When I first decided to hand out Katie awards for supporting actress (despite the fact that the Academy didn't create the category until 1936), I kicked around a number of choices for the first one—Mary Philbin and Olga Baclanova in the horror classic The Man Who Laughs, Gladys Brockwell as a hooker with a heart of stone in Oscar-winner Seventh Heaven, Louise Brooks in A Girl In Every Port, Margaret Livingston in Sunrise and even Norma Shearer who was uncharacteristically fun in The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg—but it was Clara Bow's turn in Wings that I kept coming back to.
Wings is the story of two pilots who have volunteered for the American Expeditionary Force headed for France and the First World War. They're both in love with the rich girl on the hill. She only has eyes for Richard Arlen but the third member of the triangle, a young and naive Buddy Rogers, is sure he's the one.
Ironically, Bow who was known as the "It Girl," the greatest sex symbol of the day, was not part of the triangle. Instead, she's on the outside looking in, playing an atypical role for her, the fresh-faced girl next door. She's been in love with Rogers ever since she was a kid, but he's never seen her anything other than a pal.
Clara Bow's part was not in the original story, penned by future Oscar-winner John Monk Saunders (The Dawn Patrol), but was instead inserted into the picture to take advantage of Bow's popularity. Director William Wellman, for one, was delighted—Bow's presence guaranteed a bigger gross at the box office.
As it turns out, it also guaranteed someone on the screen knew something about acting.
In order to achieve authenticity in the truly spectacular flying stunts, Wellman (himself a flyer during World War I) and special effects man Roy Pomeroy bolted cameras onto biplanes and hired actors based on their ability to fly. While the result is still some of the most spectacular aerial combat and trick flying ever filmed (Pomeroy won a well-deserved Oscar for his efforts), the acting, outside of Clara Bow's supporting role and Gary Cooper's three-minute star-making appearance, is spotty at best.
Bow, hopelessly in love with Rogers, follows him to France as a volunteer ambulance driver. While on furlough, she sees him with a Parisian hooker while he on the other hand is too drunk to recognize his old pal. In the best scene of the movie, Bow hustles him out of the bar just ahead of the MPs and takes him to a hotel room where he's too drunk to perform. As he sleeps it off, she sees a locket with the other woman's picture and finally realizes the truth about his feelings.
Victor Fleming, who directed Bow in two movies and who would go on to direct Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, compared her talent to "a great violin; touch her, and she answered with genius."
Watching her in Wings (then in It and everything else I could get my hands on), I saw the same thing in Clara Bow that others saw in her at the time, that when she's on the screen, you simply can't take your eyes off her.
It's not that she was the most beautiful woman of the era; to be honest, she often wasn't even the most beautiful woman in whichever movie I was watching. But she had what all the great stars had, a quality that attracts attention no matter what else is happening on screen and an ability to make us root for her no matter what part she's playing.
Maybe in Bow's case that quality had something to do with the odds she had to overcome to succeed, both on-screen and off. Although she usually played a bubbly modern woman who knew just what she wanted, there was often (as there is in Wings) a vulnerability and pathos just below the surface. That contradiction—fighting for what she wanted when she's secretly afraid to—is called courage and that courage gives her characters a humanity her audience could relate to.
In what I suppose you could describe as proto-Method acting, Bow added depth to her characters by drawing on emotional memories of her horrific Brooklyn childhood—her mother was a mentally-ill prostitute who routinely assaulted Bow before finally trying to kill her; her father abandoned Bow at birth only to return when she was a teenager and rape her.
Those who worked with Bow said that whenever a scene called for tears, she would have someone play "Rock-A-Bye Baby" and real tears flowed. Given her childhood, I can only imagine what the song meant to her.
"All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing," she once said, "there's a feeling of tragedy underneath. She's unhappy and disillusioned, and that's what people sense. That's what makes her different."
I think Bow was describing herself.
Wings was a huge hit and won two Oscars, for best picture and for "engineering effects." In 1997, it was included in the National Film Registry.
Although she was one of the most popular actresses of her day, Bow was out of the movies within six years. Producer B.P. Schulberg of Paramount Studios shoved Bow into an interchangeable series of underwritten flapper and shopgirl parts then handled her transition to sound carelessly—MGM gave Greta Garbo two years to prepare for her first sound picture; Paramount gave Bow two weeks. Even though her Brooklyn accent was fine for the parts she played, Bow developed an odd phobia that left her terrified of the microphones that recorded her voice which led to numerous production delays.
In addition, Bow was a favorite target of the gossip columnists, particularly after she sued her personal secretary for embezzlement. Although she won the suit, the details of Bow's private life that emerged from the trial were scandalous and turned the public against her.
Schulberg took to calling her "Crisis-a-day-Clara" and dropped her from her contract when, exhausted from overwork and savage publicity, she suffered a nervous breakdown.
Bow made a brief comeback in 1932 for Fox and though both movies, Call Her Savage and Hoop-La, were critical and commercial successes, Bow was worn out from years in the public eye. She retired from acting at the age of 28, never to return to the screen.
"A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry," she later wrote, "when you're tired, hurt and bewildered."
At the time and for years after, Bow's notoriety obscured her talent. But she was, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "the real thing," and the more I see of her work, the more I am convinced she was one of the greatest actresses of the Silent Era.
In addition, I would say that more than with any other performer or picture so far, watching movies for this blog has completely altered my perception of Clara Bow. When I began writing, I saw her as the empty-headed glamour girl the gossip columnists of the time so gleefully tore into. Watching her movies, I realized she was actually something quite special.
It's a measure of the lasting damage celebrity gossip can do when we so casually tar someone with the brush of scandal. The tabloids of Bow's day recycled their rumors, sold their papers, wrapped fish in them the next day and moved on. But the perception they created has lingered now for eighty years.