It is a silent romantic comedy directed by Clarence G. Badger and starring Clara Bow as Betty Lou Spence, the role that would forever immortalise her as ‘The It Girl’.
Elinor Glyn, a romantic novelist from the Channel Islands, began working with William Randolph Hearst’s International Magazine Company in 1919, writing for publications including Cosmopolitan. She’d hit the American bestseller list in 1907 with her racy novel Three Weeks, and continued working on her books alongside her magazine work. Glyn’s novels were somewhat radical for their time; she wrote risqué romance fiction specifically for women – including Beyond The Rocks (1906), adapted in 1922 into a film of the same name with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino – which scandalised the public but nevertheless found a substantial readership.
The popularity of her books gained notice in Hollywood, where Glyn took up residence in 1920 to become a screenwriter. She was often brought in as a kind of romantic consultant, to put a spark into stale scripts churned out in stuffy writer’s rooms. Her first film was the lost silent drama The Great Moment (1921), starring Alec B. Francis and Gloria Swanson, who plays dual roles as a mother and daughter.
In 1927 Glyn published her two-part novella, It, in Cosmopolitan magazine. She defines ‘it’ as:
“That peculiar quality which some persons possess, which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of ‘it’ must be absolutely un-self conscious and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible. It is a magnetic and peculiar force, and you know it as soon as you come in contact.”
Paramount quickly paid $50,000 for the screen rights to Glyn’s story. Despite the amount of money they’d spent, the studio threw out most of the original plot and replaced it with a screenplay written by married collaborators Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton – much to the ire of Glyn. Casting was a more straightforward process however, as the story had been written with Clara Bow specifically in mind, with Glyn believing her to be the living embodiment of ‘it’.
In July 1923 Clara Bow left New York for Hollywood, and by the end of the month had the attention of B. P. Schulberg, the producer who would help shape her career. In March 1924 the Hamilton Evening Journal called her “the personification of the ideal aristocratic flapper, mischievous, pretty, aggressive, quick-tempered and deeply sentimental”, although she had stiff competition from actresses like Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks, also known for their on-screen portrayals of the flapper. Bow was certainly a success prior to It – having made over 35 pictures in her career so far, including the very popular The Plastic Age (1925) and Mantrap (1926) – but It is undoubtedly the film which propelled her to her status as a cultural icon.
Betty Lou Spence is a shopgirl at Waltham’s department store, where she idles away the hours lusting after the boss’s son, Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (played by Antonio Moreno), who doesn’t know she exists. Cyrus’s friend Monty (William Austin) – on a mission to find a girl with ‘it’ – spots Betty, and asks her to dinner. Betty, planning to use it as an opportunity to get closer to Cyrus, agrees on the condition that they dine at the Ritz, where she knows Cyrus will be.
Betty succeeds in catching Cyrus’s attention, and the two are soon inseparable. The pair forgo fancy eateries like the Ritz in favour of hot dogs at Coney Island, and only have eyes for one another. There’s one problem however: Betty’s illegitimate baby. Except it isn’t Betty’s child – it belongs to her roommate and former co-worker Molly (Priscilla Bonner). Betty claims the child as her own after it is nearly taken from Molly by charity ladies, judging her – as an unwed, sickly mother with no means of supporting herself – to be unfit. Word of Betty’s supposed motherhood gets back to Cyrus, who now deems her unsuitable as his paramour. Betty is furious to learn that Cyrus has ditched her, and is determined to seek revenge as only she can, leading to the climactic scene aboard his yacht. All fall overboard, and – despite her original intentions – the film ends with Betty and Cyrus embracing, as they cling to the side of the boat.
What It lacks in intricate plot, it makes up for in the myriad ways it allows Bow to demonstrate exactly what made her a star, and she embodies Betty Lou perfectly. Bow, an undeniable possessor of ‘it’, bounces around the screen looking effortlessly more fabulous than everyone around her, and is utterly convincing in her complete lack of self-consciousness or fear of the unknown. When Betty doesn’t have a dress to wear to the Ritz, she simply cuts up her day dress and drapes some gauze chicly over her head. When she can’t parse the fancy French menu at the Ritz, she just says “I’ll have what he’s having”. Unlike the icy blondes she is so frequently contrasted with, Betty is shown to be exuberant and vivacious, and her friendship with Molly demonstrates how much she cares about those deserving of her love.
It was the first of six films Bow made for Paramount that year, which would include the first Best Picture Academy Award winner Wings (1927). However, the advent of talkies a few years later would prove to be her undoing. It was not, as is often said, because of her strong Brooklyn accent that she faltered in sound pictures, but rather the contemporary limitations of sound technology. Bow was an immensely physical performer, constantly in motion, but early sound films captured audio with a static microphone (often concealed in a prop such as a vase of flowers) around which the actors would congregate. Much like her on-screen persona, Bow struggled to keep still, and Adolph Zukor notes in his autobiography that:
“Clara was too restless. She would be all over the set, and then, realising that the microphone was not picking up her voice, would sometimes stand and curse it.”
Bow herself was forthright in her opinions about sound film:
“I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”
The beginning of sound film coincided with the end of the jazz age, and the flapper was replaced by new female archetypes of the screen. Bow, though she was a talented actress who could have transitioned into the talkies, was so very much emblematic of her time, and her performance style so well suited to silent pictures, that it is hard to imagine what her career might have looked like through the 1930s. She endures as an icon of a time long past but often remembered, and It is the ideal vehicle for Bow’s distinctive wide-eyed charm. As an aside, It also has one of my favourite intertitles from all of silent film:
“I feel so low, old chap, that I could get on stilts and walk under a dachshund!”