The White Elephant Blogathon: Clara Bow and It (1927)

Caution: Spoilers ahead!

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Truth be told, I consider The White Elephant Blogathon a chance to inflict pain, suffering, discomfort, loss of appetite and slight headache upon some poor unsuspecting soul. That’s why I proffered up Universal Soldier: The Return and Big Trouble in previous years, irritating the recipients so much one victim considered smashing his computers to bits. But this year I apparently mortally offended the recipient, who launched into a personal attack on both his blog and Twitter, which is baffling to me because… well, dammit, isn’t the White Elephant about possibly receiving a completely shit movie? Isn’t that why Paul C. calls us “victims” in our assignment email?

Update: This year’s list is here. Note that Matt Lynch received Freddy Got Fingered and did not launch into a personal attack on the submitter. Just, ya know, puttin’ that out there.

Further complicating my understanding of the purpose of this blogathon is the movie I received this year: It (1927), silent classic and late-20s cultural phenomenon. Technically, the rules state the film submitted can “be anything you want to see another person review. It could be something you’d love to show to your best friend, or it could be something you’d only force on your worst enemy,” so I really should not have been surprised to get a good film, but I was. Did they hope someone like me would receive It, expecting a post full of my amazing, shiny geniusness? Hope not, ’cause they are going to be sorely disappointed. Maybe they hoped someone who reviews only modern films or Z-grade horror flicks would get it and hilarity would, obviously, ensue. Or perhaps they don’t like It? I don’t know! I can only guess.

So dear Ms or Mr Mystery Submitter, I truly don’t know what you were expecting, but I hope I can live up to what I guess is the true meaning of The White Elephant Blogathon and completely fail to deliver anything resembling what you had hoped to receive.

Another update: I received a gracious tweet from Peter at LabuzaMovies who explained he submitted It because it was entertaining. Thanks, Peter! You gave me a chance to get my silent film geek on, and I appreciate that.

Early publicity portrait of Clara Bow with someone who must have been in at least one Mack Sennett short. If he wasn’t, his moustache was.

Clara Bow, as has been told for decades, got her start in films after winning The Fame and Fortune Contest of 1921. She was promised a role in a film, and at the end of 1921 featured along with another beauty contest winner in the Billie Dove vehicle Beyond the Rainbow. Allegedly the parts played by both contest winners were removed from the film, although some publicity at the time mentions Clara’s scenes specifically. It’s likely that she was telling the truth when she said in interviews that her part was cut completely out; the articles mentioning Clara were written by reviewers who were probably given press releases by the studios and who may not have seen the film. Since El Brendel’s character in Wings (1927) is occasionally listed as Patrick O’Brien because some of the publicity released on the film used that incorrect name, I’m very willing to believe publicity for Beyond the Rainbow was similarly incorrect.

Despite the lack of fanfare given to her first film role, Clara continued to receive small mentions in movie magazines, and this ultimately lead her to her next film, a significant part in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). She signed with Preferred Pictures in 1923, was chosen as the most successful of the 1924 WAMPAS Baby Stars, and by 1925 was a big enough star to attract the attention of Paramount Pictures. She signed with Paramount, who paid her significantly less than other film stars despite Clara bringing in bigger audiences, and she was frequently overworked and miserable.

If I may be permitted a tangent: One of the major reasons I don’t read biographies of film stars is because the author so often has biases, an agenda, personal quirks, just something that makes the biography all about them rather than the person they are ostensibly writing about. One of the most recommended bios of Clara Bow is Running Wild by David Stenn. Unfortunately, I found the bio filled with what I consider pretty provincial ideas about class and sexuality. Clara’s friend Tui Lorraine, married briefly to Clara’s father, was interviewed extensively for the book. Lorraine’s information fleshes out Stenn’s biography for nearly the entire book, until near the end when her role ends after she divorces Clara’s father Robert. It’s at this point when Stenn doesn’t need her anymore that he takes the opportunity to out Lorraine as lesbian. Whether she is or not is unconfirmed; the proof, according to David Stenn, was someone who knew her made a comment about Lorraine being “lavender.” He runs with that and concocts a story that Lorraine only married Robert Bow to stay near Clara, whom she secretly loved. And her alleged sexuality is not only completely speculative but presented as scandalous, and of course happens in a biography that isn’t even about her!

That’s not the only pseudo-salacious content in the book. Stenn talks admiringly of the penis size of two of Clara’s Hollywood beaus, brags about the numerous conquests of some of Clara’s lovers, but flatly states that she needed to be held down with moral and contractual obligations to keep her from having sex with, well, anyone.

WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1924.

