Inspired by the oracular Self-Styled Siren (can sirens be oracles?) and her post on MOMA’s 10th Edition of the “To Save and Protect” screenings, I watched Clara Bow’s classic It (dir. Clarence Badger, 1927) for, I’m ashamed to say, the first time. Bow has been hopelessly neglected, not just by me, until fairly recently. Said neglect is generally attributed to some seriously bad, indeed, abusive (and largely untrue) press about her personal life towards what became the end of her film career. You can read a spirited account of that here (also linked on the Siren’s page). Anyhoo. The film is a fantastic example of the work women were doing in Hollywood before it became such an old boys’ club. It is based on a story by “Madame” Elinor Glyn, as she’s credited here, with a screenplay co-written by Hope Loring (1894 – 1959), a writer with 63 credits to her name, and Louis. D. Lighton. Glyn wrote novels and stories and adapted them for the screen—and she is an uncredited co-producer of It, according IMDb. (She’s also played by the lush Joanna Lumley in the delightful The Cat’s Meow [Bogdanovich, 2001].)
Unsurprisingly, given the period, the plot teeters towards Pretty Woman, and mid-way through, our heroine, Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow), is accosted by some snotty “Welfare” ladies trying to take a toddler away from his mother and into dubious-sounding “temporary” custody. Yet the film also portrays a real friendship between women whose relationship to each other isn’t mediated or determined by a man. And the romance is finally settled with the leads, sopping wet, dangling off the anchor of a yacht. This is after Betty has rescued a drowning society woman, passing her off to her erstwhile beau, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), saying, “Take your girlfriend. I had to knock her cold—but maybe it’ll do her good.” Yes, she punches a drowning woman in the face and then saves her life. So one can’t really complain.
One of the film’s surprises for me was William Austin, a man with 89 acting credits, whom I didn’t recognize—though I should have, as he’s in The Gay Divorcee (dir. Mark Sandrich, 1934). I’d like to attribute my lapse to the fact that I spent a lot of the film distracted by how much he looked like John Waters’ gay twin.Austin, at least in this film, looks uncannily like Waters. Austin’s Monty is tall and lanky and sports a pencil moustache that’s gotten an attitude. Because of the eyeliner he’s wearing (noticeably more than Moreno, by the by), our attention is drawn to his eyes. Now, based on what I’ve seen of (and my warm fuzzies for) John Waters, he is nothing like Austin in his physicality or his character here. Whereas Waters is always composed and his affect is delightfully dry, Austin’s Monty is a bit preening and silly, a bit cowardly, and a bit googly-eyed. He can’t even be trusted to steer a boat like the manly Cyrus. So when I say Austin’s Monty is like Waters’s gay twin, I mean some kind of early film version of “gay,” not gay.
Austin’s character in the film is straight, natch, but he is given a variety of tics (though certainly not all of the contemporary ones) that suggest a stereotype of gay men in film during the 20s and 30s. Monty, Cyrus’s best friend, is the first to pursue Betty. He gets the plot rolling (and some exposition covered) when he picks up a stray copy of Cosmopolitan in Cyrus’s office and tells us what “It” is. (Cyrus Waltham runs a department store, so presumably he can be forgiven for having a copy of Cosmo…but not actually looking at it.) It’s surely no coincidence that it’s Monty who introduces us and Cyrus to the characteristic of “It,” as laid out by Madame Glyn:
“‘IT’ is that peculiar quality which some persons possess, which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely un-selfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible. … Mothers spoil boys with ‘IT’—women never refuse them favors!”
Later, Glyn will glide in to the dining room of the Ritz and offer another definition:
“Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not—and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.” This is less sexy as definitions go, but emphasizes Betty’s own self-confidence and obvious warmth.
Monty is also a touch narcissistic—upon discovering this new thing called “It,” he assesses himself in a mirror, determining that he is full of “it.” (Was this an insult in 1927?) We are meant to likeMonty, I should hasten to add. He’s not Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon—but then this is a comedy, so “gay” here is played for laughs, rather than as a social threat. Monty is a sympathetic character, even if he looks a bit too…aristocratic to be a red-blooded American male. (He frequently refers to Cyrus as “old man.”) Monty is meant to be something of a playboy but doesn’t get anywhere with Betty—they could not look more wrong for each other—and in fact we never see him in the company of another woman. Ultimately, even the movie doesn’t seem to take his candidacy seriously. But he is perhaps film’s first gay best friend, helping to reconcile Cyrus and Betty at the end of the film.
Playing Cyrus Waltham, Moreno, a traditionally movie-star-handsome fellow, barely manages to look up from his business (or take his eyes off the men he’s talking to, if I remember correctly). In fact, it is Monty who notices the magnetic Betty first. Although Betty does repeatedly fling herself into Cyrus’s path, it isn’t her feminine wiles that make him fall in love with her—it’s that he finally looks up and sees her. That’s all it takes. All she had to do was get him to look at her. And her looks merely precede the fun they have together. A lot of physical fun, at an actual Funhouse. It’s okay, though, because there’s no sex. Clearly. Just because they’re flopping all over each other on bumpy slides and something called the “Social Mixer” [32:36] doesn’t imply… Okay, yes, it does. The sequence not only doubles for come combination of sexual attraction/intimacy, it also neatly visualizes their class differences and foreshadows the bumps in their relationship. But, for the moment, a good time is had by all, including the audience. Though it does seem a shame men were expected to wear such fancy suits to a Funhouse at the beach.
Despite Clara’s sexuality, within the first ten minutes of the film, we watch Betty play with her friend’s baby and learn that she is putting up the single mother who can’t go back to work until she is no longer sick. (And let’s face it, she probably wouldn’t have a job to go back to by then, anyway.) So, although Betty is full of “It,” she also acts to help others, consequences be damned. Her passion isn’t only sexual. She’s a good person, too, her potentially dangerous magnetism diluted by a mothering instinct.
This is reminiscent of Pretty Woman—and, as others have pointed out, is certainly a version of the “Cinderella” story. Perhaps more interestingly, it is also a riff on the “fallen woman,” since Cyrus incorrectly believes Betty’s had a child out of wedlock. She catches her man—the handsome Prince (her boss)—simply by presenting herself to him. The couple is briefly separated by a class-related misunderstanding. Cyrus is even willing to overlook “what [she’s] been,” though, thankfully, he doesn’t have to. This is a comedy, after all.
I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve seen a few silents. What makes It so watchable for me is Clara Bow’s naturalness, particularly as a silent film actress. However true it is that by 1927 silent acting was less melodramatic than, say, at the height of Méliès’s popularity, Bow’s expressions are striking for their subtlety, rather being recognizable as mere symbols of human emotion.
When Cyrus loses a bet that he wouldn’t recognize her, Betty watches it dawn on him that he does know her, and she tries not to smile [29:50]. Trying not to make a facial expression in a silent film seems like a particular achievement in nuance in a medium where facial expressions were originally exaggerated to convey plot as well as emotion. Likewise, when Cyrus believes she has an illegitimate child she’s failed to mention but Betty doesn’t yet know this, Bow’s expressiveness is remarkable. She attempts to get Cyrus to engage with her, sliding on to his desk in a way that goes from sex kitten to the comfortable casualness of a best friend. As a whole, the scene highlights Bow’s impressive emotional range, careening, as silents often did, from one extreme to another, here, from surprised joy to inconsolable despair.
Interesting tidbit: William Austin (the Gryphon) and Gary Cooper (White Knight) are in the 1933 Alice in Wonderland (with some guy named Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle).
Monty: “Old boy, I’m so low I could get on a ladder and walk under a dachshund!”