Biography of Clara Bow: Hollywood's Original "It Girl"

Clara Bow

John Kobal Foundation / Contributor

Clara Bow (July 29, 1905–September 27, 1965) was an American actress and box office star during the eras of silent and early sound film. Though Bow's silver screen career spanned just eleven years, she was one of Hollywood's first superstars and sex symbols. Her memorable starring role in the 1927 film It earned her the nickname "The It Girl"—a term that's still in use to describe up-and-coming starlets.

Fast Facts: Clara Bow

  • Occupation: Actress
  • Also Known as: The It Girl
  • Born: July 29, 1905 in Brooklyn, New York
  • Died: September 27, 1965 in Los Angeles, California
  • Education: High school (dropped at age 16)
  • Memorable Films: It (1927), Wings (1927), The Fleet's In (1928), The Wild Party (1929), Call Her Savage (1932)
  • Spouse's Name: Rex Bell
  • Children's Names: Tony Beldam and George Beldam, Jr.

Early Life and Career Beginnings

Clara Bow was born in Brooklyn, New York. Though she was the third child of her parents, she was the only one to live past infancy. Bow's mother experienced seizures, reportedly resulting from a teenage head injury, and was prone to violent episodes (including one in which she put a knife to Bow's throat). Bow was also physically abused by her father. 

Partly as a way to get out of the house, Bow was a regular moviegoer and dreamed of silver screen stardom. After winning a talent contest featured in Motion Picture magazine in 1921, Bow's show business career began.

Bow's first movie, the drama Beyond the Rainbow, was filmed in 1921 and released in February 1922. However, Bow's scenes appear to have been cut from some versions of the film. (Naturally, the scenes were added back in the version that was reissued after Bow became a star.) 

Bow received more notice for playing a tomboy in her next film, Down to the Sea in Ships. In 1923, she played small parts in four films, and in 1924 she starred in Grit. Before Grit's release, Bow moved to Los Angeles to continue her acting career in Hollywood, where she signed a contract with Preferred Pictures.

The "It" Girl's Ascent to Stardom

Once in Hollywood, Bow's career quickly took off, particularly after appearing as a flapper in 1923's Black Oxen. She became popular with audiences, appearing in as many as eight films in 1924 and 15 films in 1925, with Preferred Pictures loaning the in-demand actress to bigger studios. 

At the end of 1925, Preferred Pictures filed for bankruptcy and founder B. P. Schulberg was offered a position with Paramount Pictures. Schulberg brought Bow with him to the major studio. 

The 1927 film It bestowed upon Bow the nickname that has since become show business legend. In the film, Bow stars as a girl employed in a New York City department store who catches the eye of her high-society boss. The movie was a classic Cinderella story. The smash success of the film gave Bow the nickname "The It Girl"—a phrase still used to describe breakout Hollywood starlets—and solidified Bow's position as the biggest screen star of the time. 

Silent screen siren Clara Bow (1905 - 1965) popularly known as the 'It' girl, wears a silver lame dress for the Paramount film 'No Limit', directed by Frank Tuttle.
Eugene Robert Richee / Getty Images

That same year, she appeared as the lead actress in the war film Wings, which won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture at the inaugural ceremony.

In 1928, Bow was the highest-paid star in the industry. Yet considering how much money she brought in at the box office, her prolific film output, and her sales of millions of fan magazines, Bow was underpaid.

Bow continued to be involved on the cutting edge of filmmaking. Her 1928 movie, Red Hair, featured a sequence in an early Technicolor process. The film got its name because it was the first (and only) movie to show Bow's famous red locks in color. Though the film is lost, some color footage survives.

Scandals and Rumors

Almost as legendary as Bow's box office performance were the wild rumors that swirled around her on-screen sex symbol persona. The most salacious of these rumors were published in a tabloid newspaper called The Coast Reporter. One Coast Reporter article ended with the cruel statement, “You know, Clara, you'd be better off killing yourself.”

Most, if not all, of the rumors were false, and The Coast Reporter's publisher, who attempted to extort Bow, later served prison time for blackmail. Nevertheless, the tales hurt Bow's public image. In the public imagination, she became a symbol of Hollywood depravity, and she often found herself shunned by other stars and even her own studio.

When the tabloid stories were repeated in Kenneth Anger's infamous 1959 book Hollywood Babylon, Bow's reputation as a scandal-ridden star was cemented, despite the dubiousness of the claims.

The End of Bow's Career

Although she was uncomfortable with her heavy Brooklyn accent, Bow initially made the transition to sound films without any issues. Her first sound film, 1929's The Wild Party, was a huge hit mainly because audiences wanted to hear her voice. 

Over the next two years, Bow's box office success began to decline, and the many moralistic rumors about her personal life took a toll on her mental health. In 1931, she moved to the Nevada ranch of cowboy movie actor Rex Bell. The pair married that year and later had two sons.

Bow briefly returned to Hollywood to make two movies for Fox. Her final film, Hoopla, was released in 1933.

After her retirement, Bow's mental health deteriorated. She was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide in 1944. After her husband's death in 1962, Bow moved back to Los Angeles, where she lived a mostly reclusive life until her death in 1965.

Bow's Legacy

Over the course of her eleven-year career, Bow appeared in over 50 films, all before she turned 30. She is regarded as one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's early years, and was arguably the first actor to serve as a box office attraction. 

Unfortunately, many of Bow's films, including The Daring Years (1923), Grit (1924), The Adventurous Sex (1925), and The Ancient Mariner (1925) are now lost, robbing film scholars and modern fans of Bow from experiencing her full filmography. 

Bow's persona and image were one of the inspirations behind the Fleischer Studios cartoon character Betty Boop. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Stenn, David. Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild. Cooper Square Press, 2000.
  • Longworth, Karina, narrator. "Clara Bow (Fake News: Fact Checking Hollywood Babylon Episode 11." You Must Remember This, 10 September 2018.
  • Morella, Joseph; Epstein, Edward Z. The "It" Girl: The Incredible Story of Clara Bow. Delacorte Press, 1976.