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Clara Bow: The Original "It" Girl

Born in urban poverty in Brooklyn, Clara Bow made her way to the silver screen, and even into the English language. Her career in films was relatively short, spanning all of nine years, but you’ll still hear her referenced in Hollywood by people who might not even know her name. Clara grew up a tomboy, by her own admission, preferring the company of boys to girls. But by the time she was a teenager and her peers started to see the differences between boys and girls as not so easily traversed, so she found herself without many close friends. Her mother died while Clara was a teenager, suffering from the strangely-worded malady “psychosis due to epilepsy”, after having been sent to an asylum following a psychotic episode where she held a knife to the throat of her daughter, who managed to fight her off. Clara’s father was supportive, if unlucky in establishing a steady career, and encouraged his daughter in life. At age 16, she entered a mail-in contest promoted in a number of magazines called The Fame and Fortune Contest of 1921. The contest was to find the next great movie starlet, and asked for a photo and your vital statistics, like height and weight. Clara won this contest, and dropped out of high school during her senior year to strike while the iron was hot. She was after a movie career. It didn’t begin so well. After a year of getting rejected by various talent agencies (usually because she was “too fat”, according to Bow herself), she landed a small part in a the 1922 film Beyond the Rainbow, but was cut from the final version. Strangely, her name appeared in promotional literature for the movie, boasting that in included the winner of the Fame and Fortune contest, not even hinting that she was back at the studio, on the cutting room floor. The first time her face ever made it to the big screen was in 1923, in a film shot in New Bedford, Massachusetts, called Down to the Sea in Ships. It was a film produced by the whaling industry, romanticizing the lives of whalers. She was offered $35 a week to do the picture, but held out for $50, and got it. (Underpaying workers is an old tradition in the movies, as it is in many other industries.) She got rave reviews, and her career was on its way, finally appearing in the movies whose posters her name was on!

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Soon after, she was doing far better than that. Her studio, Preferred Pictures, was paying her a salary ranging from $200 to $750 a week. Of course, when Preferred loaned her out to other studios to make movies, they would rake in $1500 to $2000 a week for the favor. All the same, Preferred went bankrupt in 1925 and Bow went to work for the studio that bought out Preferred’s assets: Paramount Pictures, who are still around today. Clara Bow’s best-remembered picture today is probably 1927’s It. (No, it didn’t have any scary clowns in it.) It was a classic poor-girl-meets-rich-man story in which Bow played a shopgirl who catches the eye of the owner of the department store she works in. Her appeal, according to the movie, was that she had “it”. No one quite knew what “it” was supposed to be, not among the film’s characters, and not among the audience. Bow herself said she didn’t know, either. The best way to interpret it was as some kind of undefined personal magnetism that a woman could pull off without even trying. It was a silent film, and a smash at the box office. Clara Bow was thereafter called “The It Girl.” The term held a kind of vague compliment that the one saying it didn’t have to feel he had to explain. In the 1935 Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, Chico says to a woman, “You got It, baby.” After eighty years, this almost carries a certain kind of class, but in fact it was a really cheesy line, something akin to, “Is it hot in here, or is it just you?” Of course, the It Girl nickname soon grew larger than Bow herself. After she retired from movies, the term knocked around a bit, getting used to describe other movie stars with great sex appeal, like latter-day It Girls Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe. Even Robert Mitchum was sometimes referred to as “the It Man”. Andy Warhol’s Factory star Edie Sedgwick was also called an It Girl in her day, and was the last one for a while. The term has seen a kind of resurgence since the 1990s, and not quite so flattering as it used to be. An It Girl these days is a young actress who gets attention in the media that’s in far greater proportion to what they’ve actually accomplished already. It seems that if you’re dubbed an It Girl (or an It Boy) these days, there’s a suggestion that you well might turn out to be something of a flash in the pan. It was also in 1927 that the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was released. The pressure was on: people wanted talkies. Some actors’ careers were ruined because they had the look but not the voice to make it, but Bow was fine. She kept making movies where she’d talk and sing, and remained one of the top box office draws of her day. But she never liked doing talking pictures, claiming she felt constrained by having to talk while acting, and wanted out. By 1931 she was ready to retire, and Paramount was ready to let her go. She was prone to emotional outbursts and was on a number of sedatives to calm her nerves. “Crisis-a-Day Clara”, as the studio referred to her, was getting to be too much to manage. She came back to make a couple more movies in 1933, and retired from acting at age 28. She married cowboy actor Rex Bell and had two children, and returned with her husband to Hollywood in 1937 to open the short-lived “The It Café”. After it closed, she largely retired from public life. Her husband tried running for Congress in 1944, bringing her a good deal of stress. She left a suicide note stating that she preferred “death to a public life”. The suicide attempt was unsuccessful, but things did not get better. She checked herself into an asylum and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She didn’t exhibit any hallucinations of any kind, so it’s uncertain whether she really was schizophrenic. Bow took exception to the diagnosis and left psychiatric care. She lived alone in a bungalow, eschewing public life. This was difficult, since her husband stayed active in politics. He went on to become the head of the Nevada Republican Party, and was elected lieutenant-governor of Nevada twice. He died in office in 1962. The reclusive Bow, under constant supervision of a nurse, died in 1965. Besides her old It Girl nickname being recycled, Bow’s other lasting impact on culture is Betty Boop, the cartoon character created by animators Max & Dave Fleischer, who modeled her on Bow. Betty Boop even spoke with Bow’s brassy Brooklyn accent, though she’s not a redhead, like Bow was.

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