It (1927) and The It Girl, Clara Bow

The Power and Limitations of Personal Magnetism

Clara Bow in 'It' (1927) | art by Vanessa McKee
illustration by Vanessa McKee

How’s a girl to get ahead on a shopgirl’s salary, living in a tenement, acting as the sole support of her single-mother roommate in 1927? The capital—in lieu of financial or cultural—proposed by the film It, is, well, “it.” But what is “it”? It’s sex appeal, sure, but it’s also charisma, magnetism, joie de vivre, and je ne sais quoi—“something in you,” the film says, “that gives the impression that you are not all cold.” 

It (no clowns in sight) is lightweight fluff and one of the most popular and delightful films of the late silent era. Our heroine, Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow), works the counter in the “WORLD’S LARGEST STORE” in Manhattan by day and lives in a cramped Brooklyn tenement named “Gashouse Gables” by night. One day, the rich boss’ rich son, Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno), walks in. The film charts the course of their true love, from Betty Lou setting her sights on him (and with what eyes) to the two of them engaged, with all the complications and misadventures in between. A girl of Betty Lou’s lowly station can pull off such a coup because she’s in abundant possession of the titular “it.” Betty Lou “it”s herself into dinner at the Ritz, a trip on a yacht, and marriage to a wealthy man.

It is a star vehicle through and through, as well as a cash-in on the concept of “it” as popularized by trashy romance novelist Elinor Glyn in a 1927 magazine serial. (This led to an amusingly shoehorned-in appearance by Glyn in the film and several staged publicity photos in which Glyn anoints Bow as “the it girl.”) One look at Ms. Bow and you understand instinctively what “it” is. She’s the best flirt the silver screen has ever seen, and she’s so winsome we’d forgive her anything. Small, pretty, and wide-eyed enough to be a doll, she’s simultaneously so full of energy, quick wits, and affection as to seem more alive than anyone else.

Uninhibited by the need to put feelings into words, silent cinema allowed Bow to convey something more elemental through her looks and actions. Betty Lou’s gaze is startlingly bold and desirous for the time and for her gender. She gives and takes with it at the same time—sizes up and communicates everything she needs to. Her nimble agility—why walk when you can run, dance, or hop—made her utterly modern in a decade defined by jazz and dance and a focus on physical health, a decade in which not only ankles but calves were liberated from the “hobble skirts” of the 1910s. Paramount producer Adolph Zukor said of Bow, “she danced even when her feet were not moving.”

Betty Lou employs both her gaze and her physicality in pursuit of Waltham. In their first scene together, they don’t meet at all, Betty Lou just looks at him, center-frame, persistently. Bow was well aware of the importance of this look and ensured its length by offering three variations on the female gaze in succession: one of yearning, one of passion, and one of virtue (for the “old women in the audience”). On their date to Coney Island, which looks ridiculously fun, a variety of fairground rides happily and literally throw the pair together, the camera unable to contain their flailing bodies within the boundary of the frame. Later Betty Lou slides sleekly, inappropriately, onto Waltham’s desk—another Bow touch. Fittingly, the film’s concluding shot is the two of them in clinging embrace, eyes locked only on each other.

“It” is the film’s currency and its value system—the natural order of things, it believes, is that those with “it” are the natural heirs of love, success, and happiness, and those without should be content with their lot. For this reason, we don’t judge Betty Lou when she makes eyes at another man while on a date, and we don’t waste time feeling sorry for Cyrus’ friend Monty (who looks like a 1927 John Waters), who liked Betty Lou first. Ironically, two of the wealthiest characters in the film, Monty and Betty Lou’s more affluent rival, Adela, are converted into underdogs through the film’s point-of-view because of their complete lack of “it.”

Given that “it” is largely sex appeal, does It wheel out the old chestnut that the only chance a female underdog has for betterment is through her physical attractiveness and a man’s attention? Or does it acknowledge a simple Jane Austen-like truth—that society offered limited ways for women to change their lives in a time when, despite an increase in women working outside the home, it was still rare for them to achieve equal pay or leadership positions?

In many ways, the female protagonists of 1920s romantic comedies like It were the less hard-nosed precursors of the career gold diggers that succeeded them in the more cynical and depressed 1930s. The 1920s was the decade in which Anita Loos’ witty and withering gold digger novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was a zeitgeist sensation and the second best-selling book of its year (the first film adaptation, from 1928, is just one of many silent films that have been tragically lost). Throughout It, Betty Lou’s attraction to Waltham is blurred with her attraction to the life he could provide for her, most cheekily shown in a shot of a newspaper advertisement for Waltham’s department store, which sends her into reverie. But we also see this when she fondles his jewelry and drops hints with Kim Kardashian-level subtlety that she “likes diamonds.” Even their names, like Dickens characters, nod to their respective financial situations—“Spence” sounds like “pence,” and “Waltham” like “wealth.”