 

Further, everything Clara said was written in what Stenn thought was Brooklyn dialect; however, in doing so, the actual quotes were altered. For instance, the book prints, “Even now I can’t trust life. It did too many awful things t’me as a kid.” The actual quote from a magazine article is, “And yet, even now, with all I see before me, I cannot quite trust life. It did too may awful things to me in my youth.” The general idea is the same, but there is nuance that the author has removed. This occurred throughout the book. At first I thought perhaps he was trying to mimic Clara’s dialogue in silents, but after watching It and a couple of other films, it’s clear Stenn made up the dialect on his own.

This was remarkably tasteless, considering a large part of Clara’s career downfall came about because of her voice and insecurity thereof, as well as her lower class origins. Would someone write a biography of John Gilbert ending every quote of his with “he said in a high voice?” Would a bio of Karl Dane have every quote written in a approximate Danish dialect? Maybe next, Stenn could write a bio of B-movie action hero Jim Kelly and run it through the Jive Filter before publication.

Stenn frequently harped on Bow’s complete “obliviousness to social custom” in the exact same manner as many contemporaries did, those who often went so far as to attribute Clara’s mundane actions as evidence that Bow was so removed from society she was freakish and frightening. The book devolved into a listing of freak facts about Clara, stuff very similar to the way people read those “strange news” articles about someone calling 911 over french fries nowadays. The blunt repetition of those freak facts — up to and including an entire chapter devoted to whether she fucked a whole football team at once or not — made me wonder a hell of a lot more about the author than about Clara.

The final issue I had with the book is that the footnotes lead to dead ends more often than not. When trying to decipher the sources for the Tui Lorraine outing, I simply could not get anywhere. Ibids cascaded backwards until they reached a cited source that very obviously had nothing to do with Lorraine. Elsewhere, some footnotes were obviously incorrect, saying that a 1927 quote came from 1924 publicity, things like that. I attribute that to editing problems as much as sourcing issues, but it does call much of the research into question.

It 1927 at the Royal Theater in Kansas City Marquee of the Royal Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, 1927. Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration.

Clara more than any other major silent film star has been the victim of everyone else’s expectations. She has become what other people want her to be: Martyr, sex symbol, classless floozy to look down on, or tragic story to wallow in. For decades, so-called serious silent film buffs dismissed her as unimportant. Kevin Brownlow famously doesn’t mention her in The Parade’s Gone By; Louise Brooks justifiably scolded him for spotlighting “some old fucks and not even mentioning Clara Bow’s name.” Nowadays, many of her fans want to hear the salacious Hollywood Babylon and Running Wild tales, to talk about her father repeatedly raping her or her sexual conquests or her nervous breakdown. Stenn, for his part, essentially accuses Clara of just not trying hard enough to cure her own mental illness, because schizophrenia totally works like that.

Budd Schulberg did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to damaging Clara Bow’s image. In an effort to elevate his father B.P.’s reputation, Clara had to be put down. The elder Schulberg had taken advantage of Clara, underpaying and overworking her, and Budd felt he had to counter that somehow. That’s why we get such difficult-to-stomach quotes from Budd as, “It was as if father had picked out a well-made collie puppy and trained her to become Lassie.” Because women are dogs, as we learned in the opening credits of The Women and during The Maltese Bippy. Clara even gets short shrift in the 1999 documentary Discovering the It Girl, narrated by Courtney Love who, let’s be honest here, was unable to even pronounce some of the words she was asked to read.

What gets lost in all this is the fact that Clara Bow was a very good actress. She is, perhaps, more personality than serious acting talent, but dozens of famous Hollywood film stars fall into that category and I see no reason to hold Bow to a different standard than anyone else. There is a wonderful scene early on in It where all the counter girls are mooning over the handsome owner of the store (Antonio Moreno). Betty Lou (Clara) is at the front of the crowd of girls, and her reaction both to the man she’s gazing at and the jeers she gets from her co-workers is effervescent and natural. She is instantly believable in a way no one else in the film is.

Clara Bow in a promotional photo for It 1927

It’s true that It is rather old-fashioned, even for 1927. Earlier that year, popular author Elinor Glyn had written ‘It’ and Other Stories, and Paramount was keen to use It as a vehicle for their star Clara Bow. The story was significantly changed by husband-and-wife writing team Hope Loring and Louis “Buddy” Lighton, though Glyn was credited in the film, even garnering a cameo to explain what the elusive “it” was. The Elinor Glyn parts are corny, although one must remember that fads didn’t spread as quickly in 1927 as they do today. Many people in Middle America would not have known about It, either the book or the cultural concept, and some explanation was in order.

If I may be permitted another tangent: Co-author Hope Loring was one of the more successful silent film writers in Hollywood, yet she is almost completely unknown today. Loring is mentioned in some trivia, primarily as the person who first introduced Buddy Rogers to Mary Pickford. After nearly a decade in the writing business, Loring struck it big in 1927 when she co-wrote eight films including It, Wings and My Best Girl. She and Louis, however, stopped writing as a team in 1927, and by 1931 Loring was no longer writing at all.

