So much has happened since sound was introduced into cinema it’s no surprise that only a few stars from the silent era have survived into popular culture. There is the loveable tramp himself, Charlie Chaplin whose distinct bowler hat, mustache and comedic genius are still frequently referenced. There is also the stuntman extraordinaire Harold Lloyd and the gifted storyteller and performer Buster Keaton.
But there is an embarrassing omission from the set. Clara Bow was the iconic female sex symbol of the 1920s, a screen goddess whose sultry looks and vulnerability enchanted a legion of male and female fans long before Marilyn Monroe. An ‘IT girl’ whose personal life fascinated viewers as much as any role she played, Clara Bow was a Hollywood A-lister who existed before the term was even coined.
Clara Gordon Bow was born in Brooklyn in 1905, though her birth was far from straightforward. After her first two daughters died in infancy, her mother Sarah was told not to get pregnant again due to fears her third child would not survive. When the birth happened, it seemed as though both might die, the situation worsened by a heat wave in the city, with temperatures reaching a scorching 100 degrees.
Both did, although life was continually difficult due to the family’s extreme poverty and Clara’s dedication in looking after her mother who suffered epilepsy, paranoia and violent behaviour, following a tragic accident. Clara’s impoverished background also meant she found it hard to be accepted at school and would get teased about her badly groomed appearance.
Films were her escape though, and at 16 she decided to become an actress. After initial success by winning a magazine cover competition with a small film role intended as a prize, it took her role in Down to the Sea in Ships in 1923 before she was properly noticed. Her relatively minor role was a critical revelation; leading to further opportunities in films such The Daring Years, Grit and The Adventurous Sex. Huge demand for her soon meant a heavy workload including 14 films in 1925.
Her growing popularity really hit the ultimate big time in It (1927) where she played a shop girl asked out by her boss. A memorable scene when her friend helps her cut her dress helped strengthen her rebellious sex symbol status, especially as when her boss makes a move on her she slaps him!
A genuinely talented actress with an extraordinary screen presence, Clara was ahead of her time in how she bettered the technique of her acting predecessors and set the scene for those who followed her. Her refusal to leave anything behind on screen helped open the opportunity for actresses to connect directly with audiences, and helped inspire filmmakers of what was possible in this relatively new medium.
Though at one stage receiving more than 45,000 fan letters a month, and considered a “safe return” to investors, cracks soon started to show. Her utterly exhausting work schedule, unproven scandalous media stories, gambling debts and the pressure of her Brooklyn accent not lending itself well to sound, took a heavy toll on her. She retired from the industry in 1933. Though happily married with two children, she struggled with mental illness in later years before dying from a heart attack in 1965. A truly heartbreaking end to such an astonishing life.