Nevertheless, Betty Lou’s attitude appears to be more aligned with Marilyn Monroe’s softened version of Lorelei Lee from the sparkling 1953 film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Author Anita Loos was a sharp-eyed cynic; the Lorelei she created in her novel explicitly marries only for money and to further her career—she’s not in love and she’s carrying on an affair with someone else. The Lorelei of the 1953 film, on the other hand, may be a pragmatist but isn’t without heart. Insisting she’s truly in love, she explains, “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?…And if you had a daughter, wouldn’t you rather that she didn’t marry a poor man? You’d want her to have the most wonderful things in the world, and to be very happy.” (I’m persuaded every time.) Like Lorelei with her sweet-tempered sap, Betty Lou is genuinely in love with Waltham—as well as with diamonds, new clothes, and dinner at the Ritz. This makes the character more sympathetic, but means the film isn’t particularly critical. When they unite at the end, the promise of Waltham and wealth are given to Betty Lou as a package deal, and the film doesn’t thoroughly interrogate how much she loves Waltham for his true self—really, it isn’t concerned with the question at all.

That the film’s idea of female empowerment is marriage to a rich handsome man is questionable. Regardless, something I really love about this film and others from the 1920s and ‘30s is that not only the characters but the films themselves have the values and worldview of the underdog. It celebrates working-class values such as loyalty, ingenuity, integrity, and the ability to have a really good time. A scene in which a couple of pious welfare workers attempt to separate Betty Lou’s sick friend from her baby bears the intertitle, straightforward in that silent-movie way: “Poverty is no disgrace—until meddling neighbors hear of it.” The film doesn’t pass judgement on or pity its working-class characters; it wants them to prevail. A delightful makeover scene in which Betty Lou and her friend refashion her day dress for a date (like Marge Simpson with her Chanel suit) isn’t shameful but triumphant.

What’s more, unlike in many stories of cross-class romance like My Fair Lady or Pretty Woman, Betty Lou doesn’t have to learn middle-class modes of being to earn love. Instead, she draws her love interests into her world. She takes Monty on the bus, she refuses to be sat in the corner at the Ritz, she takes Waltham to Coney Island for hot dogs. She play-acts being of a higher class at the Ritz and at the yacht party, but it’s when she’s herself at Coney Island that she wins Waltham’s heart. To a certain extent, he’s attracted to her because of her working-class characteristics. Basically, she couldn’t be less staid. In a way, the lesser social pressures on working-class women give Betty Lou the freedom to actively pursue Waltham, as well as the “indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not” that the film decides is a crucial component of “it.” Her rival, Adela—who isn’t bad, just boring—is free from financial worries, but bound by the social expectations of women in her class.

It could assume a working-class female audience would share its values because of the great social changes of the 1920s. The decade saw working-class women leave domestic service to enter the workforce in shops and offices. They were moving to the cities and leading more exciting lives, and they were spending their newfound money at the movies. By 1927, women made up more than 80% of the cinema audience. This led to a proliferation of films about “working girls,” as well as a crop of new, modern stars. The fanciful (if fabulous) vamps and virgins of the 1910s were out; the flapper was in. And Clara Bow, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, was the “quintessence” of the flapper—“pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad and ‘hard-berled’ as possible.”

But Bow was not only new and fashionable, she was an underdog star communing with her underdog audience. The horror of her life story would seem ridiculous were it not true, even if it was likely not so much worse than many others of her time and situation. Born in 1905, she grew up in bonafide poverty, moving around Brooklyn. Her father was often out of work and her mother suffered from epilepsy that would eventually kill her when Bow was 17. Bow was the victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and her mother once tried to kill her with a butcher knife during a psychotic episode. One of her close childhood friends died from a building fire in her arms. In her later years, when acting, the memory of this alone would enable Bow to cry on cue.

Bow played mostly working-class characters (shopgirls, waitresses, even a Parisian “apache”), and her fans identified with her. They recognized something genuine in her and felt protective of her. At the height of her fame, she received 45,000 fan letters a month—double that of anyone else in film history, according to her 1988 biographer David Stenn. There’s a lovely little moment in It, just before Betty Lou enacts her master plan to win Waltham back, where she breaks the fourth wall and gives the audience a conspiratorial look—it feels like fellowship, even friendship, with her working-class audience.

Cecil B. DeMille said, “nearly every woman in the world feels in her heart that she could be a famous actress if the opportunity would present itself.” Part of Bow’s appeal was that she seemed to confirm for her fans the slim chance of the underdog succeeding, the ugly duckling transforming, the American Dream. If her childhood would’ve made an overwrought movie, the story of her route to stardom was like a Colleen Moore film. She literally won a magazine contest called “Fame and Fortune” in 1921; her prize was a small part in a Billie Dove drama called Beyond the Rainbow. Her career developed from there, with a few hit films in 1925 and ‘26, including The Plastic Age, Dancing Mothers, and Mantrap, before she starred in her career-defining film, It, and the first-ever Best Picture winner, Wings, in 1927.

