Film Review
By Ray Young


Clara Bow



Directed by Clarence Badger

Starring Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno
Released in 1927

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    While you can find it in all walks of life, it is still relatively uncommon. In the movies, Cary Grant personified it, while Ann Sheridan and Stella Stevens had glimmers of it. Clark Gable and Myrna Loy toyed with the sensuality of it, Marlene Dietrich fondled it, and Rita Hayworth oozed it in Gilda (1946). Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner made it blush in The Killers (1946). Before she shot over it, Sophia Loren rattled it in The Gold of Naples (1957). And recently we’ve seen it in Johnny Depp and Julia Roberts.
    “It is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force,” wrote Elinor Glyn in her novel and screenplay, It (1927). “With it you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. It can be a quality of the mind as well as physical attraction.”
    After establishing a reputation with hack romance novels (such as the salacious Three Weeks, written in six, and published in 1907), Glyn went to Hollywood and ran erotic themes through inane scenarios. Essentially a routine Cinderella comedy, It (which features the haughty, bovine author in a cameo appearance) caught on thanks in part to that catchy title, but mostly because of its star, Clara Bow. I was born about thirty years after the picture was made, but as long as I can remember, I’ve known of “Clara Bow, the It girl.” Now that’s a successful ad campaign.
    Seeing the film today, it’s obvious that Bow’s immense popularity (she once received a record 45,000 fan letters a month) wasn’t simply the byproduct of a talented publicist. This is a completely, almost unbelievably beautiful woman who emanates the promise of sex and fun, and carries an immaturity laced with tender aplomb. Not at all worldly nor classically exotic, she’s base and simple, and you can’t take your eyes off of her. Without her presence, It could be fairly standard, the stuff of countless fish-out-of-water comedies: a poor salesgirl maneuvers her way into polite society and takes the man of her dreams off of his high horse. (Judging by the recent popularity of Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, the formula has legs.)
    Not to imply that It is mediocre or incompetently made — in fact, it’s a sharp, snappy film with subplots that work. (Director Clarence Badger was a reasonably talented contract director and screenwriter.) There’s good comedy support from the actor William Austin, here playing the kind of fusspot Edward Everett Horton would master in the thirties. And the remaining cast — Antonio Moreno as the wealthy love interest, Priscilla Bonner as his bland socialite fiancée, and Jacqueline Gadson as Bow’s sickly, single-mother friend — add character to those moments when the picture attempts to rise above its featherweight premise.
    Which is, of course, to ogle Clara Bow. There are extended sequences, breezy minutes on end, where she exists solely for the caress of the camera. Doing a playful climb up a staircase, or powdering herself, or walking around in her underwear, or being tossed about in a carnival fun house, Clara is indeed it. While her allure extends from an innate ‘availability’ (she’s obviously been around the block), her understated innocence and infantile sexuality invites a bond with the viewer. Bow was a child of poverty, from a household of alcoholic and mentally disturbed parents. Her rise to stardom was a stroke of luck (she won a contest), and there was no time for her to develop airs. What’s on the screen looks and acts genuine. This is kismet: we connect with her.
    The toast of the town for the latter half of the twenties, and a charter member of the so-called ‘Flapper’ era, Bow was “someone to stir every pulse in the nation,” wrote F. Scott Fritzgerald. But there’s a trapdoor to fame: the public isn’t necessarily fickle, it just bores easily. Professor Jeanine Basinger of Wesleyan University, in her comprehensive audio commentary on the new DVD edition of It from Milestone Films and Image Entertainment, appreciates Bow’s dilemma as a movie star: “She’s a personality, not an actress.” Which is why Paramount worked her so hard and fast (she appeared in several quickie features over a five-year period, fifteen in 1925 alone) — the front office realized it could fade from vogue in the blink of an eye. Her scandalous off-screen life of wild parties and orgies didn’t endear her to the public. And as the movies entered the sound era, a nasal Brooklynese patois, that “I’m just a woikin’ goil” twang, secured Bow’s descent.
    Therefore, It survives as a timepiece, a social document, a welcoming vision of sexuality, and a lovely, enjoyable comedy. Prof. Basinger’s assertion, “She’s Betty Boop in the flesh,” sums up what to expect from Clara Bow, and points to what the film has to offer — life as a freewheeling cartoon on the cusp of the Great Depression. Looking great on DVD, accompanied by a crisp, bouncy score by Carl Davis, It’s got it!