A Clara Bow and William Powell Duet

“She dislikes gossip and is unquestionably the most gossiped about women in Hollywood…” according to Photoplay Magazine. Clara Bow was one of the defining spirits of 1920s America, the ‘It’ girl who was an idol for millions of working class girls across the industrialised world. Clara personified the flapper who could be impossibly glamorous while retaining her down to earth roots. Yet despite all that power in her image, as well as the oodles of cash they were making out of that image, Paramount wouldn’t dream of putting that to good use in quality film-making. Instead and despite the roaring success of her career defining film ‘It’, Clara was contracted to make run of the mill pictures such as ‘My Lady’s Lips’ and ‘The Runaway’, two films which also starred the up and coming William Powell.

For the purposes of this Dynamic Duos blogathon William Powell and Clara Bow are not an obvious choice – Bow’s biographer would certainly say that these two pictures that Powell and Bow appeared in together were the very opposite of dynamic, also borne out by contemporary reviews which were lukewarm to say the least. Stenn makes the powerful argument that Bow was at the acme of her career in 1926 having made ‘It’ and was raking in money for B P Schulberg’s Paramount Pictures. You would assume therefore that Clara Bow would have the pick of the best quality scripts and plum projects. However, Stenn reveals that the opposite was the case and Schulberg farmed Bow out to make bog standard fare such as My Lady’s Lips and The Runaway and in her naivety Bow was happy to acquiesce. What makes David Stenn such an interesting writer and researcher is how he exposes Hollywood and its history of exploitation of females and how this became normalised as part of its business model. Sadly this makes the recent Weinstein revelations no surprise whatsoever.

The dynamic part comes when you look at the career trajectory of William Powell in contrast to Clara Bow. It’s a tale of female disempowerment and class privilege that we’re becoming all too familiar with – Powell by this time had been signed to a long term contract at Paramount. After years of struggle as an actor, even playing the villain roles he was becoming known for, enabled him a level of financial comfort he’d never experienced in the decade before as he toiled away on the stage and in small movie roles. More comfort was to come for Powell however as by 1930 and the talking picture, unlike Bow, Powell was able to negotiate what projects he wanted to work on and how many pictures a year he intends to make. This was to be expected from the university educated son of an accountant – Powell’s father became his manager and negotiated both contracts and ensured Powell’s earnings were invested prudently enabling his son a level of freedom and power to control his career accordingly.

Clara Bow couldn’t have been more opposite, a background as far removed from Powell’s as it’s possible to imagine. Bow was a working class girl born into abject poverty in Brooklyn, the child of an alcoholic absentee father and a deeply troubled mother. Stenn in fact excoriates Bow’s father, Robert, as also ruthlessly abusive, more than willing to exploit Clara once she made it big in Hollywood and only interested in the level of financial return he could scam out of her to maintain his dissipated lifestyle. Allied to her lack of knowledge about contract and career management generally, Bow was also shunned by Hollywood ‘society’ for a supposed lack of decorum. No invites to San Simeon were sent Clara Bow’s way! Therefore, although remunerated handsomely, Bow was never given the opportunity to truly capitalise on her enormous talent for emotional expression.

This post is part of the Dynamic Duos Blogathon – please check out the other stories here!

References/Recommended Reading:

Clara Bow: Runnin Wild – David Stenn

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Stella Dallas (1925)

Stella Dallas marked the third in a tremendous run of pictures for Henry King, another melodrama, but this time set in America not Italy and including some harsh commentary on social stratification and the power of class to stifle and repress.

What a treat to be able to view this excellent melodrama, one of Ronald Colman’s few remaining silent dramas. It’s an odd experience watching Colman in a silent picture because with the benefit of hindsight you can actually hear his velvet tones speaking through the title cards.

It is interesting to note that Colman takes the top billing for the movie, because as you can see from the poster above this is very much Belle Bennett’s picture – she has the most screen time and pretty much steals every scene playing the overblown, dirt common Stella. Don’t be fooled though that Bennett over emotes in this role though. Bennett brings real pathos to a woman who for me was not remotely sympathetic and that I often felt frustrated with.

In ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ Henry King notes that the author and screenwriter of Stella Dallas, Frances Marion was insistent that Belle Bennett was perfect for the role. “This woman has just what it takes… She is a mother, she has two children and she has had everything on earth happen to her. Both on stage and off, she is Stella Dallas.”

However this is the genius of the adaptation – Bennett’s portrayal alongside Henry King’s direction allows the viewer to have complex emotions about Stella. Stella has the total lack of confidence and self-esteem that often comes with being working class and therefore subjected to society’s judgement. This leads Stella to displays of conspicuous consumption in a futile attempt at fitting in with her new peers, futile as the symbols of belonging are often very subtle in order to maintain privilege and to exclude. As a result of this rejection, and without realising it, Stella undermines the new life she has built for herself as she doesn’t understand her lack of belonging in an echelon which will never accept her.

What the viewer begins to understand is that despite Stella’s almost self destructive course, she is clearly a fantastic mother to her daughter and it is evident throughout the picture that Laurel has tremendous love, respect and above all loyalty to her mother.

This connection with the audience led to great success for the picture, critically and at the box office. To quote Henry King, “And the money that rolled in was quite fantastic.”

References/Recommended Reading:

Stella Dallas (1925): a melodrama that quickens the pulse

Photoplay Magazine, December 1925, p.46

The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow