Clara posing for Dancing Mothers

Of all of the people that I share a birthday with, Clara Bow is definitely my favorite. She was a beautiful woman and an amazing actress, but led an unfortunately less-than-perfect life.

Sunday marked 105 years since she was born, so to round off July’s Tuesday birthday lists, TMP pays tribute to Clara today.

Clara Gordon Bow was born to a troubled couple who lived in a tenement in New York. Her mother, Sarah, suffered from epilepsy and mental illness. Her father was a drunk who couldn’t find a steady income to provide for his family.

The couple had already lost two children. Both mother and daughter nearly died during birth due to the extreme heat wave that was plaguing New York. They were so close to death that Sarah didn’t even bother filling out a birth certificate.

As a child, Clara was isolated from her peers. She was shy, and was teased by her classmates for wearing tattered clothes and having red hair. At age 13, she left school and work at Coney Island.

She spent much of her time caring for her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive toward her.

But at the age of 16, a change came: Clara decided that she wanted to be an actress. She realized she had fallen in love with film:

“I always had a queer feeling about actors and actresses on the screen. I knew I would have done it differently. I couldn’t analyze it, but I could always feel it.”

In 1921, Clara entered herself in a “Fame and Fortune” acting contest, impressing the contest’s jury, who said that she was perfect on screen and had “a genuine spark of divine fire.” But despite impressing the judges, all Clara received was a gown and a trophy. She was left disappointed with no roles being given to her, so at her father’s suggestion she began constantly hanging around the offices of the publisher who held the contest.

Clara in Call Her Savage

Her persistence paid off, and she was eventually given a meeting with a director, who cast her in 1922’s Beyond the Rainbow. She continued to haunt the agencies and ask for parts, which led to her being cast in Down to the Sea in Ships (1923). She didn’t receive high billing for the role, but gained critical praise. The performance led her to be chosen as a WAMPAS Baby Star for 1924. Finally, her career was beginning to take off. It was a brief career, lasting only until 1933, but during those years Clara proved without a doubt that she had immense amounts of talent.

The following are five of my favorite performances of Clara Bow, though I’ve never been disappointed by her.

Call  Her Savage (1932)
This Fox film marks Clara’s second-to-last on-screen role. She stars as Nasa Springer, a wild and rambunctious Texas lady who gets sent off to Chicago to change her ways at charm school. But that doesn’t exactly happen. She brawls, she drinks, she gets into more trouble. I don’t count this film as a favorite due to its problematic treatment of Native Americans, but Clara’s performance in it is fantastic. She gets to portray a full spectrum of emotions, fiercely swinging from one extreme to another, and she pulls off all of them perfectly.

Clara and Antonio Moreno in It

Dancing Mothers (1926)
Clara stars as Kittens, a fun-loving flapper girl who enjoys hitting the town, leaving her mother lonely at home (since her father is a party animal, too). Things get complicated when Kittens’ mom decides she wants to have some fun of her own and takes a liking to a man named Jerry, whom Kittens is already interested in. Though often billed as a drama, this film has a little bit of everything, including comedy and romance. Clara keeps her character from turning into a caricature of an obnoxious, bratty party girl and is, as usual, absolutely captivating on screen.

It (1927)
Clara stars as Betty Lou, a shopgirl who has eyes for Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), the owner of the department store in which she works. She struggles to get his attention, but eventually wins him over with her quality of “it” – an undefinable but magnetic quality which Elinor Glyn, the writer of the film’s source story, insisted was not just plain sex appeal. This is the film that really put Clara on the map, and it’s easy to see why. The story is fun and exciting, and Clara is at her most charming, instantly winning the audience over from the first second that she appears in the film.

Clara and Buddy Rogers star in Wings

Mantrap (1926)
In this film, based on the novel of the same name by Sinclair Lewis, Clara stars as Alverna. Alverna is a very flirtatious lady, working as a manicurist in Mantrap, Canada’s barber shop.  Alverna is married to a man named Joe and they live a simple backwoods life. “Very flirtatious” is probably an understatement when describing Bow’s character in this movie, as she literally flirts with just about every man she meets. Clara’s performance here is absolutely full of energy, lending the film a mood of liveliness which makes it very exciting to watch.

Wings (1927)
A twisted quadrangle of love is at play in this film, which was the first winner of what later became the Best Picture award at the Academy Awards. Clara portrays Mary Preston, the lovestruck neighbor of Jack Powell, who is fighting David Armstrong for the affections of the beautiful Sylvia Lewis. When Jack and David both become combat pilots, Mary  joints the war effort as well, as an ambulance driver. Clara got top billing for this film despite the fact that her character isn’t really the focus. She still steals the show. She’s energetic and really draws the audience into her character, creating a sense of sympathy and true caring for Mary.

For a detailed account of Clara’s life, told to Adela Rogers St. Johns by Clara herself, visit Maxwell DeMille. All images in this post are credited to Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans.

Clara with Percy Marmont and Ernest Torrence for Mantrap