I've mentioned before that I enjoy Hollywood stories with a heavy dose of tragedy and ruin. I also enjoy ones, from time to time, that teach something about how the industry used to be, or some inner working of it that normally doesn't get much attention (no one died of a drug overdose in The Devil's Candy, but it was terrific to learn so much about how films are made). Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn does both. It's not only a portrait of a very tragic Hollywood heroine, but gives some clues as to what it was like in the early days of the film industry.
I got the idea to look for this book by watching the TCM documentary "Moguls and Movie Stars," which chronicles the first 60 or so years of the industry. Clara Bow was briefly mentioned in one of the chapters, how her wild reputation caught up to her and she was forced into retirement well before her 30th birthday. It got me wanting to know more, so when I saw this book at my library, I was all over it.
David Stenn did meticulous research on it, and one feels, did it just in the nick of time. The book came out in the late 1980s. An epilogue tells what became of all the players. In 2010, one can probably say pretty safely that the short answer is "they all died." He was able to conduct a few interviews, access fragile primary sources like fan magazines before they disintegrated, and it's a good thing he did. It's a fascinating story, and one that shouldn't be lost.
Clara Bow came from about the most awful background imaginable. Alcoholic and abusive father, volatile, weak, mentally ill mother who only gave birth to her as a sort of suicide attempt, grinding poverty in a bad part of Brooklyn -- that was Clara's background. In an incident that not only could have been the plot of a film, but I think actually was the plot of several, she won a contest at the age of 16 sponsored by a film magazine, with the first prize being a role in a movie. That was her big break.
Stenn shows her as exploited by nearly everyone around her. The film studios realized almost immediately that she was a huge draw and that she was uneducated, naive and easily taken adavantage of. So they did, working her as hard as they could for as little money as possible. Her father spent the rest of his life both controlling her and sponging off her. Many of the men she was romantically linked with were more interested in headlines than in a relationship.
He also plays up what a big star she was, in a way very different from the megastardom our own fragmented culture has to offer. Most of the country went to the movies every single week during the 1920s. And it was proven over and over that people would go see any piece of shit starring Clara Bow. Stenn says that she was caught in a very odd conundrum: being such a strong draw through her personality, the studios were unwilling to squander a strong script on her, since audiences would turn up to watch her wash dishes for the length of a film. Hers didn't need a good leading actor, a strong plot or anything else, just her. As a result, most of her movies were rather crappy and few survive.
An inside view of the calamity that talkies caused is also a high point of this biography of Bow. Stenn relates how the only man in Paramount Studios who understood sound recording suddenly had his salary increased tenfold and became the most feared and respected man on the lot until Paramount wisely took away his power by getting more people trained. The early technology was cumbersome and overly sensitive and actors had to learn their craft all over again.
Clara suffered from persistent "mike fright" that would tie her tongue even on simple lines. On the set of one of her final films, she breaks down over her inability to read a line after repeated tries, grabs the boom mike and punches it until crew members pry her off, at which point she flees to her trailer and collapses. The line she was trying to say? "You can't do this to us."
There was a great deal of scandal about Clara, too, at a time when that was not tolerated at all. The scandal, her mike fright, and the fact that the studio had pushed her too hard for too many years combined. She did indeed leave film at a young age. She married Rex Bell and had two sons with him, but it turned out that her problems were more serious than overwork and a high-pressure environment. She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at an inpatient facility. She lived apart from her family with a nurse after that, and died in the 1960s of a heart attack.
I mention this because I thought the denouement was just as interesting as the rest of her story. I'm glad that Stenn went into the amount of detail that he did (there are over 40 pages of notes). It's a lively story, and will join the ranks of the autobiographies of Lana Turner and Lillian Gish for well-told Hollywood tales.