So many “It” Girls have come and gone since the term was invented for Clara Bow. But who, on-screen, could equal her sensuality, emotional fervor, joie de vivre, and sheer animal magnetism? David Stenn’s biography, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, offers even more melodrama than the cheap vehicles Paramount devised to wring profits from her immense talents. Born in a Brooklyn tenement to a family plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, Bow got her start in pictures at age 16 by winning her first role in a 1921 magazine contest. The image the studios fashioned for her—a carefree, man-hungry flapper—became an icon for the Jazz Age and an influence on her own turbulent private life. The most popular star of her day, she was a social outcast among Hollywood royalty, who found her thick Brooklyn accent and unapologetic bad-girl ways impossible to tolerate. Her nerves and confidence shattered by overwork, successive scandals, and the introduction of sound, she retired at 25, though she returned to make two movies about wild women, Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla (1933).
They are among the many highlights in this series of 16 rare and historic films, which reveal Bow’s great intuitive gifts and stunning screen presence often triumphing over mediocre costars and material. In The Plastic Age (1925), director Wesley Ruggles’s paean to campus youth, straight-arrow athlete Donald Keith is the bland object of Bow’s smoldering attentions; she plays a sexy coed who introduces him to the secret backroom pleasures of riotous Prohibition-era parties. (Gilbert Roland is better as a jealous rival for her affections, a role he also played in real life.) For a moviegoing public weaned on Mary Pickford’s virginal girl-woman, Bow’s frankly aggressive eroticism was both shocking and deeply appealing, and heralded a change in sexual mores.
Bow’s marvelous comic skills were better served in Mantrap (1926), directed by Victor Fleming (another of her many “fiancés”), in which she plays a city manicurist who trades her silk gowns for gingham once she marries Canadian backwoodsman Ernest Torrence, though she can’t resist flirting with vacationing divorce lawyer Percy Marmont. And they’re glowingly evident in It (1927), the film that gave Bow her sobriquet. The slogan was a marketing ploy, a studio invention, but the childlike sexual allure Bow radiates is all her own, as an alarmingly vivacious department store salesgirl who falls for her boss (Antonio Moreno) and steals him from his society girlfriend with a night of Coney Island fun. A tale of working-class triumph, It and It‘s star placed the new medium of motion pictures firmly on the side of the masses who thronged the five-cent theaters. But offscreen, the “It” Girl’s story was also a tragedy about how individuals became commodities at the dawn of celebrity culture, and the personal price they paid for it.