Women’s History Month: Clara Bow

By Nicole Ackman

Many women have been called “The It Girl” throughout the past century, but it’s Clara Bow that the term was created for. The actress who helped define what it meant to be a flapper in the 1920s played a shop-girl who wins the heart of her employer in the 1927 box office hit “It” and soon was being called “The It Girl.” Bow had “It” in spades: that sex appeal and vivacious charm that defined the modern woman. And yet, for all her success, Bow had a challenging life and struggled with mental health problems. She once said: “All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a feeling of tragedy underneath. She’s unhappy and disillusioned and that’s what people sense.” 

Bow’s life reads like a real Cinderella story, but without the happily-ever-after. The famous actress was born in the slums of Brooklyn in 1905. She was the only one of her three siblings to live to adulthood and her father was abusive and often absent, while her mother struggled with epilepsy and poor mental health. Going to the movies became her escape from her difficult home life and a teenaged Bow naturally decided that she wanted to be part of them and dropped out of high school. 

“Audiences adored Bow and were drawn to her down-to-earth persona. With her messy bobbed hair and youthful wide eyes, she helped popularize the flapper look and way of life.”

At the age of sixteen, Bow won a national beauty contest from a magazine and was given a film role in “Beyond the Rainbow” (1922). It didn’t lead to the film career she wanted immediately, but she persistently auditioned for everyone who would see her in New York and eventually was cast in “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1922). While she played a small role, she made a big impact and caught the eye of critics and audiences alike. She signed with Preferred Pictures and went on to successes like “Grit” (1924) and “Dancing Mothers” (1926). 

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Audiences adored Bow and were drawn to her down-to-earth persona. With her messy bobbed hair and youthful wide eyes, she helped popularize the flapper look and way of life. While she was a gifted actress, much more natural than many of the day, she struggled to be accepted in the Hollywood community where she was seen as low class. Her reputation as a wild child and partier fanned the flames of speculation about her relationships. She didn’t ‘play nice’ in the way the other actresses did, refusing to dull herself down to blend in. 

Bow had a small role in “Wings” (1927), the first movie to ever receive the Academy Award for Best Picture. Her first speaking role was in “The Wild Party” (1929) and she was nervous about the transition to the different style of acting in the “talkies.” However, it’s a myth that she struggled with speaking roles because of her strong Brooklyn accent, which audiences didn’t seem to mind.

“Despite her tragic personal life, Bow made dozens of films and became a symbol of the modern woman to American audiences. Her fashion, makeup, and hairstyles helped define the flapper look, but her attitude both onscreen and off also became synonymous with the term.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that Bow struggled with mental health problems considering her early life and her exploitation at the hands of the film studios. She entered a sanitarium in 1931 and married actor and politician Rex Bell after leaving, later that same year. She returned to Hollywood to make enough money to quit the industry. She retired from acting in 1933 at the age of just twenty-eight years old. She had made fifty-seven films over the course of two decades. 

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Bow became reclusive, staying on Bell’s ranch in Nevada, and continued to struggle with her mental health. She was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. After attempting suicide in the mid-1940s, she retired to a bungalow where she lived alone.  She passed away in 1965 in Los Angeles of a heart attack. 

Despite her tragic personal life, Bow made dozens of films and became a symbol of the modern woman to American audiences. Her fashion, makeup, and hairstyles helped define the flapper look, but her attitude both onscreen and off also became synonymous with the term. Despite being one of the biggest box office draws of her time, she has been largely overlooked in the decades following her retirement. Hollywood wasn’t ready to deal with a non-conformist like Bow, who had pulled herself up from poverty with her charm, talent, and persistence.

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