“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!
Clara Bow: Runnin Wild – David Stenn
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant