Was Clara Bow a good actress? On a human level, this question is irrelevant – Clara dragged herself out of abject poverty and pursued her dream; that’s all that matters. On an artistic level, it would be nice to answer the question, so here’s my opinion.
First, what other people said about Clara’s acting ability. Fellow actress Louise Brooks: “She was absolutely sensational in the United States … in Dancing Mothers … she just swept the country … I know I saw her … and I thought … wonderful.”
In 1981, producer Budd Schulberg described Clara as “an easy winner of the dumbbell award” who “couldn’t act.” Furthermore, he compared her to a puppy that his father B. P. Schulberg had trained to become Lassie.
Director Victor Fleming compared Clara to a Stradivarius violin: “Touch her, and she responded with genius.” Another director, William Wellman said, “Movie stardom isn’t acting ability – it’s personality and temperament … I once directed Clara Bow (Wings). She was mad and crazy, but WHAT a personality!”
While Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times said; “Don’t miss Wine. It’s a thoroughly refreshing draught … there are only about five actresses who give me a real thrill on the screen – and Clara is nearly five of them.”
Clara Bow didn’t require direction: she required background about a particular scene, then a wise director would light the set and allow her to go with the flow. She understood character, and how to convey that character to an audience, not en block, but with subtle asides that would convey different messages to males and females, to those who would love her character, and to those who would disapprove. The net result: (nearly) everyone loved her performances.
Brought up in the silent era, Clara knew how to convey emotions through facial expressions, particularly through her eyes. Her glances were worth a page of dialogue, while her ability to cry on demand was legendary.
My opinion: Clara Bow was a great emotional actress. She knew how to get inside a character, how to portray a character, and how to connect with an audience. I agree with Victor Fleming – on the silver screen, Clara Bow responded with genius.