Saturday, July 3, 2010

Monthly Muse: Clara Bow

Its the beginning of July and that means its time for a new monthly muse. This months muse is 1920s actress and iconic flapper Clara Bow.

Clara Bow was born in Brooklyn, New York on 29th July 1905, she was the third child (the first two girls died in infancy) to Sarah and Robert Bow. Sarah was told by a doctor that another pregnancy could kill her by a doctor but she still fell pregnant with Clara. According to Bow her mother became "almost mad with apprehension and fear". The delivery proved to be as difficult as feared; "At first, they thought I was dead... I don't suppose two people ever looked death in the face more clearly than my mother and I the morning I was born. We were both given up, but somehow we struggled back to life."

At sixteen, Sarah fell from a second-story window and suffered a severe head injury. Later she was diagnosed with "psychosis due to epilepsy", which apart from the seizures can cause disordered thoughts, delusional ideas, paranoia and aggressive behavior. From a young age Clara learnt to care for her mother during her seizures and how to deal with the psychotic and malicious episodes. Sarah worsened gradually, and when she realized her daughter was set for a movie career, she told her she "would be much better off dead". One night in February 1922, Bow awoke with a butcher knife against her throat; when her mother hesitated, Bow fended her off and locked her up. In the morning, Sarah had no recollection of the episode and was later committed to a charity hospital

Robert, Clara's father never really made anything of himself and couldn't hold down a job. The families income varied dramatically. From 1905 to 1923 the family lived at 14 different addresses. Robert with often leave the family for long periods leaving them very little to survive on.

Clara was often teased growing up for her worn out clothes and carrot top hair. As a result of this she became somewhat of a tomboy and became famed among peers for her strong right arm. Clara would often attend the movies in her teenage years and sought it as a refuge from he difficult home life. It was here that she fell in love with the movies.

Every year Brewster publications Motion Picture Classic and Shadowland, held a nationwide acting contest, Fame and Fortune and several of its former winners had found work in the pictures afterwords. With her father's support but against her mother's wishes, she competed and won. In the final screen test Bow was up against an already scene-experienced woman, who went first and did "a beautiful piece of acting", but when Bow did the scene she actually became her character and "lived it". In the January issues 1922 of Motion Picture Classics the jury concluded:

“ "She is very young, only 16. But she is full of confidence, determination and ambition. She is endowed with a mentality far beyond her years. She has a genuine spark of divine fire. The five different screen tests she had, showed this very plainly, her emotional range of expression provoking a fine enthusiasm from every contest judge who saw the tests. She screens perfectly. Her personal appearance is almost enough to carry her to success without the aid of the brains she indubitably possesses".

Bow won an evening gown and a silver trophy and the publisher committed to help her "gain a role in films". But nothing happened. Bow's father told her to "haunt" Brewster's office (located in Brooklyn) until they came up with something. Clara was eventually cast in Beyond the Rainbow but in the end her five scenes were cut from the film.

This did not deter Clara and encouraged by her father she ran around all the studios in town looking for parts but she was often told she was too ugly or too fat. Eventually director Elmer Clifton needed a tomboy for his movie Down to the Sea in Ships, saw Bow in Motion Picture Classic magazine and sent for her. She got the part and when the movie was released the critics sang her praises. Due to her merits in the movie she was elected one of the 1924 WAMPAS baby stars.

Three months before Down to the Sea in Ships was released, while her mother was dying at home, Bow danced half nude, on a table, unaccredited in Enemies of woman. In spring she got a part in The Daring Years and in the summer, she got a "tomboy" part in Grit, a story, which dealt with juvenile crime and was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Bow met her first boyfriend, cameraman Arthur Jacobson, and she got to know director Frank Tuttle, with whom she worked in five later productions.

While shooting Grit bow was approached by Jack Bachman of Preferred Pictures in Hollywood who offered her a three month trial. Bow was hesitant but spurred on by her father she made the move.

Bows first Hollywood movie was an adaptation of the operetta Maytime. Before Maytime was finished Schulberg announced that Bow was given the lead in the studio's biggest seasonal assessment, Poisoned Paradise, but first she was lent to First National Pictures to co-star in the adaption of Gertrude Atherton's 1923 bestseller Black Oxen, shot in October, and to co-star Colleen Moore in Painted People, shot in November.

In 1925, Schulberg cast Bow in The Plastic Age. The movie was a huge hit, and Bow was suddenly the studio's most popular star. She also began to date her co-star Gilbert Roland, who would become the first of many fiancees. Bow followed her first big success with Mantrap (1926), directed by Victor Fleming. Though he was twice her age, Bow quickly fell in love with her director. She began seeing both Roland and Fleming at the same time.

