What We Talk About When We Talk About Clara Bow

clara-bow

Clara Bow did not fit in in Hollywood. The Brooklyn good-times gal had the misfortune of being a real-life Jean Harlow character in the hoity-toity Hollywood of poor men and women turned into American royalty. No one wanted to be reminded of where they came from, which is exactly what Clara, with her thick Brooklyn accent and hedonistic ways, did. She was also unabashedly frank when it came to her sex life, getting off her best lines about Gary Cooper. “He’s hung like a horse and can go all night,” she crowed to one friend. And later, “Poor Gary. He’s got the biggest cock in Hollywood and no ass to push it with.”

Is it any wonder people were willing to dismiss her as a crazy nymphomaniac who banged the entire USC football team in one night? Or believed the rumors that she had sex with her Great Dane?

The outlandish behavior is more understandable if you know that Clara woke up one night as a child to find her mother holding a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her. And that the It Girl, exhausted by scandal (her former assistant aired all of her dirty laundry in a much publicized trial), married cowboy actor Rex Bell and gave up the spotlight… only to find herself a politician’s wife when Bell became governor of Nevada, forced to gladhand and smile for the cameras once again.

But her movies still sparkle. She’s an almost shockingly modern actress; none of the put-on airs of other silent film stars about her. You can’t imagine Bow taking herself as seriously as, say, Gloria Swanson or Pola Negri or even Mary Pickford. Much like Louise Brooks or Marion Davies, she was a talented actress undone by gossipy, envious colleagues, who successfully buried her real accomplishments beneath a pile of rumor and innuendo. But watch 10 minutes of It. Or track down a copy of Mantrap or her delirious talkie Call Her Savage and you’ll see why she was a star in the first place.

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