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Clara Bow: Discovering the "It" Girl
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Clara Bow: Discovering the "It" Girl

Clara Bow was Hollywood's first sex symbol. She was, as the documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl (1999) demonstrates, "a one woman revolution who shattered social and sexual taboos." She was a self-described working girl who became a role model for the flapper era by "creating a personality new to the screen - youthful, energetic and frankly sexual." With narration by Courtney Love, Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl traces Bow's life from Brooklyn tenement to silent screen stardom. The hour-long documentary combines rare film footage, photos, and interviews with family, colleagues, and film critics such as Leonard Maltin to provide the most comprehensive look ever at this film icon.

Beginning with her early years in Brooklyn, the documentary describes Bow's unhappy childhood. Her mother was mentally unstable and her father was often absent. But from an early age, Bow was fascinated with movies and dreamed of acting. Her mother raged against the "evil" pursuit - once even standing over Clara with a knife, threatening to kill her in her sleep. Undeterred, Bow entered a photo beauty contest and won - the prize was a role in a movie. The film was Beyond the Rainbow (1922) but Bow's first film appearance would end up on the cutting room floor. Years later, after she hit it big, the film was re-released with Bow's previously deleted scenes and her name above the title. Discovering the It Girl features a clip from Beyond the Rainbow.

Bow's next picture Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) got her noticed - and she was soon off to Hollywood. The low-budget studio Preferred Pictures, headed by B.P. Schulberg, signed Bow to a contract. The documentary includes interviews with Schulberg's son, the Oscar® winning writer Budd Schulberg. Discovering the It Girl also features clips from the Bow films, Helen's Babies (1924), My Lady of Whims (1925) and Empty Hearts (1924) which was long thought to be a lost film. There's also an interesting story in the documentary that reveals how silent productions often used three-piece orchestras to create a mood on set, and how Bow would request "Rock-a-Bye Baby" for crying scenes; the song always made her bawl.

In 1926, Schulberg went to Paramount and took Bow with him. Her biggest picture yet came in 1926 with Mantrap directed by Victor Fleming. The movie got good reviews and did big business. It earned Bow a 5-year contract and quadrupled her salary. Bow would hit the height of her fame the following year with the release of It (1927). The movie was based on a book by the same name, written by Elinor Glyn, an English writer of racy best sellers. The title It was considered, at the time, a code word for sex in an era when such things couldn't be mentioned in mixed company. Whatever "It" meant, Schulberg decided Bow had it. He devised a publicity campaign to purchase the film rights to Glyn's book, pay her $50,000 and give her a bit part in the picture - all if she would declare Clara Bow to be the It Girl. The idea paid off big time. It was a smash hit, turning Bow from a mere star into an icon. Later that same year Bow would cement her place in Hollywood history when she appeared in Wings (1927), the first film to win the Oscar® for Best Picture.

But change was on the way. The coming of sound pictures made Bow nervous. And Schulberg only gave her two weeks to prepare for her sound debut in The Wild Party (1929). The film's success was basically assured since fans were curious to hear Bow's voice. Nonetheless, the microphone frightened Bow whose speech was less than perfect. Her second sound picture Dangerous Curves (1929), directed by Lothar Mendes, proved no easier on her nerves. And to make matters worse, for Love Among the Millionaires (1930) Bow had to sing. Between her growing anxiety on set, courtroom scandals off the set and the start of the Great Depression - which made everything Bow stood for in the 1920s seem reckless - Bow's fame began to plummet. It all culminated in a breakdown on the set of Kick In (1931). Soon after, Clara Bow was released from her Paramount contract, signifying the end of her Hollywood career at the young age of 25.

As Bow told the press, she now "wanted something real." She married cowboy star Rex Bell, had two sons and settled on a ranch in Nevada. She appeared in just two more films - Fox offered her a staggering $125,000 to make Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La(1933). Bow's post-Hollywood years were not easy; at times she had to be institutionalized. The "It" Girl of the 1920s died September 27, 1965 in Los Angeles.

Producer: Elaina Archer, Hugh Hefner, Carl Lindahl, Hugh Munro Neely
Director: Hugh Munro Neely
Screenplay: Elaina Archer, John J. Flynn, Hugh Munro Neely
Cinematography: Harry Dawson
Film Editing: Elaina Archer, Hugh Munro Neely
Music: Nigel Holton
Cast: Courtney Love (narrator), David Stenn, Budd Schulberg, Catherine Mulligan, Rex Bell, Jr., Leonard Maltin.
BW&C-57m. Closed captioning.

by Stephanie Thames