Clara Bow is “IT”(1927)

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Elinor Glyn’s novel “It” may be a different story than the film adaption, but the concept of “It” remains the same. What exactly is “It”? To claim it simply meant sex or sex appeal is selling it short. According to Clarence Badger’s/Josef von Sternberg’s IT (1927), “Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not – and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. That’s ‘It’!”

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To be more specific, “It” was sex appeal enhanced with this description and the film’s star Clara Bow was ‘It’ in spades. She was the definition of the ‘It girl’ and it defined her for her entire career.

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In the film, Clara Bow portrays the beautiful, young, department store clerk, Betty Lou Spence who exudes an air of confidence and a bubbly zest for life. Betty has her sights set on the boss and son of the company, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno). But it’s his pal Monty (William Austin) that first sets his sights on her. Monty has read about a new book by Elinor Glyn referring to “It.” He discussed his intentions of finding a girl with “It” with his friend Cyrus as they walk the sales floor. Monty sees Betty and knows he’s discovered ‘It’! He asks her out and she insists on going to the fanciest restaurant in town, The Ritz.

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There’s a charming scene when she prepares her limited wardrobe for this event. Her friend helps her transform her basic black dress with a lace collar (appropriate for work but not The Ritz) into a cocktail dress. Later at dinner, she takes joy in adapting to high-end society life. She spies her conquest, Cyrus Waltham, who is seated at a nearby table along with his steady date. Playfully, she offers Monty a wishbone and with her winning end of the bone she prophetically claims, “I am going to get my wish” as she looks over sensually at Waltham.

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Cyrus’s date, blue blood Adela Van Norman (Jacqueline Gadsdon) is guarded because she assumes she will be Mrs. Waltham someday. Author Elinor Glyn (playing herself) walks in. Cyrus motions her over and asks her to explain “It” from her novel creating all the buzz (see her definition above.) Adela, completely lacking in ‘It,’ should be worried by now. Betty strategically forces a ‘bump in’ with Cyrus  in the lobby. The flirting and attraction is immediate and strong. Betty makes a bet with him that he won’t recognize her the next time he sees her. He takes the bet assuming his draw to her would make that impossible.

The next day at work, Betty is calling out a dishonest shopper, who chronically returns items she’s worn for six months then returns. Her manager sends her up to Cyrus’s office to be scolded. He finally looks up and serendipitously realizes he’s just lost their bet from the night before. She suggests a date at the beach “Fun House” (Coney Island?) will square their deal.

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After a delightful evening of fun, Cyrus sneaks in a kiss as he drops her off at her place. She slaps him for his presumptive action, “so you’re a Minute Man! The minute you know a girl you think you can kiss her!” She takes her stuffed toy souvenir and marches into her building. But inside she playfully smiles as she happily ponders her evening. She’s hooked and so is he.

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Later on, trouble has exploded back at her apartment. Betty shares a place with her friend and her friend’s little baby. But some meddling neighbors are trying to take her baby away from her. Her friend has been ill and unable to work so they assume she has no means to take care of the baby. The entire neighborhood rushes to the scene, including a young reporter (Gary Cooper) who takes notes as the drama unfolds. Betty and Monty arrive in time for Betty to claim the baby is her own to protect her friend.

Monty is alarmed to discover Betty is a fatherless mother. He shows up the next day to reveal the bad news to Cyrus with the newspaper article in hand. Not fully satisfied,  the snooping ladies arrive at Waltham’s office to confirm her employment. Monty acknowledges that the fatherless mother is the same as his target of affections, Betty. Cyrus is crushed. When bonus checks are passed out to staff, Cyrus is unable to even look at her face.

She sneaks a moment alone in his office. She flirts but is surprised by the cooler response. Assuming he’s upset by her slap, he instead offers a “left-hand arrangment” of bling and other materialistic offerings. She’s justifiably and visibly upset. He says, “I’m crazy about you, isn’t that enough?” She barks back, “is that what men like you call love?” Her pride prompts her to quit her job.