In 1927 Clara reached the height of her fame with the movie It. She became known as The It Girl.

Many Hollywood insiders considered her socially undesirable. Bow was not liked by other women in Hollywood, and her presence at social functions was taboo, including her own premieres. Bow's bohemian lifestyle, thick Brooklyn accent and "dreadful" manners were considered reminders of the Hollywood Elite's uneasy position in high society, and they shunned her for it. Budd Schulberg, wrote in his memoir, Moving Pictures, "Hollywood was a cultural schizophrene: The anti-movie Old Guard with their chamber music and their religious pageants fighting a losing battle against the more dynamic culture of the Ad Schulbergs who flaunted the bohemianism of Edna St. Vincent Millay and the socialism of Upton Sinclair. But there was one subject on which the staid old Hollywood establishment and the members of the new culture circle would agree: Clara Bow, no matter how great her popularity, was a low life and a disgrace to the community."

However, Bow was praised by critics for her beauty, vitality and enthusiasm — Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, said that "She danced even when her feet weren't moving. Some part of her was always in motion, if only her great, rolling eyes. It was an elemental magnetism, an animal vitality, that made her the center of attraction in any company."

In 1927, Bow starred in Wings, a war picture largely rewritten to accommodate her, as she was Paramount's biggest star at the time. The film went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1928, Bow wrote the foreword for a novelization of her film The Fleet's In. Between 1927 and 1930, Bow was one of Hollywood's top five box office attractions.

Bow's career continued into the early sound film era. Legend contends that her first talkie, The Wild Party, directed by Dorothy Arzner, was a disaster, but audiences crammed into theatres to see it, and the reviews, though they gave the film itself poor marks, commented that her voice suited her screen image well. However, Bow began experiencing microphone fright on the sets of her sound films. A visibly nervous Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead; Arzner took credit for being the first director to hang the microphone from overhead. However, her performances in her sound films improved rapidly, and she continued to be a box office success.

While MGM had given their biggest star, Greta Garbo, two years to prepare for her first sound film, Paramount gave Bow two weeks. Paramount began canceling her films, docking her pay, charging her for unreturned costumes, and insisting that she pay for her publicity photographs. As she slipped closer and closer to a major breakdown, her manager B.P. Schulberg began referring to her as "Crisis-A-Day-Clara"

The pressures of fame, public scandals, overwork and a damaging court trial involving former assistant Daisy DeVoe took their toll on Bow's already fragile emotional health. She ended up in a sanatorium in April 1931 with a case of shattered nerves. Paramount released her from her contract a short while later. Following a brief period away from Hollywood to recover, Bow signed a two-picture deal with Fox Film Corporation and returned to the screen in the early talkie Call Her Savage (1932). Although the film was a success, Bow opted for marriage and motherhood, and ended her film career after the release of Hoop-La the following year.

Bow and cowboy actor Rex Bell (actually George F. Beldam), later a Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, married in 1932 and had two sons, Tony Beldam (born 1934, changed name to Rex Anthony Bell, Jr.) and George Beldam, Jr. (born 1938). Bow retired from acting in 1933. Her last public exposure, albeit fleeting, was a guest appearance on the radio show Truth or Consequences in 1947; Bow provided the voice of "Mrs. Hush".

In 1944, while Bell was running for the U.S. House of Representatives, Bow tried to commit suicide. In 1949 she checked into The Institute of Living to be treated for her chronic insomnia. Shock treatment was tried and numerous psychological tests performed. Bow's IQ was measured "bright normal" (pp. 111-119), while others claimed she was unable to reason, had poor judgment and displayed inappropriate or even bizarre behavior. Bow was diagnosed with schizophrenia, despite experiencing no hallucinations or psychosis. Her insomnia was a result of childhood trauma, the analysts said, but Bow rejected psychological explanations for both her sleep disorder and her physical pains

Bow spent her last years in a modest house in Los Angeles under the constant care of a nurse, living off an estate worth about $500,000 at the time of her death. She died on September 27, 1965, aged 60, of a heart attack while watching a Gary Cooper movie. The autopsy revealed that Bow suffered from atherosclerosis (death certificate), a heart disease established in early adolescence. Bow's heart bore scars from an earlier undiagnosed heart attack.She was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Clara is an inspiration that proves that with persistence we can make our dreams a reality. Clara was have been panned by Hollywood insiders but she always stayed true to herself and her roots and did not bow down to public pressures. Bow was the epitome of a flapper and her inspiration can still be seen today in the cartoon character Betty Boop.

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