The Unknown Clara Bow

Real Audio file of Clara singing!Clara Bow

The Unknown Clara Bow

by William Cramer

A Study of Clara Bow by Edwin Bower Hesser     Walk up to any person on the street and mention the name Clara Bow you would get blank stares and the question, "Who's that?" Granted, most people, outside us devoted silent movie fans have never even heard of the name. With virtually no showings of her films on TV or elsewhere, it is difficult for anyone in the general public to really know who Clara Bow was or what she did. Poster companies frequently tantalize us with images of Harlow, Monroe, Chaplin, Keaton, Garbo, Wayne, etc., but not Clara Bow. You would even be hard-pressed to find many Clara Bow titles in many of those specialty silent video catalogues.

     To those few silent movie fans who do know about Clara Bow, she is the "It" Girl---that red-headed one who took on legions of men, failed in talkies, and had several nervous breakdowns. Still fewer people know her as the "Flapper-par-Excellence" or "The Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman of sex, who always gets her man." But like so many of the great actors of yesteryear, rumors and legend have a way of superceding the truth. They have a way of distorting the facts and thereby eliminating any knowledge of what made these stars the truly talented phenomenons that they actually were.

     Clara Bow was a great actress. Adela Rogers St. Johns knew a great deal of actors during her long life. In "Hollywood, the Pioneers", (the Brownlow/Gill mini-series on silent movies), she mentioned Clara Bow as being one of the two "most utterly talented actors' she knew. John Gilbert was the other.

Clara Bow as Gloria Swanson in The Hummingbird (1924)     In his book "Seductive Cinema" (1994: Knopf Pub.), James Card says:

"...Clara Bow should more properly be compared with Greta Garbo than with any other film actress. Both Bow and Garbo were determined to be film actresses from childhood. Both were observant filmgoers as teenagers and studiously imitated the techniques as practiced by those players they admired."

     As a teenager Clara would frequently go to the movies to escape her horrible family life. Much to the consternation of her mother, she would practice in the mirror what she learned from her movie idols. Some of these idols included Mae Murray, Gloria Swanson, and Theda Bara (to name a few).

James Card further states:

"To an almost mystical degree, the images of Clara Bow and Greta Garbo emit a powerful stimuli from the motion picture screen-Garbo registering ambiguous mystery, Bow assaulting the viewer with enormous vitality and breezy sexuality."cigarette card

     You may say that that is preposterous! There is no way Clara Bow can compare to Greta Garbo! But if you think about it, why not? Had Clara's screen image had 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 (Gilbert, Colman, etc.,.) 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. Garbo took two years off before she made her talkie debut. Clara would later say, "I had made them (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." ("The It" Girl of the Twenties,
by Rudy Behlmer, pub. in "Films in Review", Oct. 196

     Early on Clara instinctively knew what it took to be a star. She knew this after watching her favorite stars on the screen. That was her acting school. She would observe and learn. And she knew enough that it would take more than just imitating to be a good actress. She just allowed herself to be herself. Furthermore, she relied on her instinctive acting sense and her natural ability for pantomimic dramatization. She knew this when she competed for and won the "Fame and Fortune" contest in 1921.

     David Stenn, in "Clara Bow, Runnin' '' Wild" (pg. 8) says of Clara:

     "Instinctively Clara had grasped the essence of stardom: individuality.  The girl who had spent hours imitating Mary Pickford sensed that to be special, she must be herself, and artistic credo that Clara maintained for the rest of her career."

     The result of her "being herself" was screen magic. She was a natural force of nature that every ordinary person could relate to and secretly want to become.

     People who knew and worked with Clara knew the potential she had. In her autobiography, "Romantic Adventure", Elinor Glyn says that had she not retired from films, "would have become one of the greatest artists on the screen, particularly in tragic parts, for which she had far greater aptitude than for the comic scenes which I had to make her act in my films. (Ibid., Rudy Behlmer)

     Clara had many non-flapper roles. As a matter of fact, the flapper role (i.e.: "It", "Mantrap", "Dancing Mothers") was only one of three major film types Clara would play during her career. The other two being- that of the "Jailbird" (as in "Free to Love" 1925, "Shadow of the Law" 1926, and "Grit" 1924)- and that of a "tomboy" (as in "Down to the Sea in Ships" 1922, "Lawful Cheaters" 1925, etc.,.) The following ILLUSTRATION shows her as the lovely damsel in the western flick, "The Scarlet West". In these roles Clara would be called upon to run the gamut of emotions, and she would always transcend any of the bad material she was given.The Scarlet West

     Victor Fleming was astounded at her serious side. In the film "Children of Divorce", Fleming remembers her "dying scene" to be the best one he ever saw. He also said of her:

     "A temperament that responded like a great violin, touch her and she answered with genius. Her acting could have been developed to a power, a reality that would have led screen drama to new heights." (Love, Laughter, and Tears" by Adela St. Johns, pg. 218)

     She could consistently and naturally cry for the camera. Witness her in any of her films---the tears she shed were real. She would pass it off and explain the crying to be a result of thinking about her awful past. True, when the scene called for crying, the violins in the background would churn out "Rock-a-bye Baby", and Clara would methodically fall apart and cry hysterically. Other times, she could cry at the drop of a hat. Frank Tuttle, her director in the 1924 feature "Grit", "marveled at Clara's ability to express emotion without apparent concentration." She would ask the director, "Ya want me t' cry?" (Stenn, Ibid. pg. 29) She would park her chewing gum behind her ear and within seconds, would cry her eyes out.

