Silent Film Wednesdays at the Stanford Theatre 6: Clara Bow X 2

This Wednesday’s program at the Stanford Theatre was a Clara Bow double feature. Most of us know Clara Bow as The “It” Girl, a sex symbol of silent film who starred in It and Wings, both from 1927. It gave Bow her nickname and Wings won the first Best Picture Academy Award.

The first film was Parisian Love (1925), directed by Louis J Gasnier and co-starring Lou Tellegen and Donald Keith. Bow plays Marie, a member of an Apache gang. Apaches were part of the Parisian crime world; the only relation to the Native American tribe is the name, coined due to their “savagery”. We first meet Marie as she is dancing an Apache in a nightclub full of tourists, as shown in the image above. The dance is violent, with Marie being thrown to the floor multiple times until a young man rescues her from her partner. This young man, played by Keith, turns out to be her boyfriend Armand — the “rescue” is part of their gang’s many cons. During the scuffle, they come across a card with the name of a rich and famous science professor (You  just couldn’t walk a block in Paris in the 1920s without bumping into one of those insanely wealthy lecturers, you know!) and decide to rob his house while he’s out on the town.

Of course, Monsieur Marcel turns out to be at home and the plan fails. Marie and Armand’s partner, known as Knifer, is killed while trying to get away. Marie escapes, but thinks Armand has been killed. Armand, having protected his former professor (what a coinkydink!) from Knifer, is hidden away at the professor’s mansion while healing from an infection. The scientist, played by a super creepy Lou Tellegen, seems very interested in Armand, but supposedly just wants to set him up with a suitable girlfriend.

When Marie realizes that Armand is safely living with Mr. Marcel, she decides to pretend to be a maid so that she can snoop around and find out what’s going on. This was the part of the film that tried to take advantage of Clara Bow’s sex symbol image by having her relentlessly groped by not one, but two, party guests completely under the impression that “non” means “oui”. Gross.

Marie finds out about Armand’s new, non-Apache girlfriend and decides to get revenge by seducing the professor and taking all his money. The scenes with Marie and her adopted Apache mother, Frouchard, played by Lillian Leighton, are quite funny.

After a close call when Marie’s fellow Apaches feel that she’s double crossed them and deserves to die, everything turns out hunky-dory in the end and we fade out on a big smooch.

The second feature (no short films this week) was Poisoned Paradise: the Forbidden Story of Monte Carlo (1924), also directed by Gasnier. Clara Bow and Carmel Myers were the high points in this very silly romance. Bow stars as Margot LeBlanc, who goes to Monte Carlo to seek her fortune when her foster mother (who once won big in Monte Carlo herself) dies. She loses everything immediately and, not having a fallback plan, tried to pick Hugh Kildair’s pocket. Kildair, played by Kenneth Harlan, is an artist who turns out to live in the same boarding house as Margot. As you would suspect, he suggests that Margot move in with him to be his housekeeper…and she agrees. Despite their plan to live together “as brother and sister”, Margot begins to fall in love with Kildair.

Raymond Griffith plays Martel, also known as The Rat, who not only will not leave Margot alone when he sees her on the staircase of the boarding house (this behavior seems to be common in Clara Bow’s films and goes beyond unwanted attention — it always seems as though Bow’s characters just narrowly miss being raped) but is also a con artist and thief in the casinos.

When Martel is exposed as a thief and has to desert his room in the boarding house, Professor Durand (Josef Swickard) moves in. Durand blames the casino for the death of his son and has come up with a mathematical formula to cheat and thereby bankrupt the casino.

Carmel Myers is very entertaining as Mrs. Belmire, who “never pays for her meals”. Her ploy is to flirt with whomever she thinks will be willing to foot the bill. Kildair is one of her suckers. She’s in cahoots with Martel and his gang, and when they find out that Kildair knows the professor’s formula, she is the bait to get their hooks into him. Of course, the police come just in time to rescue the good guys and Margot and Kildair take down the curtain dividing their room in the boarding house, ending the “brother and sister” charade for good.

If you’re wondering what other cinematic masterpieces came from Louis J Gasnier…he is best known for Tell Your Children (1936), better known as Reefer Madness.

To add to the Clara Bow-ness of the week, today I watched a Pre-Code film that was on TCM about a week ago, Call Her Savage (1932). This was one of Clara Bow’s few talkies. I had heard that her Brooklyn accent was a reason that she hadn’t made many films after the silent era, but I didn’t notice much of an accent at all, not even that phony “mid-Atlantic” poshtrosity that one tends to hear in films during this era.

In Call Her Savage, Bow plays Nasa, who is 1/2 Native American but doesn’t know it — her mother had a tryst while her husband was away. Nasa is ill-behaved throughout, which the filmmakers strongly suggest is due not only to her mixed blood, but to her grandfather’s philandering. Not more than a couple of minutes into Nasa’s first scene, we see her whipping another mixed race character, Moonglow, with her horsewhip. Of course, he is so taken with her that he doesn’t seem to mind.

This is yet another film in which we see Clara Bow play a character who narrowly escapes being raped. She is known to have developed some psychological problems, and I have to wonder if constantly playing these roles may have contributed. From reading about her life, it’s clear that her parents were abusive and troubled themselves, which must have been a major factor. Of course, Bow and the films in which she played were products of their times as well.

If you have seen The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo’s 1995 documentary about Hollywood portrayals of homosexuality, you may remember a scene from Call Me Savage, in which two waiters in a gay bar prance around, singing about how they’d love to be chambermaids on a ship. This is just one of many controversial topics touched upon in Call Me Savage, along with syphilis, prostitution, and the suggestion of bestiality. This film certainly could not have been made after the Motion Picture Production Code finally began to be enforced on July 1, 1934.

I couldn’t say that I loved any of these films, but what is undeniable is Clara Bow’s appeal. She’s cute, feisty, and doesn’t put up with much, even in the silent weepies. I certainly recommend seeking out her films.

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