By Michael Aushenker
Many film historians consider silent film actress Clara Bow to be Hollywood’s first sex symbol.
“She always had sexual roles,” said film historian Elaina Archer. Bow projected an image that “sex was fun — you don’t have to be a vamp, you don’t have to be redeemed, you can just enjoy being a sexual woman.”
But there was also a darker side to the story.
Bow’s personal struggles and her meteoric rise to stardom will come into greater focus on Tuesday, when Archer will screen and discuss her documentary “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl” at a gathering of the Venice Historical Society.
The star of 46 silent films and 11 talkies, Bow reportedly received mail from more than 45,000 fans during a single month in 1929, the height of her fame. In 1931, the final year of her career, only Joan Crawford out-grossed her at the box office.
Bow entered the business in as dramatic a fashion as she would leave it. In early July of 1923, then-teenage Bow abandoned her life in New York, including her father and boyfriend, to head to Los Angeles. By month’s end she was at the office of Preferred Pictures head (and soon-to-be Paramount Studios mogul) B. P. Schulberg, still wearing her high-school uniform, and soon became a member of the studio’s starlet stable. Her first movie, “Maytime,” hit theaters in 1924.
But it would be 1926’s “It,” for which Paramount marketing staff dubbed Bow the original “It Girl,” that Bow became the studio’s biggest actress. A Cinderella yarn about a poor shop girl for whom an uptight department store scion falls in love, the big date scene in the film was shot primarily on the long-gone Abbot Kinney Pier. The night scene features the couple enjoying amusement park rides and trying to win stuffed animals.
“It’s her first date with her boss, whom she’s falling in love with,” Archer said. “He gets to let his hair down and not be so stuffy and enjoy himself.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sandburg, who also reviewed movies during the Silent Era, described “It” as “smart, funny and real. [The film] makes a full-sized star of Clara Bow.”
But the mechanics of the Hollywood machine quickly took a toll on the actress.
Unlike stars who learned to shrug off critics as they followed in Bow’s footsteps, Bow could be “devastated by the press. She really wanted everyone to love her, and the studios took advantage of that,” said Archer.
Bow had checked into a sanatorium in 1925 but was thrust back into work a short time later leading up to “It.” In 1927 alone, she appeared in six Paramount releases — including “Wings,” which won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture.
“She was becoming really exhausted,” Archer said of Bow. “She was so tragic and vulnerable. They really used her up.”
Throughout her life, Bow was haunted by a broken childhood marked by sexual trauma.
Growing up desperately poor, “her mother would entertain men for money while Clara hid in the closet,” Archer said. Late in life, Bow revealed she had also been molested by her father.
Bow married actor Rex Hall and retired from Hollywood while still in her 20s — her final movie, “Hoop-La,” released in 1933. Bow, who continued to battle mental illness, was 60 when she died from a heart attack in Culver City in 1965.
Archer’s documentary, originally aired on Turner Classic Movies, is narrated by rock musician Courtney Love. Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner was executive producer.
Nearly 15 years after making the film, Archer remains haunted by Bow’s tragic story.
“I still work to try to get her work seen and to get her work restored. I think she’ll always be a modern icon,” Archer said.
The Venice Historical Society screens “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at S.P.A.R.C., 685 Venice Blvd., Venice. $5. Call (310) 967-5170 or visit venicehistoricalsociety.org.