     "For further proof that Clara Bow had talent, as well as a highly publicized personality, one would not turn to "It". "Mantrap",...the year before "It", shows her not only in the hands of a better director than Clarence Badger, but is a far less artificial film and reveals one astounding aspect of her." ("The Stars Appear" by Alexander Walker, pg. 204) The scene takes place in the forest. The runaway couple is exhausted and both are forced to confront each others deep feelings. "And for once Clara Bow is directed to act with surprising naturalism. Her hair blowing back softly from a tired face shows a mature, nearly carnal beauty...for the first time one understands...a tragic side to Clara Bow's talent as an actress. One bitterly regrets not seeing it more frequently employed (Ibid.)

     To further comment on Clara Bow's acting genius, Adela Rogers St. Johns had some very interesting comments on Clara. The following is quoted from her article, "The Salvation of Clara Bow" , as it a appeared in "The New Movie Magazine", Dec., 1930:cigarette card

"...She should be the greatest dramatic actress if Paramount would...give her stories worthy of her genius. Poor Pictures have dimmed the blazing light of her success, but with one real story she would come back. I have studied Clara Bow closely. I have had opportunity to talk with her for hours. She has always interested me intensely, because, as I say, I honestly believe the girl has genius." She adds, "...We find her living only in the moment, only in the present... Of course that is what makes her a very great actress. Since only the moment has reality, her acting becomes intensely real to her. She is so glad to get away from reality that her parts seem real to her. She loves to have them seem real. Her greatest joy is her work. When she is being someone else, living vicariously, getting away from herself and being some girl when she would much rather have been." She concludes, "I believe her (Clara) capable of reaching heights as an actress not yet reached by anyone in pictures."

     As we move to the here and now, it does not seem like most people will ever experience the genius that is Clara Bow. We will never experience this "Unknown Clara Bow." Most people will never know the "It" girl, Clara Bow either. Who sees her on the television screen? Who sees her name or her pictures in magazines or newspapers? Who CAN see her, when many of her titles are locked up in film archives? The answers are painfully obvious.

     Yet, her magic, vitality, and charm still awaits discovery. A new generation of fans and movie buffs CAN and WILL be won over by her...if only given the chance.

     I would like to conclude with a very tender touching tribute to Clara Bow. This "Dedication" is taken from Elizabeth Kendall's book, "Runaway Bride":

Clara Bow before IT"..A beauty contest in Brooklyn had first brought her into the movies. She had arrived in Hollywood in 1923, a vibrant, gum-chewing, slightly tattered, and emotionally vulnerable eighteen-year-old. The pretentious social hierarchy of twenties Hollywood, embodied by her 'discoverer' and producer, B.P. Schulberg, had slotted her into semi pornographic flapper and Cinderella stories, where she would remain until the end of her career in 1933. 

     "But now that Bow's movies are emerging from vaults, it is possible to see how original was the talent she brought to those cheap twenties formulae, and how critical is her place in the whole history of female screen acting in America. Bow not only summed up the techniques of her predecessors Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Mae Marsh-the D. W. Griffith pioneers-she suggested those of her 'descendants.' She brought to the screen an openness that hadn't been seen before, and elemental good nature, a wish to please that read as a healthy sexuality, and an unstudied naturalness about the extremes of grief and joy-qualities that Mae West took from her and caricatured, and which the romantic comedy heroines then took over, via West, and turned into virtues. Yet Clara had done it all herself: no director, producer, or screenwriter ever tried to build a movie around her unstinting generosity. She constructed her own roles. Romantic comedy was obliged on the surface to repudiate her example, since she was associated with the wild jazz years though responsible for the Crash. But this most exploited of actresses haunts the genre. Her trustingness lives in its heroines; her magnificent vulnerability prepared the way for them."


Clara Bow

More images of Clara Bow
A poem about Clara Bow
Clara as Mae Murray
A pose from "The Fleet's In"
A scene from "Maytime"
Sheet music from "Wings"


Article Copyright © 1998 William Cramer.  All rights reserved.
This page was edited and uploaded February 24, 1998 by Gilda Tabarez at
Photos Courtesy of William Cramer;  the first and last color graphics on this page were hand-tinted by Gilda Tabarez.

Clara Bow sings There's Only One Who Matters to Me from "True to the Navy" (1930)
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