Celebrity

The silver screen legend who inspired Taylor Swift’s latest song

The songstress' latest record features a nod to a silent film icon.

Thousands of Swifties set off on a Nancy Drew-like Easter Egg following the announcement of Taylor’s latest album, The Tortured Poets Department, and the accompanying tracklist. From pointed allusions about Joe Alwyn to Disney references, the song titles have promptly been dissected and assessed online. 

However, the album’s last track, Clara Bow, has left some fans scratching their heads. Taylor has been known to allude to Hollywood icons and historical figures in the past and this latest homage may be her most interesting yet. 

Clara Bow is often referred to as the first-ever ‘It Girl’ and, like Taylor, was subject to a litany of media speculation and ridicule in her later life. Clara – a legend of the silver screen – struggled with fame much throughout her life – something Taylor has touched on in songs such as The Lucky One and The Lakes.

Die-hard fans will have to wait until April 19 to hear how Taylor plans to weave the life of Clara Bow into her impeccable lyrics. But for now, here’s everything you need to know about the silent movie queen.

Who is Clara Bow?

She came from Brooklyn, and she was hipper than any hipster. Clara Bow seized the Roaring Twenties and made them her own, leveraging her pixie face, doleful eyes and disciplined work ethic to become the darling of silent films and beyond. And then, just like that, she walked away.

Her perkiness and sense of fun belied a hard upbringing. Clara was born into “brutal poverty” in 1905. Her childhood was one long struggle, not least because her mother, Sarah, suffered from psychotic episodes and seizures following a head injury in her teens. 

Clara would later state simply that her mother was mean to her, but couldn’t help it. There was much more to it, though, including a terrifying situation in which Sarah held a butcher’s knife to her daughter’s throat. Meanwhile, Clara’s father, Robert, was a mostly out-of work alcoholic, and by some accounts preyed upon her.

Movie magic

Clara’s escape, when she could afford it, was the cinema. The industry was still in its infancy, but those flickering images transported the plucky girl to another place. “For the first time in my life, I knew there was beauty in the world,” she revealed. “But I always had a queer feeling about actors and actresses … I knew I would have done it differently.”

In 1921, she won Brewster Publications’ “Fame and Fortune” acting contest, vanquishing more experienced competitors. “She has a genuine spark of divine fire,” noted the jury. “She screens perfectly.” But following a small role in Beyond the Rainbow (1922), Clara had to schlep from studio to studio to secure work. “I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat,” she recalled drily.

After a scene-stealing turn in Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), Clara’s career skyrocketed when she was named the best of the 1924 WAMPAS Baby Stars (13 young actresses nominated by film advertisers as budding screen starlets). 

She may not have been the ‘It Girl’ just yet, but she was surely the next big thing, making eight films in 1924, followed by an incredible 15 in 1925. “She presents a whimsical touch to

her work that adds greater laurels to her fast ascending star of screen popularity,” gushed a typical commentator.

Swapping her unhappy home for heady Hollywood, Clara signed a three-month contract with the independent studio Preferred Pictures for $50 a week. On its collapse in 1925, producer B.P. Schulberg took Clara with him to Paramount Studios, where a hit adaptation of the Broadway play Dancing Mothers (1926) followed, along with the romantic comedy Mantrap (1926).

The actress’ transformation into the wacky flapper, a master of physical comedy and contagious laughter, was complete. “[Clara] was an absolute sensation,” noted fellow star Louise Brooks, another icon of the era. “She just swept the country. I thought she was wonderful – everybody did. She became absolutely a star overnight without nobody’s help.”

How Clara Bow became the first-ever ‘It Girl’

“What is this quivering, pulsating, throbbing, beating, palpitating IT?” asked Photoplay magazine of the newly buzzy term “It Girl’. Elinor Glyn, writer of the 1926 novel. It that popularised the notion, defined It as “that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force”. Whatever It was, Clara had it. She was the first It Girl, cemented in the popular imagination after Elino adapted her novel into a film script as a vehicle for the actress. Clara’s character in It (1927) is a perky modern girl going after what she wants. 

“She would melt into the character she was portraying so cleverly, just as though it was the story of her own life,” enthused director Clarence G. Badger. Clara was the talk of the town, staring out of the movie poster with those big eyes and that shock of hair. And she wasn’t done climbing. 

It broke box-office records, with Clara becoming the top cinematic draw. Among her six films for Paramount in 1927 was the wartime romance Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. 

“[She] was so filled with excitement and fun and romance and sex,” recalled Charles “Buddy” Rogers, her Wings co-star. “She wanted to prove to the world that she was this.”

There was something relatable in Clara, but that quality made her a pariah. She was sneered at by studio heads, and her peers never fully accepted her. She refused to bow to society’s norms and wasn’t bothered about discretion in her romantic entanglements with the likes of Gary Cooper and Bela Lugosi. Contemporary star Lina Basquette said, “She wasn’t well liked amongst other women in the film colony. Her social presence was taboo, and it was rather silly, because God knows Marion Davies and Mary Pickford had plenty to hide. It’s just that they hid it, and Clara didn’t.”

Still, Clara was beloved by her fans, receiving more than 45,000 letters in one month in 1929. Footage of her arriving in the UK aboard an ocean liner in 1932 captures her charm, but in the same clip, she says purposefully, “I would like to be known as a serious actress and not as an It Girl.” Clara’s delight at her marriage also shines through. “And now here’s a big surprise,” she trills to the camera.

“I want you to meet the most gorgeous man in the world – Mr Rex Bell, my husband. Hooray!” She’d met the love of her life on the set of True to the Navy (1930) and swiftly married him.

Crisis-a-day Clara

Like other big names, Clara was petrified of the coming of sound to film, fearing her Brooklyn accent wouldn’t suit the new medium. Unlike most, she survived the transfer and went on to make a dozen hit talkies such as The Wild Party (1929) and Call Her Savage (1932) – but she felt her balloon had been punctured.

Just one year later, Clara upped and left the industry, chased away by a punishing workload and lurid stories of her personal life. She was dubbed “crisis-a-day Clara” by her own manager, and subjected to all the shaming the gossip pages could generate.

She was even blackmailed by her former secretary Daisy DeBoe, and a damaging court case ensued. Paramount didn’t need any more reasons not to renew her contract. So Clara turned on her heel and walked away while still box-office gold. She was 28.

“I thought she was the most modern star of the ’20s because she was the ’20s,” Louise Brooks later observed. “She got her job in Hollywood not through a beauty contest – she never thought she was beautiful. It was a personality contest that she won.”

Clara retired to a ranch in Nevada with Rex, who became the state’s lieutenant governor in 1954. She had to deal with her own mental health issues, but had two children and enjoyed decades of comfortable obscurity before her death in 1965. Yet the modern focus on her vivaciousness, wilfulness and body of work ensures that Clara Bow’s legacy lives on. A century after her first film, the It Girl still has that magical, ineffable quality.

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