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Clara Bow was discovered at the age of 16 in 1922 and made 58 films before 1933, when she left Hollywood at age 28. Other than being able to identify her as the “It Girl,” though, most of us know very little about her. Thanks to modern technology, a few of her films, including the still-relevant It, are available for streaming at Amazon Prime, and viewing them makes it clear why Bow was a star.
Simpatico Theatre Project’s new play, The It Girl, tells the story of Bow’s abusive childhood, and her rapid rise to fame (and equally rapid descent), mostly without words. It begins conventionally as a stage play. Amanda Schoonover is about to present the 2016 It Girl Award when suddenly her microphone, podium, and gown are stripped away, and she is left voiceless and almost naked before us.
Quickly the story switches to the life of Clara Bow, who is as much tomboy as sex object. Schoonover channels Bow’s smile and postures, even her hennaed red hair, in a silent-film version of Bow’s life. The performance holds us entranced, particularly Schoonover’s depiction of electric shock therapy and a final apache dance of abuse with her stage partner, Anthony Crosby.
The dialogue is shown in titles projected on the screen behind the actors, serving to clearly communicate the loss of women’s voices. Wonderful as the production is, it’s also perhaps a bit too obvious in portraying Bow as a victim of the Hollywood system of celebrity. I left the theater impressed and also confused. What had I really learned about Bow’s life and career? What really happened to her during those years of fame and scandal? As I began researching her life and career, I found intriguing gaps. The web pages refer to scandal, trials, and breakdowns, but most avoid telling us what really happened.
When a woman looks at the object of the male gaze
For many years I taught a university course on women’s films, in which I focused on films written and directed by women, not on those who appeared before the camera, objects of the male gaze. Not once did it occur to me to look at (sic) Clara Bow. Now I wish I had. There’s a cautionary tale here about how celebrity eats up and spits out young women.
With a number of women, especially young women, speaking out about inequities in pay in Hollywood, and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign pointing out the lack of diversity in all aspects of filmmaking, this is a very timely play. It shows us that this is a problem that has existed since movies and money came together. How many people know this was not always the case? How many have ever heard of Alice Guy-Blaché, the first, and for a while only, narrative filmmaker, who ran her own studio, made over 700 films — most of which are lost — and died in obscurity?
It’s important to highlight the stories of the women pioneers in every field. Several recent plays have done just that, including Shakespeare’s imagined daughter in Equivocation and scientist Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. Is there a danger of silencing these women in another way, making their lives meaningful only in the context of a battle we want to win? Don’t we want to be known for who we are, not what we represent?
For Mark Cofta’s review of The It Girl, click here.
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