In any earlier age, Bow would likely have lived in debilitating poverty in Brooklyn forever. But in this period when only personality and beauty were required for superstardom, movies offered her a magic carpet out of poverty—just as they did for Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more of the Golden Age’s brightest stars.

Just as romance stories tend to end at the point of the lovers’ union, underdog stories often end at the promise or peak of success. But what’s life like at the top? The underdog’s struggle is not just to reach the top but to survive there, in a place where they’re neither expected nor wanted. It ends at the euphoric moment of first togetherness, all misunderstandings cleared up, everything sweet nothings and kisses. As far as we know, nothing ever goes wrong again, and it isn’t the kind of film to explore the difficulties that could ensue, such as what they might do together, or how Waltham’s family and friends might react to Betty Lou. Clara Bow, on the other hand, reached the heights of Hollywood stardom only to find that there was nothing and no one beneath to support her.

Bow’s life in Hollywood wasn’t a happy one. To say that mental health wasn’t a priority in early Hollywood would be an understatement. She was underpaid and brutally overworked. Early in her career, she made 22 films in one year; once established, she made one cookie-cutter film per season. When sound arrived in the late ‘20s, she was physically terrified of the microphone, yet was given two weeks to prepare; Greta Garbo was given two years. She told her producer she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and was ignored. Once, she collapsed from exhaustion. While Betty Lou in It employs a bold female gaze, winning both love and respect from the man she wants, Bow was objectified and derided terribly by male studio executives in her professional life, as well as by lovers in her personal life. Her many engagements increasingly became subjects of public ridicule, and a court trial—technically about her secretary’s financial mismanagement—publicly excoriated Bow’s character. The tabloids reveled in it all.

While Betty Lou navigates the smart set with confidence, Bow was shunned by Hollywood society, who found her unpredictable and uncouth. Louise Brooks, an actor who later went to Europe to make some of the greatest silent films, admired Bow greatly. She once asked her husband, director Eddie Sutherland, to invite Bow to one of his parties, to which he replied, “Oh, heavens, no! We can’t have her, we don’t know what she’d do—she’s from Brooklyn.” At this time, Hollywood was largely populated by nouveau-riche snobs with fabricated backstories, and Bow recognized, “I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak, because I’m myself!” Like Joan Crawford after her, she was better friends with the film crew than with the cast or directors.

All of this began to take its toll. When It came out in 1927, her status as an icon of the age was solidified; by 1929, her films show a woman tired, unhappy, unsure of herself, and sapped of spirit. Paramount released her from her contract and she checked into a sanatorium in 1930. She was 25 years old.

Bow returned to Hollywood in 1931 to make enough money to be able to leave it forever. She made two more films. The lurid and campy Call Her Savage in 1932 shows the slight regression in social attitudes towards women’s behavior following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression. While in It, Betty Lou’s lack of reserve marks her out as attractive and cool, in Call Her Savage, Bow’s character Nasa longs to “be like other girls,” and her “wildness” destroys her relationships with white, middle-class men. The screwball heroines that succeeded the flapper as the popular female screen type in the mid-1930s inherited her madcap behaviour but were usually upper-class—think Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey.

Bow retired from acting forever in 1933. She moved to a ranch in Nevada with her handsome actor-turned-cowboy husband, Rex Bell, and had two children. When her husband’s political ambitions threatened a return to public life in 1944, she tried to kill herself. She suffered ill mental health for the rest of her life and lived reclusively until her death in 1965.

Once the biggest film star in the world, Clara Bow seems to have returned to underdog status. Considering her cosmic popularity in her day, she isn’t as well-known now as other silent stars like Lillian Gish or Louise Brooks. She was entirely neglected in Kevin Brownlow’s seminal 1968 tome on silent film, The Parade’s Gone By…, something that prompted Brooks to send him letters “so angry…they would almost burn their way out of the envelope.” Even her moniker, “the it girl,” has come to suggest not only fame but the brevity thereof.

Bow’s return to the margins of film history can be blamed partly on her reclusiveness and early death, and partly on the fact that many of her films are lost and/or dreck. But it’s also a great shame. Clara Bow was one of the most instinctively brilliant and appealing actors in cinema, with a pleasure-loving (escapist) disposition that made her an icon of her age—“the real jazz baby,” as she called herself. It preserves her spirit of quickness and lightness, as well as her perceptible tenacity. On-screen, her remarkable strength of personality was enough to win her everything she desired. In life, it wasn’t enough to ensure happiness or agency. Yet by embodying something to emulate, she taught young women how to flirt, how to have fun, and how to not care what people thought of them. She played a part in changing the attitudes of a generation. That’s what the most persuasive stars can do.