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.

About 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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.