The Bittersweet Life of Clara Bow

Clara Bow

For some reason I became fascinated by the actress Clara Bow. Like so many of the tangents I go off on, this one started with some clips on YouTube. Delving more deeply, I purchased some DVDs and read David Senn’s biography of Clara: Clara Bow, Runnin’ Wild. Clara’s life is both inspiring and sad—a glimpse into a Hollywood sodden with sexism long before the enlightenment of the #MeToo movement.

Clara was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1905. She was born into abject poverty. Her father Robert was a serial philanderer, constantly out of work. Her mother Sarah was mentally ill, probably schizophrenic. She was born in a rat and roach infested tenement, after her mother’s two previous pregancies had resulted in two dead children. Miraculously Clara survived her birth and grew up in the worst of environments: her father absent and her mother becoming more and more unstable and violent. Clara was a tomboy and learned to fend for herself by using her fists. At school she got good grades, but was bullied by classmates who made fun of her stammer. When she was nine years old a sad episode occurred. Her best friend was a little boy named Johnny. He lived in the same tenement and one day she heard him screaming her name. She ran to his room and found him on fire. She used a carpet to put out the fire but he died in her arms. Later in life directors were astounded that Clara could show emotion and cry at will for the camera. She told people that all she had to do was think about her childhood.

Clara’s one escape was the movies. She went to them as often as possible and read the movie magazines. She would imitate Mary Pickford in front of a mirror. In 1921 Motion Picture magazine announced a Fame and Fortune contest with a prize of a part in a motion picture. Over her mother’s objections she entered the contest. Entry required two photographs, and Clara couldn’t afford them. To her gratitude her father paid for the photographs. She had one dress, which she wore to all the try-outs. Photos of some of the contestants were published and when she saw the expensive clothes and jewelry some of them wore she knew her chances were not good. But, oddly enough, it was her acting ability that got her into the finals. She was a totally self-taught actor, but her natural abilities far out-shown her rivals. To her immense surprise and shock, she won the contest.

Sixteen year old Clara was as promised given a part in a movie shot locally on Long Island called Beyond the Rainbow. She invited her friends to the premiere only to be ridiculed by them. Her footage had been cut from the film! Worse, Clara’s mother, who was becoming more and more insane, was incensed that Clara wanted to become a film star. She screamed that Hollywood actresses were whores. Clara awoke one morning with her mother standing over her with a kitchen knife, saying it would be better if Clara were dead than for her to become an actress. Sarah Bow, prone to seizures, then lost consciousness. She died in an asylum shorly thereafter.

Clara had another chance in her second film, Down to the Sea in Ships. In this film she finally appeared on-screen and, although having a secondary role (which included a scene in which she indulges in some realistic fisticuffs—drawing on her tough upbringing), this time she  was definitely noticed by viewers and critics alike. Clara moved to Hollywood, and film after film came out, at least four a year. In short order she was the most sought-after star in Hollywood.  Despite her popularity and all the money she made for the studio,  her agent B.P. Schulberg ruthlessly exploited her. She was the most overworked and underpaid actor in Hollywood. She was also the most unorthodox actor in Hollywood.  She didn’t play the Hollywood games. Stars at the time signed “morality” clauses, and generally gave the impression of being morally upstanding, though in real life they were constantly sleeping around and having affairs. Clara had open liasons with various male stars and directors (including Gary Cooper and Victor Fleming, later the director of The Wizard of Oz) and so she regularly appeared in a bad light in the gossip magazines. Of course the men she went out with didn’t suffer the criticism she did! Clara was unmarried, and the men she went out with, with one exception (a doctor who was on the verge of divorce), were too. Yet since she was so open about her sex life she was widely condemned, generally by hypocrits who were engaging in the same activities, but lying about it.