William Wellman says in his autobiography that Jesse Lasky considered Hope and Louis to be Paramount’s best writing team. Frederica Sagor Maas — who just passed away in January at the age of 111 — had less kind things to say about Loring. In The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, Maas said Loring was nothing but a “mediocre writer on the low end of the totem pole” who only achieved success by finagling her husband into a producer position and by milking her heart condition “to the hilt.”

Loring and Lighton discarded most of Glyn’s It and crafted a story designed to highlight Bow’s natural exuberance. The plot — well, what there is of it — was as old as the Hollywood hills even in 1927, though a rather scandalous subplot about a single mother was added in, providing some substance to an otherwise lightweight flick. A stilted, older style of acting influences most of the performers. There is an egregious overuse of cosmetics on the actors, and some Sennett-style false eyebrows even make a brief appearance, but Bow, curiously, does not look overly made up.

Lady Baffles
Lady Baffles.

Director Clarence Badger was a reliable enough director, not particularly adventurous but successful. He got his start working with Mack Sennett as writer, primarily on the “Lady Baffles” series. Did you know at least one reel of Lady Baffles and Detective Duck exists? Episode #1, “The Great Egg Robbery,” is listed in an Australian archive. I think we all agree that this could possibly be the greatest film ever made, and I demand its immediate restoration and release.

Badger soon went into directing, working with some of the bigger stars of the day including Will Rogers, Colleen Moore, and Marie Prevost. By 1927 he was at Paramount (which had been Famous Players-Lasky until earlier that year) and directing many of Clara Bow’s feature films.

If you’re starting to feel that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about everything but the movie, well, you’d be right. The plot is tissue thin, and frankly, it’s a movie I’ve seen so many times that I had a bit of trouble working up enthusiasm to watch it again for the White Elephant. Once I got started, though, I was as charmed as I was the first time I saw it.

It 1927 title screen

Clara is Betty Lou Spense, counter girl at a large department store. The owner is out of town so his handsome 30-something son Cyrus is left in charge. Cyrus is played by Antonio Moreno, an actor who did well in American silents but was forced to move to Spanish-speaking films after talkies came in. You know him, though: He was Senior Ortiza in Hitch’s Notorious and Carl Maia in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Cyrus has a rich fop friend named Monty played by ubiquitous character actor William Austin under about 100 pounds of eyeliner. Austin played Alfred in the 1943 Batman movie serial and, well, the guy was pretty much in everything. Monty is a cross between a lech and a sissy (i.e. coded, implied gay male), and it’s a very strange combination.

It 1927 My new catchphrase.

 

Monty is the guy who gets the ball rolling, though, having recently read Elinor Glyn’s It and deciding to check out all the salesgirls in Cyrus’ store to find one with “it.” As Betty Lou moons over Cyrus, Monty moons over her, declaring her a prime example of “it,” going so far as to say she’s “positively top heavy with IT.” Ba-dum-CHING, boi-oi-oi-oing, etc. When Betty Lou becomes frustrated because Cyrus takes no notice of her, she takes Monty up on his offer to dine at The Ritz, knowing Cyrus will be there that night.

Betty Lou doesn’t have a gown, of course. She’s a working girl who rooms with single mother Molly (Priscilla Bonner) and her baby, but Molly is still too ill to work, so Betty Lou supports them all. Being the impulsive, perky, determined gal she is, Betty Lou fashions a gown of sorts by cutting down a work dress while she’s still in it — salacious! — and adding about 50 yards of tulle for a wrap. She looks beautiful but her dress gives her away as being lower class, so much so that the waiters at The Ritz try to quietly seat her and Monty in a dark corner so Monty won’t be embarrassed. Betty Lou puts the nix on that idea and sits in the open, being her usual, bubbly self and attracting attention. Cyrus finally takes notice of her, to his fiancee’s distress.

His poor fiancee really gets the shaft in this film. Adela’s (Jacqueline Gadsden) only crime is being rich, and she’s not even that obnoxious about it. All Adela does is stand around and sulk because her boyfriend likes another woman, which is understandable. But by the end of the film, she really gets screwed.

Cyrus begins to date Betty Lou, going to Coney Island and having fun the lower-class way.

It 1927 You don’t say.

 

This is a very populist film, spending almost no time establishing the elite as such, just lightly coding characters as rich and assuming the audience comes with preconceived notions to carry the idea along. It’s this coding that leads us to the conflict: Betty Lou comes home to find some do-gooder rich society matrons trying to take Molly’s baby away for their version of “the greater good.” Molly is a single woman without a job and should not be allowed to have a baby, they claim; I presume they intend to take the baby to a state orphanage.

