Take a Bow

10.14.11

Frank Lloyd, Hoop-la, 1933, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 75 minutes.


BEFORE SHE WAS KNOWN as the “It girl,” Clara Bow (1905–1965) was promoted as “the Brooklyn Bonfire,” and, along with Barbara Stanwyck and Rita Hayworth, the actress endures as one of the greatest exports from Kings County. Hollywood’s first sex symbol, Bow was the epitome of jazz-baby thrill seeking, a spit-curled good-time gal in silent films like Dancing Mothers and Mantrap (both from 1926) and talkies such as The Wild Party (1929) and Call Her Savage (1932).

Directed by Frank Lloyd and based on a Broadway play called The Barker, Hoop-la (1933), Bow’s final film, amply showcases the star’s earthy charms. Playing a carnival cooch dancer named Lou—her show-biz handles include Fatima and Snake Hips—Bow is introduced shooting craps backstage, whooping it up with the fair’s ticket takers and clean-up crew. When the boss’s son, a greenhorn college kid and lawyer hopeful, shows up, one of Lou’s fellow hard-boiled gyraters, for complicated romantic reasons of her own, offers her $100 to make the sap fall in love with her. It’s easy enough work, especially when Lou slips into a curve-hugging silk nightie. The naïf’s father is on to her, snarling at Lou to mind her own business; “I ain’t got the energy,” she retorts, Bow’s outer-borough vowels barely tamed.

Offscreen, Bow’s stamina would be drained by scandals involving sordid allegations by her once-devoted private secretary (which eventually led to a trial) and mental breakdowns. She retired at age twenty-eight, stating, as quoted in David Stenn’s Bow biography Runnin’ Wild, “I’ve had enough. I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off. I want somethin’ real now.” Extinguishing her own flames, the Brooklyn Bonfire became a housewife and mother, raising two sons with Rex Bell, a cowboy actor and future Republican lieutenant governor of Nevada.

Melissa Anderson

Hoop-la plays Sunday, October 16, at 1 PM and Wednesday, October 19, at 7:30 PM at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation” (October 14–November 19, 2011).