Nevertheless Clara was loved by the movie-going public. She dyed her hair red with henna and when this fact leaked out, sales of henna went through the roof. Seeing her in the films that survive (about half of her silent films are lost due to neglect) it is no wonder. In her films she makes the other actors look like wooden robots. She is incredibly natural and alive. In her biggest hit, It, she plays a shop girl who has the mysterious quality “It.” In viewing the film, there is no doubt that Clara had “It,” both in the film and in real life. Her appearence is strangely modern. She looks like someone sent back in a time machine from our own time. Her acting is spontaneous and natural. Her face is incredibly expressive, which of course is essential in a silent film. As she is laughing uncontrollably while rolling around in the rotating barrel in Coney Island, it is impossible not to feel a connection with her. Audiences at the time certainly did.

She went through many engagements, but finally married an actor in cowboy movies, Rex Bell, who later became a Nevada politician, in 1932. By this time her short but bright career was already near its end. Her last film was released in 1933. She was only 28 years old. Plagued by scandals, defrauded by her best friend, denied her earned salary by the movie studio because of purported violation of her morality clause, Clara retired early in life. Adding to these factors, she did not like the “talkies”: she was spooked by the microphone over her head (she kept looking up at it, ruining takes) and her Brooklyn accent was criticized, though listening today it’s clear she could suppress it almost completely when needed. Moreover there was mounting evidence of mental illness. She would have outbreaks on the set. She became hypochondriacal. And so she retired forever from film and went to live on a Nevada ranch with her husband, Rex Bell.

Unfortunately, she seems to have inherited her mother’s schizophrenia. She had two children, but in time grew so unstable that her husband separated her from the children and she was institutionalized. Her psychiatric examination revealed more disquieting facts about her childhood.

Clara idolized her father, and supported him when she became a star. Yet it came out that he had repeatedly sexually abused her as a teenager. Her mother, who had repeated called Hollywood actresses whores had herself been a prostitute.

Clara lived out the rest of her life in isolation, accompanied only by a live-in nurse. She attempted suicide. Eventually she died in 1965 of a heart attack. She was alone, except for her nurse.

Today she survives in her films. She was beautiful, and a good and honest person. She personified the 1920’s “flapper” girl, but she was more complex than that. Her life was tragic, but for a brief moment in time her star shone as brightly as few others. It is sad that so many of films are lost, due to the unconscionable neglect of the film studios, who used copyright laws to prevent copies of these films to be made, while at the same time allowing the originals to rot in warehouses. Nevertheless through her films we can still, nearly a century later, get a glimpse of the phenomenon that was Clara Bow.

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Categorized as Movies

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

6 comments

  1. I take the reservations and lead the tours at Clara Bow and Rex Bell’s Walking Box Ranch in Searchlight,NV It is now on the national Register of Historic Districts and owned by the BLM These tours are always booked

  2. It is profoundly dastardly that a physician would state that Clara Bow “inherited her mother’s schizophrenia.” At some point in time, genetic studies may show cause, but for the present, Clara Bow suffered. But to diagnose her, (electrophysiologist, right?), with schizophrenia, while writing about the paternal sexual abuse, and the mother’s psychosis is more than irresponsible; it feeds other pseudo-psychologists denial of normal human response to unimaginable situations. Bow had a tough time. But labeling her with a psychiatric diagnosis that you are absolutely unqualified to do – and its a poor thing to do to one unable to come to a defense – can’t get much more classless than that.

    Making this worse, you wrote a bit on KevinMD, cautioning physicians about what they said to patients, (even though, in the case cited, it was a technologist who started that ball rolling. I think it might be right for you to consider other, non-medical subjects to post on the internet.

    1. You points are thoughtful and well taken. I was lazily parroting what I had read about Bow’s possible schizophrenia. To make matters even worse than you make them, the medical knowledge at the time was certainly inadequate to make these speculations. In my defense I did say that she “seemed” to inherit her mother’s schizophrenia rather than stating it as a fact which your comment implies. Regarding limiting my posts to topics I am knowledgeable about, I don’t want to be boxed in to just the role of “electrophysiologist.” I have a lot of interests and will continue to post on them, whether I am an expert in them or not.

