messenger is more important than the subject, we as a culture are in serious trouble. I appreciate that Brownlow did not slander Ms. Bow, as so many other writers have done.
In a rebroadcast of a radio talk show, David Stenn discusses his book. The host, Mr. Lopate, asked Stenn, "Why wasn't Clara Bow mentioned in Brownlow's book?" A commercial immediately followed this question. Upon returning from the important message, the subject was dropped and forgotten. I wondered what Stenn said off the air that caused the omission. (On this program Stenn says, "He, Brownlow, has subsequently made several efforts to include Clara Bow..." A wonderful thing is hindsight. Also, Stenn stated that a movie about her was in the works. I would certainly like to see it.)
What Brownlow has done, or attempted to do, by not mentioning Clara Bow's name once, is more insidious than anything any of Clara's detractors could have done. Being in various art forms for over ten years as critic, artist and businessman, has given me a unique perspective on the subject, and one contradiction becomes immediately apparent: that a bad review is better than no review. Many artists would have gone to desperate lengths to be the subject of even the infrequent negative notices that Clara's films received during her brief career. To be ignored is a terrible thing for the creative mind; to be declared non-existent is the worst fate of all. Is Kevin Brownlow trying to tell us that Clara Bow never existed? Perhaps this is what Stenn told Lopate when the commercial came on. How important is the journalist, the chronicler or the article writer for commercial newspapers? They attempt to carve a niche for themselves between the artist and the ultimate comsumer: the reader, the audience, the viewer at the expense of all. If their history is accurate, then all mutually benefit. If a lie is told, like Clara Bow doesn't exist, then all are losers. There are no winners.
Also during the interview, Lopate asked Stenn, "Is there anything nice that you can say about Ben Schulberg and what he did with Clara Bow?" Stenn replies, "Well, I think he had a great eye for talent."10
On July 3, 1990, the Later with Bob Costas TV show hosted a half hour interview with Budd Schulberg. I do not begrudge this man his accomplishments and I was pleased to see a (colorized) picture of Clara on the screen while they were discussing Wings. He refers to this movie, however, the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture, as "my father's movie." B.P. was billed as "Associate Producer." Anyone familiar with large projects knows it is the cumulative effort of many talented people from the financial to the technical to the creative. Schulberg's position could have been filled by anyone of a hundred eager souls wanting to cash in on a sure thing. Moreover, Wings has often been cited, and rightly so, as one of William Wellman's finest directorial achievements. Clara's contribution was indeed unique, and I do not believe this film would have been such a shoo-in were it not for her incredible performance. It was her film, if anybody's. If this was B.P. Schulberg's movie, why then did Clara Bow accept the Oscar for it, instead of the producer or the director which is traditional? (See Stenn, p.159.)
There are other criticisms that need adjustment.
In referring to Painted People, a film that Colleen Moore and Bow worked together in 1924, Moore states in her autobiography, Silent Star: Colleen Moore Talks About Her Hollywood, "Two days was all Clara could take. She said to me, 'I don't like my part. I want to play yours.'" It would seem on the surface a rather selfish thing for Bow to do. However, as David Stenn points out, Moore was denying her supporting player much needed close-ups, as Colleen was already the star, and five years older. Clara did not quit the role. Instead, she went to have an operation to correct a nasal condition and returned, face bandaged, and the production was forced to replace her, putting "Moore's film behind schedule and over budget."
More important than the bickering of the two young artist, regardless of justification, is the quality of talent.
Mantrap (1926), which was one of Clara's personal favorites, show tremendous emotional range, more so than Colleen Moore was capable of. In Ella Cinders of the same year, Moore is wooden and amateurish. The entire production has values out of the early Biograph days. (See a charming two-volume video set, Flicker Flashback.) In this film, Colleen was unconvincing and somewhat artificial. Even Harry Langdon's cameo didn't help. Ironically, what befell Ella Cinders early in the film was Clara's lot in reality. Of course, Clara had Victor Fleming and James Wong Howe in her corner. To me, Moore just didn't have the depth. In The Scarlet Letter (1934), Colleen still hasn't improved. She is unmoving and uninvolved with the story, the part or the audience. I can only assume she did better work in other (unavailable?) films, as she did in the business world. Perhaps she retired in 1934 due to lack of talent. She certainly was financially set for the rest of her life. I believe that CLara was the better actress, but Colleen certainly did put it over on the world at $12,500 a week. Hardly the same could be said for Bow.