Friday, September 9, 2011


This is an occasional series featuring my favorite movie books. Before TCM and the internet, the only way to satisfy my passion to know more about classic Hollywood was through books, books and more books. I've cleared away the clutter over the years, but many remain permanent residents in my home. You'd never throw out an old friend, now would you?
Anyone out there read Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon"? I'm among the many ashamed to say I did. But, then again, when it came out in 1975, what did I know about the stars of the silent era? Not much and, unfortunately, the sordid gossip that passed for truth in this pile of trash was my first introduction to Clara Bow. Sadly, it was another abuse heaped upon a woman whose life was defined by it.

Lucky for me, the great Kenneth Brownlow and David Gil series "Hollywood" gave me a proper introduction to the beautiful Clara and it was the beginning of a devotion that grows stronger every day. Watching Clara's films, it is easy to see why she was such a tremendous star. She is talented, beautiful, and so vivacious and full of life. Not many could resist her. She is the penultimate '20s flapper, but also the girl next door, the perfect sweetheart, the perfect best friend and one hot tamale. She makes you feel happy.
"I was seventeen an office boy - a messenger is what I was hired for. Clara Bow had just made 'Wings,' and I thought she was sensational. She dashed into the office one day, and the publicity department just stopped dead. She was just flying around - she was happiness personified. I've never taken dope, but it was like a shot of dope when you looked at this girl." - John Engstead
As always, when I am intrigued by someone, I want to immediately know more! I managed to find a few books that mentioned her (usually referring to the notorious Anger book or to her scandal-plagued personal life), but nothing really satisfying until I managed to get my hands on a copy of David Stenn's 1988 book (a thrilling $50 find at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood. It is now available in paperback at a much more reasonable price.).

Clara Bow's story is more dramatic and heartbreaking than an Hollywood screenwriter could imagine and Stenn tells this harrowing story with great compassion. Clara's early life was one of unspeakable poverty and abuse. How she managed to not only survive, but to thrive and succeed, is a miracle. 

Clara at 16: "It was easy for me to cry. 
All I hadda do was think of home."
Stenn follows her life from Brooklyn to Hollywood and beyond, supporting his narrative with interviews with the people who knew her and loved her. Managing to get away from her squalid and terrifying upbringing, she traded one kind of abuse for another. She was ill-used by Paramount Studios, and B.P. Schulberg, in particular. Stenn calls her Hollywood's most overworked and underpaid star. Always self-conscious about her lack of education, Clara was cruelly looked down upon by a town whose social elites were once waitresses and truck drivers.
The "It" Girl": The Ultimate Flapper and a Great Star
The legendary "It Girl"  was a girl who was ill-equipped for the challenges and temptations presented to the life of a movie star whose every action was always on public display. Many men loved her (Gary Cooper, Gilbert Roland, Victor Fleming and husband Rex Bell are just a few), but none could still the terror and sadness that lived in her heart. Gilbert Roland's devotion and enduring affection for her is especially touching.

"A temperament that responded like a great violin. Touch her and she answered with genius." - Victor Fleming

Clara and scandal seemed to go hand in hand. Because she had no one to protect her and to guide her, her trusting and generous nature got her into a lot of trouble. The end of her career came when, her health failing and the pressure of talking pictures crushing her fragile self-esteem, she called it quits. She was just 26 years old.
"She was the biggest star, the biggest money-maker in Hollywood - above Garbo, above them all. I was fascinated with her." - Louise Brooks
Her marriage to Rex Bell should have been a happy one. He was a stabilizing force in her life, he loved her and gave her and their 2 sons a happy life in Nevada, away from the spotlight and the insatiable press that perpetually dogged Clara.
Clara and Rex: "He's my man and I worship him."
Although Clara was a good mother (her sons were totally devoted to her), mental and physical illness prevented her from enjoying the love of her family.
Rex, Sr., Rex, Jr. & Mom, Clara
For those who have not read the book, I don't want to divulge too much. For those that have, you know her story is tragic.

Reasons I love this book

1. Stenn always treats his subject with great respect, something Clara did not     get enough of in her lifetime.

2. Interviews: Stenn conducts great interviews with such Clara contemporaries as Esther Ralston, Lew Ayres, Baby Peggy, William "Buster" Collier, Marion Mack, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Joel McRae and Colleen Moore. Even better, he speaks to family members, friends, and some pivotal characters in Clara's scandal-plagued life: personal secretary Daisy DeVoe , Paramount publicist Teet Carle and, friend and briefly her step-mother, Tui Lorraine Bow. There is also a long-running interview with first love and ever-after devoted friend, Artie Jacobson.

3. A great cast of characters: All of the great Hollywood and show business characters - both behind the scenes and in the spotlight -  are here. The Roaring Twenties would not have roared as loudly without the likes of Clara and her co-workers and friends.

This book has a permanent place on my bookshelf and I highly recommend it. Sometimes, truth is more dramatic, hilarious, compelling and tragic than fiction. Her story would make a great film if only there were someone out there equal to the task of playing Clara. Unfortunately, I can't think of a soul who is her equal.
Even now I can't trust life. It did too many awful things t'me as a kid. - Clara Bow


Freder said...

A great post as usual, FC! Remember a magazine called FLASHBACK? I think it lasted maybe two issues. I read my copies over and over again until they fell apart. The information wasn't always the best or most reliable, but the pictures were always great!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, F! When you find something you love to read & re-read, better hang on to it!

ClothesMindedGurl said...
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Ithankyou said...

Great post about one of my favourites film books. Mr Stenn does a superb job for Clara and gives herr the respect she deserves with even-handed professionalism. He's also good on Jean Harlow with "Bombshell" but "Running Wild" is the better book, more in-depth and infused with his respect for CB. Clara was right up there with Louise Brooks naturalistic, smart and supernaturally good looking!

FlickChick said...

Agreed. "Bombshell" was also well done, but Clara's story is just amazing and dramatic. It's great raw material and Stenn really tells it well.

Diane said...

I don't know much about Clara and after reading your latest post, I want to learn more.
Thanks again Flick Chick.

FlickChick said...

You should really look her up - a fascinating life and story - right up there with any you could imagine!

Classicfilmboy said...

This is on my reading list and your excellent post made me realize I should read this sooner rather than later. Thank you for the review!

FlickChick said...

oh yes - CFB - you must put it at the top of your list!

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

My muse! One of the best biographies I've ever read on a star. Clara was one in a million and highly deserving of such a wonderful book. :)

FlickChick said...

Yes indeed! I am so happy that she was treated with such respect and compassion by the author.