This is why rising female stars are often referred to as “the It girl.” She starred in the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. By 1930, she had appeared in 45 films in six years. By 1933, after struggles with men and mental illness, Clara Bow's Hollywood career was over.
There was renewed interest in the legendary actress who straddled the silent and sound eras this week after Taylor Swift revealed the tracklist for her upcoming album, “The Tortured Poets Department.” The last song on side D is called “Clara Bow”.
Originally from Brooklyn, Bow grew up poor and got his start in the acting world after winning a magazine-sponsored competition. Her prizes were “an evening gown, a trophy and a promise to help the aspiring young actress enter the film industry”, according to Biography of Bow from Turner Classic Movies. Her big break came with a small role in 1922's “Beyond the Rainbow.”
Bow continued to work for the many independent film companies active in New York at the time. She eventually caught the attention of producer BP Schulberg, who was running Preferred Pictures at the time. Bow specialized in playing flappers and plucky young women, reflecting the changing attitudes of the roaring 1920s. She began to develop a following with her signature curly bob and bright red lipstick applied in a heart shape to her upper lip. When Schulberg moved to Paramount Pictures as producer, Bow went with him. At Paramount, Bow landed his biggest hit, 1927's “It,” based on Elinor Glynn's popular novel about a poor woman who wins the heart of her wealthy employer. “It” made Bow a sex symbol, and it also greatly increased the turmoil in her private life. The same year, Bow starred in the acclaimed drama “Wings,” which won the inaugural Best Picture award at the inaugural Academy Awards.
Hollywood historians now believe that Bow probably suffered from depression and perhaps even bipolar disorder. His messy private life gave rise to rumors about his behavior and sexual activity, which attracted aggressive attention from the tabloid press. During these years, Bow continued to make films at a breakneck pace, as chronicled in the pages of Variety. She was one of the rare silent film stars to successfully transition to talking films. In 1929, she had a big success with “The Wild Party”, which built her reputation off-screen.
In the spring of 1931, Bow asked to be released from her contract with Paramount and was admitted to a sanitarium, according to TCM. Around this time, she met and married actor Rex Bell. After her hiatus, she directed two more films for Fox Studios (before its merger with Darryl Zanuck's 20th Century Pictures). She retired from acting after 1933's “Hoopla.”
Bow and Bell eventually moved to Bell's ranch in Nevada. Bow had two children and she also continued to struggle with mental health issues and attempted suicide in 1944, according to TCM.
Bell, meanwhile, pursued a political career and was elected lieutenant governor of Nevada. After his death in 1962, Bow returned to Los Angeles. She died of a heart attack in 1965, aged 60.
A sad coda to his once flamboyant career can be found in the July 9, 1941 edition of the weekly Variety, as a three-sentence item at the bottom of page 1 under the heading “The Short Return of Clara Bow.” Unfortunately, the report reinforced the misconception that Bow's career had been derailed with the advent of sound.
“Clara Bow makes her first film appearance in nine years, soon to appear in the short film 'Hedda Hopper's Hollywood,'” the article reads. “The former 'It' girl has led a quiet married life in California since retiring shortly after the arrival of talkies. Her husband is Rex Bell, a former filmmaker.