Friday, April 20, 2012

Clara Bow, Unmiked

In 1952, Singin’ in the Rain treated Hollywood’s shift from silent movies into talkies as comedy. In the past year, The Artist made the same evolution seem poignant (for the stars left behind), but also hopeful and romantic. I just caught up with David Stenn’s Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, which drives home the point that for many connected with the motion picture industry, the early days of talkies were absolutely terrifying.

Stenn is known as a Hollywood type himself. He has writing credits on such TV favorites as Hill Street Blues and Beverly Hills, 90210, and he’s currently a supervising producer on Boardwalk Empire. But his two acclaimed biographies show where his heart really lies: with the golden girls of the silver screen. I haven’t done more than dip into Stenn’s Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow. I do know that it, like the Clara Bow book that preceded it, was edited (with erudition and flair) by a golden girl of my own day, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It’s clear that Stenn gravitates toward savvy beauties who’ve known tragedy and trauma.

Clara Bow survived a harrowing childhood to become one of Hollywood’s top stars. As the “It” Girl of silent films, she brought to the screen an all-American sex appeal that was something new. Before Clara, says Stenn, “depictions of flagrant female sexuality were of foreign and hence decadent origin.” Clara, though, combined sensuality with a “fresh and natural” quality that set her apart from the sort of “jaded and blasé foreigner” who vamped in the early silents. For her many fans, Clara was the Roaring Twenties personified.

It’s not true that Clara fell from favor in the sound era because her voice wasn’t suitable. As sound technology advanced in the 1930s, the public learned to appreciate vocal variation, looking with favor on Jean Harlow’s midwestern twang and Jean Arthur’s “foghorn voice.” Stenn tells us that Carole Lombard found stardom despite “breathless delivery and half-swallowed words [that] would have recorded as gibberish in early talkies.” As for Clara, especially when scenarios permitted her to sound like the blue-collar Brooklyn gal she was, she could still prove effective in sound features.

But the advent of sound was a frightening time. Cameras became much heavier than silent-film cameras, which meant that actors’ movement was severely restricted. Performers were instructed to speak in a monotone, and warned that heavy footsteps would echo. Because air conditioning made too much noise, sets were sweltering, with hot studio lights melting actors’ makeup. The new sound engineers briefly ruled Hollywood, dismissively scrapping takes that were “no good for sound.”

Clara Bow, who loved to move freely on a movie set, felt severely hampered. She developed a severe case of “mike fright,” and couldn’t stop herself from frequently glancing up at the microphone overhead. As she lost confidence in her own abilities, her career ground to a halt. She made her last movie in 1933, but lived on for 30 years, remembering her past glory. In later life, she became an admirer of Marilyn Monroe, who wanted to portray her on screen. But the two Hollywood sex symbols were too insecure ever to meet in the flesh.

David Stenn will appear on my panel at next month’s Compleat Biographer Conference, sponsored by BIO (Biographers International Organization). The date is Saturday, May 19, the place is USC’s Davidson Conference Center, and the topic is “How Dare You? How to Research the Unauthorized Celebrity Bio and Live to Tell the Tale.” Other speakers include Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her Story. The public is invited. Come one, come all!


  1. Excellent piece, Beverly. I found the early sound days portion of particular interest. It reminded me of how foreign film companies shot silently well into the 1980s because it was deemed more economic that way what with the export versions being dubbed into various languages anyways. Also, it seems foreign sets differed greatly from American ones in relation to there being "Quiet on the set" during shooting ie barking dogs, people talking, running around doing other things. It's amazing the level of quality that was accomplished under such conditions at times.

    I'm not big into musicals, but SINGIN IN THE RAIN is quite a beautiful movie and a lot of fun. Gene Kelly was quite a performer.

  2. I've been a huge Gene Kelly fan from childhood on. I can't pretend I know Clara Bow's work very well, but Stenn's biography of her complicated life is fascinating.

  3. I love Gene Kelly - and Singin' in the Rain is my very favorite movie musical. In fact, Ms. Gray - care to join my wife and I in your local theater for a nationwide 60th anniversary screening of Singin in the Rain? We'll be attending in our local theater. Thursdaym July 12th. 7pm local time - not sure if you'd be seeing it at 4pm or three hours after us? In any case, hope to not exactly see you there!

    That was a sad end to Ms. Bow's career - sound hampered several silent stars - a difficult transition to be sure.

  4. What a lovely idea! Too bad I couldn't work it out!