"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 8, 2011

"It" (1927) with Clara Bow (Film review)

One of the funniest silent films is undoubtedly It from 1927, helmed by Clarence Badger and an uncredited Josef von Sternberg, and starring Clara Bow as the resourceful  shop-girl who is the veritable personification of the "roaring twenties." I quite like "silent films," but a fact is that many of them are a sort of museum pieces, outdated stuff that we watch with a mix of polite academic interest and boredom. Not so with It: this is an amazingly entertaining film, a romantic comedy that sizzles in all its reels, and is still as fresh as when it was made - and that all thanks to the electrifying screen presence of Clara Bow.

But what is "IT?" Well, there once was a novelist called Elinor Glyn (1864 - 1943), who pioneered mass-market women's erotic fiction (you can find samples of her writing on Gutenberg, including Red Hair that was also filmed with Clara Bow). Today she is forgotten - and there is nothing scandalous about her books anymore - but in the 1920s Glyn was a popular author who also wrote scripts for Hollywood. That her novels were considered quite risky was expressed in the following doggerel: "Would you like to sin / With Elinor Glyn / On a tiger skin? / Or would you prefer / To err with her / On some other fur?" (from Wikipedia).

In her writings, Madame Glyn had famously coined the term "IT" for an elusive quality found in certain people, a sort of animalistic magnetism that attracts the opposite sex. Of course, "IT" simply was a round-about and inoffensive way to describe "sex appeal." By using the term, the film also shrewdly evaded the scissors of the censor.

Author Elinor Glyn plays a cameo in the film, in the scene set in the dining room of the Ritz, where she has the chance to explain "IT" herself: "a self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold." The studio paid her $50,000 for the "IT" idea, but for the story they used a totally different script. They did enlist Glyn's help in promoting Clara Bow as "The IT Girl." And the vivacious, saucy and free-spirited Clara Bow truly has "IT" ("she is top heavy with "IT","as someone in the movie remarks) - the movie was made as a vehicle for Bow and it indeed boosted her Hollywood career.

At the beginning of the film, the concept of "IT" is enthusiastically explained to Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno), heir to a department store emporium who has just succeeded in his father's footsteps, by his friend Monty Montgomery (an obviously homosexual William Austin, who does some rather weird things with his eyes). Monty proposes to look around in the store if any of the shop girls possesses this quality, but Cyrus has more important matters on his mind. When both men leave the store, the new, young boss Cyrus - a handsome millionaire - attracts the eyes of all shop girls, including Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow). Monty spots Betty and decides she is the only one among hundreds of female employees who has "IT." He arranges to meet her, and Betty talks him into taking her out for dinner at The Ritz - a ruse to see her boss Cyrus again, for she has overheard that he will be there with his fiancee. Dirt-poor Betty has no suitable evening dress, so in a very funny scene she just cuts up her everyday dress into a gown - giving her the chance to show some skin on the go - and it looks great!

At the dinner, Betty keeps casting meaningful glances at Cyrus. His high-society fiancee Adela (Jacqueline Gadsden) indeed is beautiful, but also boring - clearly not an "IT-girl." When the dinner has ended, Clara manages to have Monty introduce her to Cyrus, who admires her beauty. She makes a bet with him: next time they meet, he will not recognize her. This is of course exactly what happens the next day in the department store. Cyrus has to "pay" Betty by taking her out - and this time it is not The Ritz, but Coney Island, where they eat hot dogs and enjoy the rides (again a chance to show some leg), all quite a new experience for the rich boy. But when Cyrus tries to kiss her, he gets a slap in the face - she doesn't like "Minute Men" ("men who the minute they see a girl, think they may kiss her").

Betty is also kind-hearted and that almost upsets her scheme. Her sick friend Molly (Priscilla Bonner) is an unmarried mother and Betty allows her to stay with the infant in her apartment. When a meddlesome civic group threatens to take the child away as they deem Molly too ill to take proper care of it, Betty claims the child as her own. Because of the fracas, reporters have stormed in and also Monty happens to be there. So Betty's claim is reported in the papers and Monty informs Cyrus that his flame already has a baby...

Cyrus is shocked, and his ardor suddenly cools, even though Betty drapes herself over his desk, batting her eyelashes and sticking our her legs. She won't let him jilt her! With the help of Monty, who has something to make good, she plans a strategy that will play out on the yacht of Cyrus. I won't disclose the details, but in the final scene they embrace on the anchor of the boat (called the ITola), wet after an accident and full of "IT," while Monty and fiancee Adele conclude that they simple haven't got "IT."

Clara Bow (1905-1965) was a very dynamic actress who played sparkling and energetic heroines. She was the personification of the uninhibited and flirtatious flapper. In addition to being a great star, Bow was also America's first sex symbol and received 45,000 fan letters a month. But her light only shone briefly, chiefly because she had trouble making the shift to sound - indeed, she can do great things with her face and eyes, typical for silent pantomime. It is also rumored that she had a terrible Brooklyn accent (she had been born and raised in dire poverty, and had come to film thanks to winning a photo beauty contest), but that doesn't seem to have been the chief reason: she just didn't like "talkies." So Clara Bow retired in 1933 with her husband, cowboy star Rex Bell, to a ranch in Nevada and never came out of retirement again. Her best film is arguably It, but she also played an interesting role in the mediocre Wings (1927), where she eclipses all the other actors, only to be herself eclipsed by the aerial dogfights in the WWI film. For the rest, she seems to have been mainly cast in fluffy stuff. That makes It all the more precious.

(Revised August 2014)