    2. This is not the author’s subjective opinion concerning her possible diagnosis though. There are many speculations in this regard – and of course we will never know the full truth. Quite possible it might be both the trauma and the inherited disease – and/or something else. However, your fury and disgust over possible diagnosis of mental illness indicated your possible disdain over mental illness which frankly is not a flattering look at all. I mean, you act as if you think you need to ”defend” Clara from those ”insinuations” as if having mental illness is the worst thing ever… I repeat, this is not the author’s ”fantasy”, it’s an open long-standing speculation that she might have mental disorder or that her mental health deteriorated significantly either due to experienced physical and mental trauma or genetics – or I would say – BOTH (one does NOT contradict the other, as you would want to believe) and those things are NOT mutually exclusive, as you imply. Broaden your horizons.

  3. Dear mr. mannd,
    You are a sweet man. I noticed this before even knowing who wrote this article. I was happy to see I was right. You are a thoughtful, caring, and sweet person.
    I enjoyed the most, took notice, and loved these words you wrote:
    • “She is incredibly natural and alive.”
    • “Her appearence is strangely modern.”
    • “it is impossible not to feel a connection with her”
    • “but for a brief moment in time her star shone as brightly as few others.”

    Yes, mannd, she was a supernova that landed on her feet on the Earth, rather than into the ocean. There’s no doubt about it. It must be found to be true.

    I saw her in a beautiful little theater on Castro Street in San Francisco, called CALL HER SAVAGE. When she lept off the horse, I think. She tore his shirt off, I think. She began to whip him several times! only to then surrender to bandaging him with love and tears. The movie began and ended right there, for me. I was never the same person again. Life was never the same again. She was LIFE from beginning to end. And the Earth, the Earth that longs for LIFE, received her. I received her. You received her. Imagine this. One scene still active on this Earth from her films is still enough for the great work. Writing about her is a gift to this Earth also. No one should ever give comments that would stop it. Thank you for letting me feel I was not the only one. We are catching the great work — LIFE!

    I did recently find a video at YouTube. Someone found small recordings of silent film artist’s real voices. Clara Bow is in it. I got to hear her voice, only a few seconds long. Listen to this! Even that short amount of her voice was enough! Yet, I must say, what a shame the story about why they chose to not let these actors be heard was all because of one man who didn’t have a handsome voice. I forget his name. All the silent actors went along with it. That actor never once thought of all those actors, nor the people, nor the world, nor the Earth, nor the Universe, nor the Supernova sender, nor Supernova Usurper sender that probably had it in mind: “This will be fun. We will have a troop of silent actors so intriguing, that by half-way through their careers, we will stun the public, surprise the Earth, with the stunning of the public, by bringing their voices to the screen. Then, what a show it will be!” (This is all in my imagination).

    This is the design that I almost believe in my mind must have been true. Yet, a surprise happened, that is perplexing, mysterious, yet elegant. If it’s true, not one actor complained. And this is even more perplexing — the actor himself let himself still be important enough to silence them all. The more he remained silent, the more the actors remained silent. The great artists of silence, in my mind, all lined up perfectly, faces in the shadows, completely still silent. That’s a beautiful curtain call to a silent standing ovation to them all. I find them all the more, more fantastic than any movie I missed. Except one thing — that man, the actor with the embarrassing voice for the public to ever hear or find out about. Somebody captured all this in one video at YouTube. It’s worth investigating. It makes me ponder for a long while … ideas. It’s really the heaviest pondering I’ve ever felt, as if there’s something important to learn. I hope somebody can bring that time back up and do a film about it. I hope they get elegant visions about it, as I do now. Thanks to your memory of her that you took the time to write about. It made me go to a deeper place about life and how much bigger, perhaps harder, it is to really get to LIVING.

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