Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It























IT                     A-            
USA  (72 mi)  1927  d:  Clarence Badger      co-director:  Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)

Sweet Santa, give me him.                 —Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow) 

This is exactly the kind of Cinderella story that makes movie romance a myth, where a working class girl can grab a millionaire if she’s lucky enough, a prince in shining armor, just like in all the fairy tales.  This could easily be the Hollywood prototype for this kind of picture, and it’s one of the best of the genre featuring what is arguably the best female performance of the Silent era, none other than Clara Bow, where the film turned her into the biggest female movie star of the late 20’s.  And deservedly so, as she carries the entire picture on her shoulders, where her feminine guile and wit and sparkling personality with a multitude of sexual charm makes her one of the most appealing figures on film, where she is so continually mischievous and delightful that she renews the passion and inspiration for going to the movies.  Clara Bow grew up in a childhood of poverty, violence, and mental illness, living in a Brooklyn tenement with a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic and sexually abusive father.  She became an actress at age 16, after winning Motion Picture Magazine’s “Fame and Fortune” contest in 1921.  Though delivered on a cheap, Coney Island tin-type, her image was enough to convince the magazine’s judges that she was special, so as the grand prize winner they awarded her a bit part in a small film BEYOND THE RAINBOW (1922), where her part was eventually cut.  Clara Bow loved the movies and loved acting, though she interestingly never had a chance to practice the craft except in front of her mirror.  Her mother compared actresses to whores and threatened to kill Clara in her sleep once she found out about the contest.  This meant the 16-year-old, singled out immediately for her innate talent, artistic maturity and range, never had a career on stage. And without substantial stage training, she brought none of the trappings of stage acting to the silver screen.  The results were stunning, Clara Bow - She's Got It YouTube (2:45). 

Bow eventually signed with B.P. Schulberg’s Preferred Pictures in 1923 churning out low-budget films, where the following year she was one of 13 women chosen as a Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS) Baby Star, chosen for their talent and promise as a potential motion picture star, which gained the attention of Schulberg's former partner Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures.  Largely due to Clara Bow pictures, Schulberg and Zukor merged to form one of the largest studios in Hollywood, but it was the smash hit movie IT (1927) that made her Paramount's number one star and the most famous name in Hollywood.  Described by critic David Thomson as “the first mass-market sex symbol,” it’s also important to point out that this is one of the most deliciously entertaining films of the Silent era, yet there’s no Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or any of the other great Silent comics, instead it’s a romantic comedy that still flourishes nearly ninety years later on the magnificence of its star performer, whose charismatic personality exudes a kind of contemporary allure that is nothing less than refreshing, as she’s completely in step with modern times.  What’s perhaps more ironic is the cheesy premise upon which this story rests, as the title comes from one of the characters thumbing through a 1927 Cosmopolitan magazine and coming across an article written by Elinor Glyn (who makes a cameo appearance) describing “It” as a kind of alluring sex appeal, described as “that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force,” or described earlier by Rudyard Kipling in his 1904 story Mrs. Bathurst, who may have introduced “It” by describing the sensation, “Some women will stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street.”  Unbelievably, this picture was considered lost for many years, but a nitrate copy was found in Prague in the 1960’s, and by 2001 it was selected into the Library of Congress National Film Registry.  

The director Clarence Badger was famous for making over a dozen films with Will Rogers from 1919 to 1922, but nothing that reached the success of this picture, becoming ill during filming where Josef von Sternberg directed some scenes during his absence.  Though expressed through title cards, much of the witty dialogue in the picture predates what would eventually lead to the screwball comedy of the 30’s, where it’s the irrepressible spirit of the women that tends to catch the more reserved upper class gents off guard, where Bow as Betty Lou is not so much a sex kitten as an adorably sweet working class girl with spunk, the kind of woman audiences can identify with as she’s just one of the girls, but her cutie-pie beauty and down to earth manner are a remarkable combination, where her aggressively flirtatious style “is” part of what’s so funny, seen early on as she’s working behind the counter at Waltham’s department store and sees the dashing young store owner’s son, Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno) and exclaims humorously “Sweet Santa, give me him.”  From that moment on she devises a plan to make that man her husband, just to prove a point to the other working girls that it can be done.  While the odds are against her, she gets a lucky break when Monty (William Austin), a kind of frat brother best friend of Cyrus (where they often meet “at the club”), is the one thumbing through Cosmopolitan magazine and starts searching the store for “It” girls, believing he’s finally found her with Betty Lou, offering her a ride home in his car.  She graciously accepts, but not in his car, preferring her own, and hops onto a heavily packed commuter bus, eventually agreeing to a dinner date, but only if it’s at the elegant Ritz, as she overhears that’s where Cyrus and his pampered socialite girlfiend Adela (Jacqueline Gadsden) are dining.  While the film is a choreography of misdirection and funny sight gags, it’s all led by Betty Lou’s tenacious drive to capture her boss’s interest, failing miserably at first, but not to be deterred, by continually placing herself in his path, she eventually catches his eye. 

Starting with the right dress to wear, with the help of her cash-strapped girlfriend Molly (Priscilla Bonner) who’s out of work and raising a baby alone, they literally cut into her work dress a plunging neckline while she’s still wearing it, Clara Bow Dresses for Dinner YouTube (6:07), converting it into an elegant look by evening, though by the time they reach the Ritz, the head waiter notices her work shoes, showing the various class layers she has to overcome just to be presentable.  And while she’s obviously using Monty to get to Cyrus, the portrayal of Monty is interesting, as while he’s charmingly polite, he’s more than likely gay, calling himself “Old fruit” in the mirror at one point, where his sexual neutrality allows the audience to accept this little opportunist game Betty is playing.  Monty is a good sport, often used to comic effect, and eventually aids Betty in her romantic ambitions.  By the time she finally gets her boss’s attention, Cyrus doesn’t seem to mind when he finds out she works for him, as what she offers is pure, unadulterated fun, an obvious class contrast and a poke at the idyll pleasures of the rich as being boring and pretentious.  When they finally go out on a date, she wants to go to Coney Island, filling up on hot dogs, laughing at the rides and funny mirrors, and literally having a ball at the good times to be had in an amusement park.  Happiness takes Cyrus by storm, clearly an unexpected pleasure, but when he tries to kiss her good night, she gives him a slap to protect her moral virtue and hurries out of the car, but is seen looking at him longingly out the window of her room afterwards.  While there’s an interesting diversion when the morally self-righteous welfare women, taking a zealously high-minded approach, come to take Molly’s baby away, creating quite a scene on the street below, where they send in a reporter to get the story, who is none other than Gary Cooper in one of his earliest (and last uncredited) roles.  Betty is able to make them go away only by claiming the baby as her own, which creates headlines, but also causes the morally principled Cyrus to have second thoughts, as he can’t be seen with a “fallen woman.”  This all sets up the free-wheeling finale on Cyrus’s yacht, where Monty helps stow Betty aboard as his supposed date, where after becoming the life of the party by playing her ukulele and clearing up a string of misunderstandings, the two literally take the plunge, lovers at last.  While Bow was only 21 when this movie was filmed, the advent of talking pictures all but ended her career, and while she made a few unsuccessful talking pictures, her stardom came to an abrupt end at the tender age of 25.     

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