Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Clara Bow: Hollywood's "It" Girl

Clara Bow, the original "It" girl, 1920. Photo Public Domain. 

She was Hollywood's "It" girl, star of the Oscar-winning Wings, and symbol of carefree "flappers" in the roaring twenties, but her personal life was unbearably painful. Nevertheless, I have always been fascinated by her great beauty, and for that reason I have chosen her for today's topic in the A to Z challenge where B is for Bow.

Clara Bow survived a childhood filled with neglect, abuse, and mental illness to build a legendary career. The movies of Clara Bow, a continuous succession of box office hits, epitomized the cheery and vivacious behavior of the 1920s flappers. In spite of her popularity as a Hollywood star, her past continued to haunt her, often intruding into both her personal and professional life.

Emotionally Painful Childhood

Clara Bow was born on July 29, 1905 in the tenements of Brooklyn, New York, to Sarah and Robert Bow. In an interview with Photoplay magazine, Bow explained that her parents both came from wealthy families, but her mother's family lost their money and her father's family disowned him after his marriage.

Clara Bow, 1921. Portrait Public Domain.

Sarah Bow also fell from a window as a teenager and suffered from what could now be considered a traumatic brain injury causing epileptic seizures and severe personality changes. Sarah Bow was deeply attached to her father and afraid of marriage. Her first two children died as infants, which only heightened her fear. While Sarah was pregnant with Clara she was consumed with fear of losing yet another child and her paranoia intensified. Bow’s father was often unemployed and rarely at home, so she cared for her mother alone.

The Loss of a Childhood Friend

In her Photoplay interview, Bow tells the story of a young friend named Johnny who lived in her home. She was a mother figure to him, as well, walking the boy to school and protecting him from bullies. One afternoon, she heard Johnny screaming. His clothes had caught fire and by the time she reached him, he was badly burned. Bow's mother ran for a doctor, but the child died in Clara's arms.

Winner of National Movie Contest

Bow viewed the theater as a world of fantasy and dreams that helped her escape from her miserable childhood. When she was sixteen, with encouragement from her father, she entered and won the 1921 Fame and Fortune Contest sponsored by Brewster Publication’s Motion Picture, Motion Picture Classics, and Shadowland Magazines. She was awarded a silver trophy, an evening gown, and the promise of a part in an upcoming film. She was cast in 1922’s Beyond the Rainbow, but her scenes were cut.

Clara Bow, Down to the Sea in Ships, 1922. Trailer Screenshot: Public Domain.

Undaunted by this setback, Bow continued to visit the Manhattan film studios. She eventually caught the eye of a D.W. Griffith protégée who cast her in 1922’s Down to the Sea in Ships.

Tragic Loss of Her Mother

Sarah Bow's obsessions with her daughter’s flapper image and acting aspirations intensified to such an extent that in 1922, she tried to kill Clara in her sleep with a butcher knife. Clara woke up in time to save her own life and her mother was committed to an institution. Sarah Bow died from her illness in 1923. After years of playing the role of parent in her home, Clara must have felt as if she had lost her own child. She was devastated by her mother's death and yet, she continued to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress in order to escape her reality of her tortured life.

Preferred Pictures Offers a Contract

Clara Bow was offered a three month trial contract with Preferred Pictures. The studio head, B. P. Schulberg, was impressed by her performance in screen tests, but made poor use of her talents. He cast her in a series of small roles and loaned her to other studios. She became popular in spite of this poor treatment and was selected to be one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1924. In three short years, Bow made minor appearances in 29 films.

Clara Bow, Publicity Shot/Public Domain, 1924.

Although the roles were minor, they intensified her image as a carefree flapper. According to The It Girl: The Incredible Story of Clara Bow, she appeared, uncredited, along with Margaret Dumont, in the film Enemies of Women where she is seen dancing partially nude on a table. She was finally cast as Cynthia Day, a college party girl, in the 1925 film The Plastic Age and became a star overnight.

The “It” Girl

In 1927, Bow played salesgirl Betty Lou Spence, the “It” girl in the film It, a role that made her a Hollywood immortal. In this film, the role of the “It” girl is to explain the attraction between the sexes, and theater goes viewed Clara Bow as the perfect choice. Offstage, the tabloids carried ongoing daily coverage of her affairs with Hollywood’s most popular leading men, including Bela Lugosi, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne.

Clara Bow, Wings, 1927, Trailer Screenshot/Pubic Domain.

Wings, the First Film to Win Best Picture Oscar

The same year she became the “It” girl, 1927, Clara starred in Wings, a spectacular war film rewritten specifically to include her as the love interest of two competing WWI pilots. Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. For the next three years, Clara Bow remained one of Paramount's top five box office attractions in films such as Get Your Man, Ladies of the Mob, and Three Weekends.

Talking Pictures Bring an End to Bow’s Career

Her first talking movie, 1929’s The Wild Party, was hardly a classic, but the presence of Clara Bow on the screen was enough to pack the theater. Unfortunately, Clara discovered she was afraid of speaking into the microphone and pressures from insensitive studio executives led to an emotional breakdown. In April of 1931, Clara Bow was admitted to a sanatorium. She was also released from her contract with Paramount and soon retired from Hollywood.

Marriage and Another Breakdown

In 1932, Clara Bow married cowboy actor Rex Bell (George Beldam). They had two sons. Bell was Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, and in 1944 he decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Clara Bow, 1935, US Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain.

Unable to cope with the stress of re-entering the public life, Clara attempted suicide and was admitted to The Institute of Living. She was given shock treatments to treat chronic insomnia. Apparently, back then they used shock treatments for anything. Bell withdrew from his bid for Representative.

Clara Bow's Legacy

Clara Bow died of a heart attack on September 29, 1965. Her husband died three years earlier. She is buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Clara Bow appeared in 58 films during her eleven year acting career. She was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to honor her contribution to the film industry.

In 1994, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld designed a postage stamp using Clara Bow’s image. Max Fleischer's cartoon character Betty Boop was also modeled after Clara Bow.


  • Ball, Christina. "The Silencing of Clara Bow." Gadfly Online. Retrieved November 5, 2009.
  • Bow, Clara with Adela Rogers St. Johns. "Clara Bow--My Life Story." Photoplay Magazine. Retrieved November 4, 2009.
  • Morella, Joe. and Edward Epstein. The "It" Girl: The Incredible Story of Clara Bow. Delacourt Press. New York:1976.


  1. I almost wrote about Clara Bow but settled for Louise Brooks who really loved Clara Bow-as an actress and a person. I saw an interview with Louise Brooks who talked about Clara's wonderful acting but how she was shunned even in hollywood by the other actors. You used my favourite picture of her when she has the unruly hair and looks so haunting. I wish more people remember her

    1. I can imagine she was shunned--actors tend to be a bit jealous. After all, it is their looks that gets the part and Bow was stunning!

  2. She's fascinating - and still holds the eye after all these decades. Excellent post!

  3. What a very sad personal life she had! But thank you for such fascinating information.


    1. When I first started reading about her four years ago I actually cried. She did, indeed, have a very sad life.


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