Betty Lou comes to the rescue by saying the baby is hers. This is easily the most famous scene in the film, in part because Gary Cooper arrives in a small role as a reporter. Hilariously, Betty Lou’s outburst to the meddlers also gets plenty of attention, as it’s easy to read Clara’s lips: “All right, this is my baby! Now fuck off!” Go Clara!

It 1927 And she does!

 

Monty overhears and tells Cyrus that Betty Lou is a single mom. Cyrus realizes he can’t marry Betty Lou, so he offers her a “left-handed deal” of making her a kept woman. She has no idea he thinks the baby is hers and is understandably offended, so she quits her job. Monty comes by a few days later with big apology baskets and announces chivalrously that he has forgiven Betty Lou for being a single mom, which is when Betty Lou discovers just what Cyrus was so upset about. She makes Monty help rectify the issue by taking her along as his date on a cruise that Cyrus is hosting. While there she torments poor Cyrus until he caves and asks her to marry him, and she gleefully turns him down in revenge, only to realize moments later that this didn’t make her happy at all.

Because Monty is the guy who screws everything up, he causes Betty Lou and Adele to be thrown overboard when he almost crashes the yacht. Betty Lou helps Adele and, for no reason that I can really tell, knocks her out cold “for her own good” so she can more easily drag her back to the yacht. Adele wasn’t even being that fussy! Just scared! People who are drowning get scared, for crying out loud. Cyrus hops into the water and helps Betty Lou while basically ignoring Adele, because this is the perfect time to play high school games to show which girl you like the best. Cyrus and Betty Lou get together, Monty rescues Adele and they get together, the end, fin, willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, c’mon in.

It 1927

Clara’s influence on culture was at its peak in 1927 thanks to It and Wings, and she continued to be a huge box office draw when talkies came in, though the quality of some of her films was beyond suspect. While Love Among the Millionaires (1930) is not a particularly good movie, it’s a pleasure to watch because Clara is fully engaged and, it turns out, she can sing pretty well, too. But Clara had problems and was overworked; B.P. Schulberg was unsympathetic, calling her “crisis-a-day-Clara” and only letting her out of her contract when she committed herself to a sanatorium.

According to Wikipedia, Schulberg tried to make his girlfriend Sylvia Sidney the new Paramount star, but that failed, Paramount lost money, and Schulberg got fired. Frederica Sagor Maas talks about this time, saying Schulberg needed the help of his old friends, but screenwriter Hope Loring stood in the way. Maas is quite critical of Loring because of this, but personally, I think Loring was just showing some good sense.

Bow made a comeback in the early 1930s with some rather salacious pre-codes, though that only lasted a few years; she soon retired with her husband Rex Bell. She began to show signs of schizophrenia just as her own mother had (calling into question biographer David Stenn’s claim that her mother acquired schizophrenia after a head injury) and was ill for the rest of her life, dying at only 60 years of age.

Over the decades, Clara’s influence on our culture has become more well known and respected, which is entirely as it should be. For anyone interested in silent film or Clara, you can’t start with a better film than It. And those who are already familiar with silent cinema should revisit It every so often, because it is pure, unadulterated entertainment with just a hint of social conscience.

8 Comments

  1. The moustache guy looks like Chester Conklin…wasn’t he working at Paramount at about the same time? (I thought they had plans to pair him with W.C. Fields at one time.)

  2. Stacia says:

    I was going to say Chester Conklin but with the glasses, I just wasn’t sure. I look at these guys and all I see is ‘stache.

    Why did Blogger change my comment form back to what it was a few days ago? Unbelievable.

  3. It could be his bro Heinie. I went with Chester only because I know he was working at the ‘mount and it just made sense publicity-wise.

  4. Kristen says:

    I saw It for a film class and thought it was okay…not great, but okay. Bow’s story is ultimately the saddest thing.

  5. Vanwall says:

    Bow is often overlooked as a brilliant physical actress, she moved with incredible ease in any setting, regardless of the role’s value or not. Personally, I don’t get the “It” from her, but watching her move, she was one of the least stiff actors on film ever. Movement was her forte, rather than line readings. Nice analysis of Bow all around, too.

  6. What gets lost in all this is the fact that Clara Bow was a very good actress.

    When you get right down to it, this is the only way to judge an actor — by what’s on the screen. For one thing, we’ll never know the truth about what an actor is really like off-screen — how much of the story is just the Hollywood publicity machine, or coming from the other direction, tabloid fodder and axe-grinding. And more to the point, it’s the work on the screen we’re paying to see.

    Me, I like Clara Bow. I total get the “it” business, she had it in spades, and when she’s on screen, I’m always on her side. Magnetic and likeable, pretty much the primary ingredients of a star.

  7. Stacia says:

    Actually, a reader sent in a picture on who the man in the moustache is. I’ll be posting about it tonight!

  8. Anonymous says:

    It is Chester, his brother Heinie had more of a Genghis Khan like mustache and black hair.

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