Today, I came to the end of David Stenn’s breezy volume on the inimitable “IT” Girl, Clara Bow. On the whole, I quite enjoyed Stenn’s examination of one of the most “neglected and underrated of all film actresses” – a sentiment not to be taken lightly coming from the likes of Louise Brooks. Aside from the scandals and revelations that wracked Clara’s life, there were a few lighter details of note that I found quite interesting:
- While on a European tour to promote 1932’s Call Her Savage, Clara made a stop in Germany. According to Stenn, in Berlin “a starstruck Adolf Hitler presented her with a signed copy of Mein Kampf. ‘For my most esteemed friend Clara,’ he wrote, ‘with the wish that she derives the same pleasure reading this book as I did writing it. Adolf.'” “Madness” was all Clara had to say.
- In an interesting twist on Clara’s hedonistic youth, 1964 saw her supporting arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in his bid for the presidency. Clara wrote to fellow sexual rebel-turned-political reactionary Lina Basquette that “[o]ur dollar has shrunk to a dollarette and people run around seeking more pleasure, less work, more pay. The Fabian Socialists are ruining us.” In a letter to Hedda Hopper, she also accused choreographer Agnes DeMille of being a communist.
Despite the attention showered on Clara with the publication of Stenn’s biography, I was unable to find much else in the way of substantial critical analyses of Clara or her films. Scholarly journal articles appear to be nil – I found one discussing the role of It within the context of rising female consumerism in the 1920’s, and second article looking at the flapper comedienne. I suppose my expectations were somewhat inflated with the relative wealth of academic work on Louise Brooks that is readily available (not to mention her own scholarly work for the film journal Sight and Sound, among others).
In the wake of this Clara Bow high, I tried to find some of her other films through the Interlibrary Loan system, but was only able to get a hold of The Wild Party (1929). Directed by Dorothy Arzner and co-starring Frederic March, The Wild Party sticks close to formula but is notable as Clara’s first talkie. Clara plays Stella Ames, the party girl with a heart of gold at an all-girls college. Stella falls for the handsome new anthropology professor, Dr. Gilmore (March), but their love is threatened by disciplinary expulsion from the college. I think the film stands as an item of curiosity, mainly from the contributions of its star and director (Arzner was one of the few female directors in Hollywood at this time, and the first one to direct a talkie – 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail). Other than that, however, the film creaks and clunks along due to the primitive state of sound technology in Hollywood at the time. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen an early talkie that I would honestly call good. It’s a wonder I was able to make it through Coquette (also 1929).
I feel like opening it up for general discussion – which early talkies would you consider to be good films? By “early” I’m referring to the period from 1927 with Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to about 1930. By 1931, sound films hit the ground running with the likes of The Public Enemy (which made a star out of Jean Harlow in a role that, incidentally, almost went to Louise Brooks), Dracula, Frankenstein, and M.