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.
28 June 2010
I’ve been in transit between research locales (and across time zones) and find myself inspired as a result to write about “Wings,” which is still so impressive for its amazing portrayal of World War I dogfights between American and German pilots. It was so vivid — such a head-spinning documentation of improbably tiny planes whizzing around one another and hurtling down from the heavens — that it roused my fear of heights; I actually had to shut my eyes and grab onto the armrests. !! If you have the chance to see a silent film on the big screen with live music accompaniment, just go. Don’t miss it, no matter how cheesy the film. Silent films simply do things that later films don’t — and risking the lives of their actors was one of them.
Aside from its gee-whiz plane antics, watching this film reminds you of everything that has changed in the 80-some intervening years. Let me name the three most prominent: 1) the prominent tale of love between its two male leads; 2) its portrayal of mother love; and 3) its odd ambivalence toward war. First, on the love between its middle-class hero Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers, on the left above) and the wealthy David (Richard Arlen, right). Mary (Clara Bow, looking a bit wise to the situation here) loves Jack but knows he hasn’t got eyes for her; the two men start out ostensibly fighting over another girl. Their animosity comes to blows during flight training camp in a vicious boxing match between the two men, during which Jack knocks David to the ground several times. But seeing David covered in blood yet still getting up for the last time changes something in Jack’s heart. “Boy, you’re game!” he cries, and they’re best buddies. This sounds hopelessly corny — and much of the movie is corny — yet this scene is oddly touching, perhaps because Arlen shows himself in these scenes to be less serious and angular, as he seemed at first, than surprisingly slight and tremendously beautiful.
But then the always-too-beautiful David is injured, and they share a tender moment in each other’s arms. I remember seeing this scene near the end of “The Celluloid Closet” as an example of queer moments onscreen in Hollywood’s early years and wondering if it had been cherry-picked out of the film. It wasn’t: it’s not going too far to say that women are always secondary to the story of these men’s love for one another. While Mary waits for Jack to come around, the bulk of the film displays his true love for David and their love for one another that goes beyond being buddies.
The audience had been warned that there would be a kiss between the two male leads, but they weren’t ready for the sentimental scene as David bids goodbye to his parents. As they gaze at him with sorrowful, worrying faces, David kisses his mother on the lips — prompting audible gasps and nervous giggles from some audience members. It’s a great example of that era’s remaining, uncomplicated belief that a mother’s love was the purest of all human loves — and that a son ought to feel a lifelong debt to his mother for the sacrifice she performed in giving birth to him, as Rebecca Plant shows in her elegant new book, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. It’s so interesting that men kissing one another reads as so much less transgressive than his kissing his mother. The story of that transformation is fascinating and will change how you feel about your mother.
And then there’s war. It’s a film about WWI made in 1927, so we can forgive it for its Ameri-centrism — according to this film, the United States won the war singlehandedly — but it genuinely doesn’t know what to do with the philosophical question of war. At times, it seems to offer the usual kind of critique of war, particularly when faced with death. The film kills off vast numbers of fliers and shows unhesitatingly the grief of the “gold star” families who lose their sons. Yet it’s hard to believe that these scenes appeared as anything other than stock in comparison to its gung-ho, glamorous and exciting scenes of darting about the clouds in planes, killing enemies. Taken together, the bonhomie of the pilots and their heroism in the air seem so appealing that it must have given the Army a huge uptick in recruits. In fact, the threat of death only serves to enhance the appeal of the pilots’ lives. 1927 America was so far away from postwar Europe, and 1938 or 1939 loomed so far ahead in the future, that Hollywood could indulge briefly in a love affair with war heroism with few qualms. It’s fantastically productive of thinking to imagine what happens between wars, as culture re-imagines the past and helps to anticipate the future.
Overall, “Wings” engages in familiar narratives that talking pictures would utilize later on — much more so than some of the other silents I’ve seen recently, like the wonderful “Sunrise” (1927) that won Most Artistic Production at the first Academy Awards ceremony. But it’s still a surprising and wonderful film that shows why we should be watching silents now. They help remind us of the jaw-dropping capacity film has — in an era without CGI. In contrast. “Avatar” looks lame.