Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hump Day Hottie: Clara Bow

A week ago I posted the first episode of a new blog series Best Pictures From The Outside In (episode 2 later today). I felt a little bad that the first conversation barely mentioned Clara Bow, the "It" Girl of the late 20s and the co-star of Wings. I'm more of a Louise Brooks man myself but there's something about most big stars of the silent screens that just sparkles, that just can't be repeated.

It's easy to assume, perhaps cynically, that it's merely the unfamiliarity of their images that gives them so potent and so alien a life force on the screen: the black and white, the unnatural speed of the footage, the disintegration of the image. But I think it's more complicated than that. I think it's also the magic, as it has ever been between true stars and cameras, and the silence itself. Movies are not only projected but they invite projections. We transfer our own ideas and needs and dreams onto stars. Ever notice how well people think they know celebrities? The silence only invites more of this, more projection. We also decide, subconsciously or otherwise, what the star sounds like when they cry, when they whisper sweet nothings to their lover, and how loudly or infectiously they laugh.

Oops! It's not what the soldiers think between Clara and her man in Wings

Curious about Bow's long-forgotten prominence I read a bunch of good stuff over @ Gilda's Attic including this tidbit from the book Clara Bow, Running Wild.
Instinctively Clara had grasped the essence of stardom: individuality. The girl who had spent hours imitating Mary Pickford sensed that to be special, she must be herself, and artistic credo that Clara maintained for the rest of her career.
Hundreds of technological inventions have completely altered the movies since the talkies first disrupted the barely formed movie star hierarchy in the late twenties. But the essence of true stardom is still the same. Clara had it right.


Anonymous said...

isn't she the one who "dated" the USC football team one weekend?

Anonymous said...

beautifully written tribute to silent films and the star-power that is Clara Bow!!!


anonymous 1 ~ here's a bit on that eternal bit o' gossip

anonymous 2 ~ thanks. i hope you enjoyed the WINGS piece too

Janice said...

I had noticed the omission in the Wings post, Nat, so I'm glad to see you correct that. I still wonder what I wondered reading the Wings article: "But how was her acting?" Or is that beside the point?

Re: Louise Brooks, I love her book Lulu in Hollywood. it's really a collection of short essays but if you have not read it you must - I found it at a used bookstore and read it cover to cover many times. I had never seen any of her films however until two or three years ago when I rented a DVD copy of Diary of a Lost Girl (newly remastered and restored). She does not give the worst performance in the film, but hers is far from the best either (and like most silent films, the perfs ranged from the stereotypical OTT mugging that we associate with bad acting in silent films, to nuanced perfs that would not be out of place in the cinema of the '40's or even today.) there was also a comedy sound short from the early '30's that she appeared in on the DVD but it was so unwatchable all round in terms of performances (Brooks and everyone elses) that I turned it off after five mintues.

Having learned therefore that Brooks is spoken of today as though she were a great actress but that her fame is not from her acting but from her beauty, and the fact that she outlived most of her peers AND she wrote intelligently about her time in Hollywood and Germany, I therefore wondered likewise when you reviewed Wings "so how was Clara's acting?" You set the record straight re: the quality of WINGS in general, so it seemed appropriate to wonder - have we all been missing an underrated actress as well as an underrated film?

Sorry for the ramble - I love that you're looking at silent films and BPs for us and hope you are feeling better.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call her a great actress, but she sure had something. She had "it," I guess: she radiated energy and sexiness. Adolph Zukor described it as "She danced even when her feet were not moving. Some part of her was always in motion, if only her great rolling eyes. It was an elemental magnetism, an animal vitality, that made her the center of attraction in any company." But she also didn't seem unattainable like other silent divas--she made you think she'd be fun to go out to a ball game with. It, which is a pretty good movie, is nearly great because she's so much fun to watch. I'd have liked to see more of her in Wings.

Anonymous said...

The one silent film actress that always stuns me is Lillian Gish. When I watch her, I "hear" what she's saying. It's not that I have any skills at lip-reading, it's that all her intellect, emotion, and physical being is so sharply focused on communicating that moment, that it MUST be what she is saying, and it is. She holds nothing back. She is stunning.

Louise Brooks in "Pandora's Box" is an unforgettable performance. Unsettling. But that whole Weimar period, Franz Wedekind, etc. has undertones of something horrible, yet not quite definable, lurking underneath.

I don't think the idea of "The camera steals your soul" is true (necessarily) but ordinary people being habituated to being photographed, filmed, and observed, creates a constant sense of "how do I look?" Then an actor has to re-learn how to communicate the story rather than posing (or be an exceptional person/artist).

Great series, Nathaniel, great topic.

Anonymous said...

Janice - I just wanted to add that I agree again that Louise Brooks is fascinating. I haven't see all of her films - I think I saw "Pandora's Box" in Paris. But that performance is breath-taking. It's like an actor has one fabulous role, where you can suddenly see how powerful a performer they really are.

The dialogue about that is still contemporary - that a actress had to go to Europe to finally get a decent part that utilized her skills, and even after that demonstration, Hollywood still didn't know what to do with her (or didn't want to make THAT kind of movie). But part of the enduring fascination is that she DID give one of the great film performances.


I personally think Brooks is divine in DIARY OF A LOST GIRL too.

but anonymous... both of you. You make great points

Brian Darr said...

My favorite Louise Brooks performance is the one where she's trying to pass as a boy for most of the film: Beggars of Life (also directed by Wings' William Wellman). I love silent-era actresses though: Mae Marsh, Marion Davies, Lois Wilson, Gloria Stuart, Colleen Moore, Anna May Wong: I wish they all were household names.

For some reason the only Clara Bow film I've seen is Wings. Must remedy that one soon!

CanadianKen said...

The ultimate showcase for Clara Bow is the movie IT. The star's incandescent energy and endearing charm are on full display from first scene to last. And she never looked prettier! Hard to watch the picture without falling at least a little bit in love with her - just as millions did when they saw it in 1927. The film neatly captures a snappy jazz age feel (even the intertitles unfold with a crisp lively rhythm ) - but IT also stands as proof positive that Bow's unique electricity is timeless.