Whatever “it” is (as once posited by Elinor Glyn in her eponymous 1920s novel), silent film actress Clara Bow certainly had it in abundance. Possibly this is why she still has appeal to our jaded 21st c. eyes, eighty years or more later …
As we were watching the b&w film, R dreamily noted that she had a very “modern” face. I wondered, does that mean sexy? Certainly she looks distinctly different than the other actresses in the film (as does silent film actress Louise Brooks in her own films) and I always wondered what was that magic quality that set them both apart on the screen?
Perhaps this is the same quality, or lack thereof, which makes me unable to watch Mary Pickford or the Gish sisters for long periods of time on film even though they are roughly of the same era. They seemed like such throw backs to the Victorian era. Such … simps. Passive, annoyingly virtuous to the extreme, and to my mind, boring.
Not so with Clara … even if in this film she is playing a slightly avaricious sales girl named Betty Lou who is after Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), the boss of the department store where she works. Betty loves men, seemingly loves to have a good time. Bow's image was of the quintessential flapper. Light-hearted, full of energy, reckless and hot tempered but sweet too.
Betty Lou does evolve and we see her as a different sort of woman by the film's end – a friend willing to destroy her reputation in order to save her best friend’s baby from being taken away by the authorities. A girl who refuses to be “kept” by the boss when she realizes exactly what he is after.
Cyrus Waltham, her boss, has read in the papers (erroneously it turns out) that Betty Lou is the mother of a fatherless child. This dampens his wick quite a bit and he tries to forget Betty Lou. As if he could ...
We are in Betty’s corner cheering her on when she determines that she will compel Cyrus to propose to her and then plans on rejecting him. She is unable to, she still loves him despite his despicable behavior. Because what is Betty truly guilty of? Falling in love with the boss? Trying to protect a vulnerable friend? Getting him back in front of his hoity toity friends when he humiliatingly rejects her?
This irrepressible charm and strength of will were the qualities that made Bow a star. Ten years ago when I first read Runnin' Wild, her biography by David Stenn, she was described to be, at the height of her fame, “bigger than Madonna”.
This "it" quality, sex appeal, the unnameable “it” that Glyn so coyly refers to in her book, originates as an early 20th c. phenomenon, and propelled Bow to fame and as easily cast her down when Hollywood and the public tired of her. With the onset of the talkies she seemed to falter with her troublesome Brooklyn accent and a phobia about the presence of a microphone. Poor health, the 1930s depression, and a sudden aversion to the glitz of the Jazz Age on the part of the public were the beginning of the end for Bow's career.
The tribulations of her overexposed life reminds us of many other celebutants and half baked starlets who came to fame so quickly, so easily at an early age (Bow was washed up before she turned 30), only to be cast down in the next instant.
Why is it so? There is that very human (or prurient?) element within ourselves which is attracted to those with enormous sex appeal but once they exceed the parameters of respectability or our patience (hello Courtney Love, Lindsay Lohan, Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie) they are soon derided and castigated in the most insulting terms. I can think of no equivalent experience for famous young men who implode before our eyes. James Dean? Monty Clift?
If anything, men achieve a sort of glamour in their self-destruction and/or promiscuity. They become, if possible, more desirous … their overt sexuality, addictions, crimes and petty misdemeanors, attracted fools and otherwise sensible women in droves.
Why do the innocuous entities such as Hilary Duff or Mandy Moore escape these diatribes and insults? Are they smarter? More private? More shrewd in public? Perhaps. Or are they also very careful in controlling their public images as sexual beings? Because this is the very quality that sinks the proverbial ship - a woman's overt sexuality, out of control sexuality, someone who is not controlled by a man or a family or society.
Now, do not imagine that I put any of these bold face names in the same category as Clara Bow – but I think I can safely suggest that once the public and media have tired of your real or presumed sexual antics it’s a quick ride to the dung heap of oblivion for many of them. You’ve gone from sexy, fresh and exciting to an intolerable skank who goes out without her underwear, pretty quickly. And then the claws are out to finish you off.
As sex obsessed as we may appear in Western society, there’s a deeply puritanical streak as well, ready to destroy the woman (usually it’s a woman) who has gone too far in her adventurousness. Witness all the rumors swirling around Bow towards the end of her film career: newspaper reports of, variously, incest, orgies, lesbianism, bestiality, abuse, that ubiquitous entire football team she was rumored to have slept with. And this probably contributed to the host of mental health issues that obsessed her at that time and until the end of her life.
The thing is for most young girls, once your self esteem is wrapped up in one area, your beauty, your youth, your sexuality – it’s a very hard road when you realize that those elements by which you define yourself (and others define you) are gone. What do you have left at the end? Not much that is valued either by yourself or others.