Thursday, August 23, 2007

“Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl”

Everybody’s a critic. No, I’m not complaining--just stating what seems to me to be an obvious fact. Everybody has an opinion and most of us have friends or family to whom we can express it. Having an opinion makes you a critic. Telling others what it is makes you--well, I guess that depends on how vociferously you do the telling.

Having said all that, I know you’ve, at some time or other, suffered the frustration of hearing someone tell you that he or she has never seen/read/heard the thing you’re recommending, but “I know I wouldn’t like it.”

Grrr . . . I hate that.

But I have heard it many times because one of my passions when it comes to watching films is silent movies.

Watch out now. Some of you were tempted to click that Favorites icon and move along just on seeing the words “silent movies.” I know the acting style is very different to the naturalistic one developed for sound films--emotions and thoughts that couldn’t be expressed through words had to be made clear through gestures and facial expressions, and when it wasn’t done with a degree of subtly that stuff can be hard to take.

But if you never experience at least the best the silent screen has to offer, you’re going to miss films and performances that would touch you dearly. Trust me on this. You really are.

Some silent film buffs recommend that newcomers to the art begin with the great comedians. That’s not a bad entry point for people who know they want to give the silents a try.

But if you’re still a little hesitant about it all, dip your toe in the water by watching some short documentary films about the star performers of the early cinema. You’ll not only see what they looked like, but you’ll get a notion of what their styles were like and the kind of movies they made. You know, if you get the giggles when you watch a modern heavy-panting, romantic melodrama, you don’t want to start with Rudolf Valentino.

Someone asked me not long ago if I’d seen “Bridget Jones’s Diary” ( I saw the sequel and reached my limit on the spot) and I was reminded of one the silents’ biggest stars. In fact, for much of the later 1920s, she was the most popular star of them all.

Her name was Clara Bow, and she was never less than adorable. She made 58 films between her debut at age 17 in 1922 and her retirement from the screen in 1933. Ten of those films were talkies, and Bow’s voice was just fine despite the “mike fright” which led her to a nervous breakdown in 1931. She even sang.

But Bow will forever be linked to one movie, 1927’s “It.” No, it’s not a horror story. “It” is often defined as sex appeal, but that’s only part of what “It” is. There’s a casualness about that sex appeal, as if it’s not anything to be concerned with. Bow’s character doesn’t vamp by design--she’s too real for that Theda Bara foolishness.

I think “It” can best be thought of as are some Asian philosophies--if you don’t recognize it when you see it, there’s no way anyone can explain it to you.

But whatever “It” is, Bow had it.

Her life was never a pleasant one, from the agonizing poverty and abuse of her childhood in Brooklyn through her years of stardom to the eventual fear that she might end up like her mother and grandmother, who both spent years in the same mental asylum. “This is a funny game,” she once said about Hollywood. “Here and today and gone tomorrow. Let’s have a drink.”

Spend an hour with Clara Bow by watching the documentary “Clara Bow: Discovering the ‘It’ Girl.” I think you’ll find both the film and its subject fascinating.

If not, please keep your opinion to yourself.

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