Watching this silent-era comedy starring Clara Bow made Judge Amanda DeWees want to roll down her stockings and learn to play the ukulele.
"'IT' is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With 'IT' you will win all men if you are a woman—and all women if you are a man. 'IT' can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction."—Elinor Glyn
Before Monroe, before Bardot, there was Clara Bow. When romance novelist Elinor Glyn famously declared that Clara Bow had "It"—a term roughly equivalent to "sex appeal"—a sex symbol was born. Although Clara Bow had made numerous movies before It, this is the film that gave her the famous nickname she is still known for: the It Girl.
Facts of the Case
Vivacious shopgirl Betty Lou Spence (Bow) works behind the lingerie counter at Waltham's department store. When she falls in love with the store owner's son, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), her friends scoff at her for setting her sights too high, but she's convinced that she can win his heart. After all, as Cyrus's best friend Monty (William Austin) observes, Betty is "positively topheavy with 'IT'!" But then big-hearted Betty makes an impetuous move to help out a friend and suddenly goes from It Girl to Bad Girl in the eyes of the man she loves. Will Betty win back his respect—and strike a blow for misunderstood flappers everywhere? You can bet your ukulele she'll give it her best shot.
The story line probably sounds familiar; it's a formula that has become a cliché in romantic comedies. This Cinderella plot in which the working girl wins the wealthy man endured through the Depression, in Joan Crawford's early successes, through the delightful Ginger Rogers outing in Bachelor Mother, to the Julia Roberts vehicle Pretty Woman, in which the working girl is, well, just that. Here we get to see it before it became that cliché—and, more important, energized and enlivened by the presence of Clara Bow. Bow radiates energy that the screen can barely contain. She throws herself into everything with an almost impatient gusto—whether snatching up an apple to munch, racing for the exit when her shift at the store ends, or leaping out of a car as soon as it stops moving. The rest of the cast is perfectly satisfactory, but they are all reduced to the status of supporting players when they share the screen with Bow. With her roguish good humor and her unself-consciousness, she has a presence that simply pops. In a film whose main topic is sex appeal, she is the perfect embodiment of "It."
When trying to trace the legacy of Bow's embodiment of the sex symbol, I found myself thinking of Jean Harlow: Both Bow and Harlow projected in addition to their undeniable sexiness a down-to-earth quality, a sense of humor; at times, both actresses seem to be thinking, "I know just what you're up to, fella, but for now I find it entertaining." In addition, Bow brings to this persona a sense of vulnerability. Her enormous eyes, surely one of the greatest assets a silent actress ever possessed, can register wounded sorrow as readily as amusement or mischief. And of course, she is just as cute as a bug. You can readily imagine old men wanting to pinch her cheeks as well as young men wanting to pinch her caboose. Bow's onscreen personality is not only sexy; it's warm, humorous, and—as Glyn cannily noted—not attractive merely to the opposite sex. Far from being threatening or off-putting to the female viewer, as are some later sex symbols like the alarming Jayne Mansfield, Bow seems like someone it would be great fun to get together with for a girl's night out, to share a pitcher of margaritas and dish about guys.
It capitalizes so well on her considerable appeal that at times it almost seems like a catalogue of her good qualities. We are shown not only how attractive Betty/Bow is, but how spunky—look how she stands up for her poor, sick friend!—and how resourceful—watch her pick up those scissors and transform that workaday dress into a snazzy little dinner gown! It is to Bow's credit, and the director's, that many of these moments seem spontaneous. We don't feel like we're being told that Bow is irresistible; rather, we feel that this is our own personal discovery. A negative consequence of the film's focus on Bow, however, is that the leading man seems unworthy to be the object of this fabulous creature's affection. Moreno as Cyrus comes off as a bit stuffy and dull for the uninhibited Betty—particularly when a young Gary Cooper appears in a small role as a newspaper man, making an indelible impression of "It" in his own right.
It has other assets in addition to Bow, however. The dialogue is snappy and humorous, the subject of sex appeal timeless, and the cinematography (or "photography," as it is termed in the credits) so fluid that I could hardly believe this was filmed in 1927. From the opening moments, when the camera pulls back from the Waltham store sign, pans down along the front of the building, then zooms in toward the store entrance, we know we're in for a work of visual sophistication. The camera work here, by H. Kinley Martin, is more mobile than in any other silent film I've seen, employing some of the earliest use of a zoom lens in feature film. This greatly enhances the dynamism of the film, as well as giving it a surprisingly modern look.
Another considerable plus is that the film has undergone extensive restoration and looks sensational. Of course, as with any film of this age, there are signs of deterioration of the print in places, but these are not intrusive; overall the picture is amazingly crisp, with handsome contrast, and a delight to watch. Photoplay Productions should be commended for their restoration work. The new musical score by Carl Davis (The French Lieutenant's Woman) captures the lively Jazz Age mood perfectly and enhances the action with a whimsical flair.
Of the extras featured on the disc, the main one is a meaty commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger. Those who have read Basinger's book A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960, which I highly recommend, know already that she's a smart, humorous observer of storytelling on film, but on this commentary she's also a font of information about Bow's life and career, the history and development of silent films, and the place of It in film history. Her commentary is illuminating, at times surprising, and full of fascinating background—such as how Clara Bow lived her own Cinderella story, escaping from a truly Dickensian childhood via a contest in which she won a bit part in her first Hollywood film. It's a great enhancement to the experience of the movie and to any film fan's knowledge of the craft. There is also a slide-show gallery, relatively brief, featuring vintage posters and lobby cards as well as production stills. A DVD-ROM bonus is included as well: the text of a rare essay by director Clarence Badger in which he discusses the making of the film. It's a solid bundle of extras for a relatively obscure silent film, and I hope it sets a precedent for future releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The plot will no doubt put off some viewers, fueled as it is by melodrama and misunderstanding. I can already hear mutters of "chick flick," and, in terms of story if nothing else, that's not far from the truth. Additionally, some aspects of the film can't help but seem dated, like the amount of lipstick on the male actors, and the occasionally over-the-top character of Monty, the male comic sidekick. His mugging and gawking may grate on viewers raised in an era that prizes realism in film acting. Those new to silent films may find these obstacles insurmountable, but they truly are minor.
If you've shied away from silent movies before, this is a great one to start with. The brisk pace and mobile camera work give it a modern sensibility that may surprise you. It's easy to understand why opponents of early talkies decried them as a step backward in the art of filmmaking when silent films had reached this level of wit and sophistication. Despite its dated qualities, the humor, the timeless plot, and especially the star's magnetism transcend time. If you want to see what sets a movie star apart from mere movie actors, you need to watch It.
Miss Bow is definitely guilty of having oodles of "It" and being the cat's pajamas, but all other charges are dismissed. The court will reconvene in the local speakeasy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Commentary by Film Historian Jeanine Basinger
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