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Clara Bow Brings the “It Girl” Back Home Again

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The word “hoyden” — meaning high-spirited, boisterous, or saucy young woman — is obsolete now, but in the mid-to-late 1920s it must have seemed freshly minted to describe the Jazz Age phenomenon Clara Bow (1905-65). It could be time to reclaim it as a positive term, along with “minx,” “strumpet,” and “flapper.” The prolific redheaded “It Girl,” who combined cheerful rambunctiousness with uninhibited delight in the promise of sex as fun, is having, for no apparent reason, a zeitgeist moment.

Last Sunday, the UK’s BBC 4 aired an hour-long documentary, “Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddess Clara Bow” (reviewed on theartsdesk.com by Kieron Tyler). On Friday at the Billy Wilder Theater, the UCLA Film & Television Archive will launch the retrospective “Call Her Savage: Clara Bow Hits the Screen” (through February 10).

“Call Her Savage” is named for Bow’s penultimate film, released in 1932 when she was 27, which opens the UCLA program along with her last effort, 1933’s “Hoop-La.” The former, in which she plays a wild Texan heiress rebelling against her father, was — given the horrible 1930 scandals that had engulfed the fragile actress — pure Bow-’sploitation: a lurid pre-Code cautionary fable that leaves few taboos unbroken (miscegenation, bestiality, pedophilia, prostitution, divorce, venereal disease, and homosexuality are in the mix).

Bow brings her habitual fire to it, not least when taking a whip to a rattlesnake and then training it on her Native American friend (Gilbert Roland). But it was an unworthy vehicle for a star who could communicate emotion more economically — with a shimmy, a slight angling of her head, a wink, or a sideways movement of her dark, inviting eyes. Notwithstanding her lack of sophistication, cinema’s most accomplished flirt would have surely triumphed in screwball comedy had she survived in Hollywood another five years.

Unlike her contemporary (and great admirer) Louise Brooks or the vampiristic Theda Bara, Bow wasn’t cast in the femme fatale mold, and she didn’t pose a threat to bourgeois values, no matter what her detractors felt. Though Brooks exuded a more timeless modernity, Bow was a greater pre-feminist icon because she constantly reminded America’s shop girls and secretaries in a decade of social upheavals that they were entitled to enjoy their sexual and emotional independence.

Wholly unselfconscious, she flowed in movies, like the signature “It” (1927), in a way that Gloria Swanson did not: The overly bedecked Swanson was the ’20s Carrie Bradshaw, but Bow, who was more than a restless hot pants with a hint of the tomboy, has never been followed. Doubtless the uneducated star couldn’t have intellectualized her relationship with the camera, but it bespoke a kind of genius. The hoyden lives.

Image: Clara Bow/Stovelsten via Wikipedia

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