Sunday, August 5, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... Clara Bow

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Getting Acquainted series.

I took a two-month break to move, and then settle from the move. And though it would be inaccurate to say that I am truly "settled" (and who knows when I will be), I wanted to get back into this series -- for my sake, if not for yours. (Let's be honest -- you read these pieces out of a sense of duty, if at all.)

When I was in journalism school, I wrote a piece on a practice that was commonplace in 1999: entertainment media outlets (usually magazines, specifically Entertainment Weekly) anointing this or that young actress the "it-girl." The idea was that the young starlet possessed the intangible quality of "it," meaning that she either actually was, or was being positioned to be, the go-to commodity for casting directors. In short, it meant that her career had some heat.

The thing that struck me was that these entertainment outlets could not, or perhaps did not want to, come to a consensus about who the "it-girl" of the moment really was. The title seemed to imply exclusivity: This person was "it" at that particular moment, and no one else had legitimate claim to the title. But the phrase "it-girl" was being thrown around with such abandon, and so little certainty that the person they had crowned would actually live up to the hype, that it had become ridiculous. There were a number of names discussed in my piece, but my inspiration was an actress named Gretchen Mol, who was dubbed the "it-girl" by Entertainment Weekly in the spring of 1999. Mol's most significant credit at the time was the poker movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton. You could argue that she has not had a more significant credit since then, meaning that the title was indeed bestowed upon an unworthy subject.

Anyway, as I learned from entertainment types I interviewed for the story, the origin of the phrase "it-girl" more or less dated back to a 1927 movie called It, starring Clara Bow. I had not previously heard of Bow, but her name quickly became one of the focal points of my piece. She was the original "it-girl," and seven decades later, her legacy had borne fruit in the form of this phenomenon: magazines trying to commodify the zeitgeist in a quick, two-word phrase that would jump out at you as you walked past the newsstand.

But in the 15 years since I wrote that piece, I still had not seen one of Bow's films. This Getting Acquainted series seemed the perfect opportunity to remedy that. Who was this star who had burned brightly, but perhaps not brightly enough to become a household name? This charismatic flapper who had taken her own control of the zeitgeist in the late 1920s, though perhaps not for much longer than Mol supposedly did 70 years later?

In July, it was time to find out.

The Plastic Age (1925, Wesley Ruggles)
Watched: Saturday, July 14th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A promising college-bound athlete (Donald Keith) finds himself distracted from his studies and his training by a wild girl (Clara Bow) who frequents speak easies and dance halls.
My thoughts on the film: I've seen somewhere around 20 silent films (a pathetic total, I will admit), but until The Plastic Age, I had not seen an unimportant silent film. That's probably because the lesser films of that era, the disposable entertainments with no lingering artistic value, have been lost, or have not been deemed valuable enough to make available on modern media. This film itself doesn't really register in the places you'd expect it -- for example, I couldn't give it a star rating on Letterboxd because it's not in the database. But it was available for rental from Netflix (packaged with a movie I did not watch, The Show Off), so it became my introduction to Bow. The movie is basically a romantic sort-of comedy involving a love triangle between the two leads and a third man (Gilbert Roland), which climaxes in a big football game. There isn't a whole lot more to say about the plot, except that it involves an initial flirtation between Bow and Keith, Keith disappointing his parents by failing to live up to his academic or athletic expectations as a result of Bow's partying lifestyle, an eventual split between the two, and an eventual rekindling of their romance after Keith's football team wins the big game. Plus Roland's presence sometimes mucking things up for them, and sometimes helping them. So instead of the filmmaking, I'll concentrate my thoughts on Bow. Although it's clear that she has a certain charisma, I'd say that this film doesn't make maximum use of her talents, and she seems to disappear for sizable chunks of it. Let's just say this film did not make it clear to me why Bow was considered to have "it."

Wings (1927, William A. Wellman)
Watched: Wednesday, July 18th
One-sentence plot synopsis: Two young men from the same town (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) in love with the same woman (Jobyna Ralston) are called into service to fight in World War I as aviators, each trying to survive and return home to the woman they both think loves them.
My thoughts on the film: I was interested in Wings more as an excuse to check a best picture winner off my list than as a chance to appreciate Bow and her talents. In fact, Wings was the first best picture winner (along with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise -- they split the award between the best technical achievement and most artistic merit back then). And although a 139-minute silent film is not really compatible with my current lifestyle, I jammed it in one night when my wife was out, without too many comestible stimulants to keep me awake. The film is, indeed, incredibly impressive in sheer terms of its technique. The numerous air battles must have been very tricky to film, but it was some of the less-obvious, smaller-scale stuff that actually caught my attention the most. Very near the beginning of the film, a camera is mounted on the front of a swing that is holding Arlen and Ralston, and the effect is startling for a film so old. Wellman also makes terrific use of tracking in a shot at a French nightclub, as it travels along a path going "through" a number of small circular tables, capturing a snippet of action by each couple at each table as it goes by, and culminating in the table where Rogers is getting plastered on champagne with a French girl. In order to capture Rogers' drunken stupor, bubbles appear on screen as a recurring and very early type of special effect. (It also made me realize that this film would have never flown -- pun intended -- only a few years later when the Hays Code was introduced.) Unfortunately for Bow, she gets left kind of on the sidelines in this film. Not only does Rogers not realize until very late in the film (and in a pretty contrived, convenient way) that she is the girl for him, but since much of the action takes place in Europe, the film struggles to keep her involved -- though it does manage to arrange a plot point where she goes to war in the capacity of a nurse, and has a brief interaction with the drunken Rogers, whose blurred sight keeps him from recognizing her. Wings also has a notable and brief appearance by future Hollywood legend Gary Cooper -- and since I haven't seen all that many Cooper movies, I was pleased to identify him so quickly. The film has enough good melodrama to register beyond its undeniable technical accomplishments.

It (1927, Clarence Badger)
Watched: Wednesday, August 1st
One-sentence plot synopsis: A department store clerk (Bow) sets her sights on the handsome owner of the store (Antonio Moreno), despite the fact that he continues to fail to recognize her, even though his goofy friend (William Austin) labels her the very personification of Elinor Glyn's concept of "it."
My thoughts on the film: At last, the film for which Bow was famous (at least to me) -- and at last, I see what all the fuss was about. There's something so wonderfully coquettish about Bow in this film, that I didn't see either in a role where she should have displayed it (The Plastic Age) or one where that characteristic was being underplayed because she was playing the underdog role (Wings). It's striking how much Bow stands out in a scene involving a bevy of other clerks, all of whom are in the same neighborhood of beauty as Bow, but none of whom have ... well, "it," the way Bow does. She bats her eyes, teases and flirts in a way that is truly memorable in this film. What's more, the film is pretty fun, even if pretty square. The fun part: Bow and Moreno go on a date to Coney Island, where they ride all sorts of unusual contraptions that function as carnival rides, including a spinning centrifuge that steadily spits its occupants off to the side. (She and Moreno stay on board the longest before being dumped into each others' laps on the side.) The square part: The entire second half of the film is consumed by a Three's Company-style (don't you love what my mind produces as a point of comparison) misunderstanding, in which Moreno believes Bow is an unwed mother because she claims ownership of a child in order to save a friend under scrutiny from child protective services. Although this obstacle to their relationship is very much in keeping with the morals of the day, a modern viewer like me can't help but see it as a bit stodgy -- in today's romantic comedies, a leading man could never possibly judge a woman because she already had a child. In fact, in the modern-day portrayal of romantic comedy heroes, having a child would actually be a selling point for him. Balking as he does, Moreno seems stiff and judgmental, and the misunderstanding seems to go on forever, when a single word by any number of key characters could clear it up. One thing I did find surprisingly modern about the film, however, was the character played by Austin, who seems impossibly effeminate, and even refers to himself as an "old fruit." I can find no reference on the internet to Austin actually being gay, however. Lastly, one thing that stood out was the humorous period slang on the dialogue cards, such as "Sweet Santa Claus!" and "I'm so low, if I were on stilts I could walk under a dachshund!"

Conclusion: Clara Bow has "it." At least one out of every three times.

Favorite of the three: Wings

August: After four of my last six Getting Acquainted films (dating back to Carl Theodor Dreyer in April) were silent films, I desperately need to move forward in time. So I'm going to check out the work of actor/director John Cassavetes, in his capacity as a director. I've seen only one Cassavetes-directed film -- Gloria -- and I simply must add to that total to consider myself a true cinephile. So I'll be watching Shadows, Faces and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I'd love it if you'd like to check them out with me.

See you next month ...

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