Clara Bow was a superstar in the 1920s, yet her birth was not even recorded. Piecing the facts together from various records, a birthdate of 29 July 1905 looks the most likely candidate. Why wasn’t Clara’s birth registered? There were several reasons.
One, Clara’s father, Robert, was often absent from the family home. Two, Clara and her mother, Sarah (pictured, colourised), were ill after the birth, and their illnesses were exacerbated by a New York heatwave. Indeed, Sarah was in such poor physical, and probably mental, condition that a doctor warned her not to become pregnant.
Clara was Sarah’s third child. Her first daughter, Alene, was stillborn on 25 June 1903 while her second daughter, Emily, was born and died on 13 May 1904. Given this background, it was a minor miracle that Clara made it to 30 July, let alone beyond.
Clara Bow was born into a family of alcoholics and psychologically damaged people. Abuse, in all its ugly forms, was common. Clara’s family needed help, but in New York in 1905 few people, and certainly not the authorities, were prepared to offer a helping hand.
Clara’s neighbourhood was a network of slums and brothels, populated by the likes of ‘Submarine’ Mary – her name speaks for itself. House fires were common. Cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever, smallpox and tuberculosis were rife. Violence was a way of life.
During the summer heatwave of 1905, the New York infant mortality rate was estimated at eighty percent. Clara’s parents, Robert and Sarah, were convinced that she would die, so they didn’t even bother obtaining a birth certificate.
To understand Clara’s later choices in life, you need to understand where she came from: a hellhole where love was just a four-letter word.
Welcome to the world, Clara Bow.
Highest grossing film of 1921: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
A silent epic war film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is widely regarded as the first true anti-war movie. The film catapulted Rudolph Valentino to superstardom. It also inspired a tango craze and a fashion for gaucho pants.
Based on a 1916 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, the film-script was written by June Mathis. The movie’s success ensured that she became one of the most powerful women in 1920s Hollywood.
🖼 Lobby card for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Do you remember those Saturday morning serials that always ended in a cliffhanger? Even though the cliffhanger was not employed in this serial, What Happened to Mary is widely regarded as the first of the genre. Released in 1912, the serial starred Mary Fuller and ran for twelve episodes.
What Happened to Mary (a statement, not a question) also appeared in The Ladies’ World magazine . It was adapted for the stage and published as a novel. The basic plot involved action, adventure and peril for the heroine.
Sadly, Mary Fuller’s star waned and from 1917 she struggled to obtain roles in film or on stage. Nervous disorders plagued her life and effectively brought an end to her career.
Highest grossing movie of 1922: Robin Hood.
A silent adventure film starring Douglas Fairbanks and Wallace Beery, Robin Hood was the first motion picture to receive a Hollywood premiere, held at the Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18, 1922.
The castle and twelfth century village sets were constructed at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio in Hollywood. Wood, wire and plaster constituted the castle with wood also covering the concrete floor.
The story was adapted for the screen by Fairbanks (as “Elton Thomas”), Kenneth Davenport, Edward Knoblock, Allan Dwan and Lotta Woods. Fairbanks also played a major role in the movie’s production and distribution.
This version of the Robin Hood legend established the elements that served later filmmakers. Indeed, the popular modern perception of Robin Hood is largely due to Fairbanks’ film.
The Adventures of Kathlyn, released on December 29, 1913 was a thirteen episode adventure serial, which starred Kathlyn Williams (pictured) as the heroine.
The second serial ever made, The Adventures of Kathlyn is widely regarded as the first of the cliffhanger serials that became popular over the next decade. The serial idea was ‘borrowed’ from newspapers and magazines, and adapted for film.
Chapter one of The Adventures of Kathlyn featured a situation ending, but future episodes concluded with a sensational action sequence or stunt, held over to the following week to heighten suspense.
These serials were often tied-in with newspaper serials, boosting the newspapers’ circulation figures. For example, the Tribune announced a 10% increase in circulation as a result of The Adventures of Kathlyn’s success.
Flappers were central to 1920s Hollywood. Here’s the Life Magazine cover “The Flapper” by Frank Xavier Leyendecker, 2 February 1922.
I never wanted to be a star. I just wanted to act in movies. I just wanted to get away from the impoverished streets of Brooklyn and live in relative comfort.
Now, at the close of the 1920s, I was the biggest name in Hollywood. My movies were the highest grossing in the business. Investors depended on me, producers depended on me, my fellow actors depended on me, and maybe the strain of that dependence triggered my emotional collapse.
Actually, I knew what trigged my emotional collapse – my father’s death. I found myself in an asylum, in the care of Dr Brooks. Along with my fiancé, fellow actor Gregory Powell, Dr Brooks was convinced that an underlying issue triggered my collapse, and he wanted me to record my life story, so that he could identify that issue.
Gregory had faith in me. He said he’d wait for me, and that he knew I’d make a full recovery. But to make that recovery, I had to address the underlying issue that had placed me in the asylum.
So, I offer you the notes that I prepared for Dr Brooks. To the best of my ability and memory, I recorded the important events that made up the first twenty-five years of my life. And within these notes I discovered the true reason for my emotional breakdown.
And that’s a wrap!