21 December 2010
“She’s a ripping sort, really,” someone says about Clara Bow’s character in It. “She’s really topheavy with ‘IT’.” Bow was the It Girl in the late 20s not just because she was popular. “It” denoted a personal charisma that seemed to ooze from the pores of a few special individuals and not at all from others. Perhaps sex appeal had something to do with it, yet Bow’s high-test caffeinated activity conveyed more best-girl good nature than the languid, sexy sultriness of other stars, from Louise Brooks to Gloria Swanson. I’ve seen only two of Bow’s films (It and Wings, both made in 1927) and in both she conveys the same sparkly, occasionally goofy willingness to bounce around the screen. Critics have simplified this to mean sex appeal, but I see a girl I’d have liked to go out dancing with.
First and foremost, Clara Bow was adorable. She had a pile of indomitable curly hair cut in some kind of proximate of a 1920s bob, with enormous dark eyes and round, youthful cheeks better suited to hamming it up onscreen than to come-hither looks. If we want to talk about “it” as meaning sex appeal, we must specify that her appeal came from the flirtatious fun that Bow insists on having in these films rather than something more serious; she’s the girl you take to the rides at amusement park and who has a hard time keeping her skirt from riding up to show her garters, as in the clip below. What she showed onscreen was a willingness to show a little skin — but only in that offhand, accidental way that was both funny and a little titillating. Bow was that good-time girl who was probably chaste but who showed an intoxicating familiarity with the men around her. In It she sets out to win the heart of the department-store owner, and she does.
Turns out, It was a Hollywood vehicle specifically designed to shine Bow’s star. The filmmakers took a fluffy 1926 article from Cosmopolitan by Elinor Glyn, paid Glyn piles of money, and transformed it into a narrative about a shopgirl who turns the heads of wealthy men and eventually that department store man. They even gave Glyn major writing credits for the film (though it had virtually nothing to do with her article) and had her walk into the restaurant at the Ritz to discuss her idea, as if it were as significant and complex as the theory of relativity:
[“IT” signifies] self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not — and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. That’s “IT”! If you have “IT”, you will win the girl you love.
That pronouncement sets the tone for the rest of the film, which remains as unserious as Bow could keep it. But one can’t help being convinced via her manic energy and that preposterously loopy head of hair that she really did have “it,” and that you want to watch her keep performing it onscreen. The dreariest part of the film is when we are reminded, again and again, of Glyn’s simple idea. Not that it weighs Bow down in the least. As David Thomson puts it in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, she appears as “a lipstick butterfly veering between old adages and fresh opportunities.” I’m going to keep watching.