Monty later arrives at her place with enormous baskets of flowers and edible treats. “I’ve come to forgive you,” he proclaims. In a few exchanges the whole baby’s rightful mother confusion is cleared up. They laugh it off and Monty mentions that he told Cyrus the wrong baby story. Betty’s furious that Cyrus never gave her benefit of the doubt.

She forces Monty to take her as his mysterious ‘plus one’ on Cyrus’s yacht cruise. (Along with buying her a whole new wardrobe appropriate to high seas with high society.) Thirsty for payback, she plans to use her ‘It skills’ to manipulate Cyrus into proposing to her just to laugh in his face in rejection.

On board, Monty is visibly nervous and distressed in being placed in this awkward scene that is soon to unfold. Cyrus senses something is up. Monty only divulges, “I feel so low old chap that I could get on stilts and walk under a dachshund.” Then his mystery date enters the room on cue. Cyrus is a conflicted mix of excitement and pain in seeing her.

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Betty plays the part well. She acts coy knowing she has Cyrus’s full attention. Adela recognizes this woman looks familiar but can’t place her as the socialite she pretends to be. Regardless, she knows she’s a direct threat. And the games continue.

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In a moment alone, Betty gives him a look. She has him in her hooks now. He proposes on the spot. She laughs in his face and walks off. Immediately, she cries with regret. The payback didn’t feel as funny or sweet as she planned. She loves him.

Meanwhile, Monty breaks his secret to Cyrus, explaining the whole baby mix-up.  He runs after her, leaving Monty at the ship’s helm. Distracted Monty collides the boat with another. Both Adela and Betty go flying off the deck and into the waters.

Despite all that expensive education and breeding, somehow swim lessons were not covered because Adela appears to be struggling to swim or stay afloat. Betty attempts to rescue her. Adela’s jealousy bubbles up just as she repeatedly tries to push Betty underwater. Street smart Betty knocks Adela out cold then holds her head up. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to save a swimmer when they’re not busy trying to drown you.

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The fellas finally join the party: Cyrus swimming with a life-preserver and Monty in a row-boat. Adela is pulled into Monty’s boat so Cyrus can swim after Betty. She swims off stating she’s “going home.” Cyrus pursues and catches up with her at the hoisted anchor. They embrace in a kiss. As defeated and deflated Adela looks on, she knows she’s been licked. And Monty looks on to Adela announcing that they, the ‘non-Its’ should stick together.

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IT (1927) is a fun, sweet little romantic comedy. The premise and central characterization reminds me of Colleen Moore in William A Seiter’s WHY BE GOOD? (1929). The supporting cast does a fine job, especially William Austin as Monty with his heavy eye liner and comedic expressions. Or, at least that’s all it would be if it were not for Clara Bow. Wise casting placed Bow as THE flapper girl of the Jazz Age who embodied her era. In addition to a rocketing rise to mega stardom after this film’s performance, Bow also has the distinction of starring in the first ever Oscar winning Best Picture,  William A Wellman’s WINGS (1927), released the same year.

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Clara Bow’s real life was a complete nightmare. To say someone has “daddy issues” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. So to see her perform with such illuminating energy, such radiant beauty, confidence, and well… “It” is even more impressive. From everything we know about Clara Bow’s personal life (the tragic details need to be detailed in another post), she was likely happiest throwing herself into her work. And it shows.

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circa 1925: American silent film actress Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), the original ‘It girl’, gives a wink and a smile for the camera. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This post was written expressly for the SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog June 19-21, 2016. Look back to each day’s list of bloggers for sexy contributions. I chose to write about Clara Bow in IT because not only did her performance define sex for that entire era, and launched her career to mega star status, the film describes sex in a way that seems applicable to any era. Yet only the rare examples could compete with Bow’s level of on-screen self-assured confidence, effervescent presence and sexual magnetism in the decades following her reign.

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Comments

  1. Very nice critique! As Luke Bryan’s current country song “Games” proves, the game-playing between the sexes hasn’t changed in 90 years. Thanks for contributing to the blogathon!

    Like

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