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THE CLARA BOW PAGE


REDEFINING
"IT":
CLARA BOW,
"DANGEROUS CURVES",
AND THE CURSE OF
THE
SEXUAL IMAGE

An Analysis by Jeffrey E. Ford


To most eyes, it would appear that Clara Bow was in an enviable position in early 1929. Despite the chaos in Hollywood around the recent transition to sound, she was voted the No. 1 star by motion-picture exhibitors, and her first talkie; The Wild Party, would prove to be a smash hit with audiences -- which should have done much to alleviate Clara fears about her transition to the new medium. However, if Clara could approach her second talkie with somewhat less trepidation than she did her first, the studio heads apparently could not. The result was Dangerous Curves (1929), certainly the oddest and most "un-Bow like" formula film she would make during her entire career.

One has to wonder who was the creative force behindDangerous Curves, and why it was felt that it might be advantageous to change a star image that had been so successful in the past. Certainly in terms box office performance (which seems to be all Paramount was ever interested in with Clara), there was no reason to suppose the public had yet to tire of the "Bow formula." Indeed, the one previous try at expanding Clara's range in 1928's Ladies Of The Mob, resulted in more dismay than praise from Clara's fans -- resulting in a quick return to formula for such trifles as The Fleet's In and Red Hair (both 1928). What's more surprising is the fact that Mob hadn't been that much of a stretch - Clara had played gangster's molls in the past -- so one would think the public's indifference to the result would have discouraged such wholesale remodeling as occurs in "Dangerous Curves. With Clara's talkie debut safety in the can and a hit, why would Paramount allow such tampering to occur with their redheaded gold mine?

Perhaps within the hectic environment of 1929 Hollywood, Curves was a fluke that slipped through the studio's fingers before anyone realized just what had been done. If the studio couldn't "see" the type of subliminal messages that were slipping through in an outwardly formula film like The Wild Party, then it seems safe to assume that the image overhaul Clara endured in Dangerous Curves may have also gone over their heads. On the other hand, Paramount may have had a major hand in the changes prevalent in Curves. Maybe they were simply hedging their bets. Certainly, since the film was shooting before the studio knew The Wild Party was a success lends credence to the idea that Paramount wasn't taking any chances. It also explains why Dangerous Curves was (perhaps intentionally) buried amid the glut of Paramount's summer 1929 releases. iAs soon as B. P. Schulberg knew that the old formula would work as well in sound is it had in the silents, the new Clara image the studio had encouraged was suddenly the bastard child that nobody wanted anything to do with.

According to Bow biographer David Stenn, it was director Lothar Mendes who encouraged a total rewrite of the original "It Girl at the Circus" script untitled Pink Tights.ii Unfortunately, Stenn doesn't go into details as to why Mendes thought the changes were necessary (outside of the standard "trying to expand Clara's potential" argument), nor does he explain just what Mendes hoped to accomplish. There's also no record to what extent Clara was involved (if any), but considering the fact she was pretty much a "shoot what they give me" kind of actress, Clara probably didn't even know what was happening until she read the script -- and perhaps not even then. Certainly, if she did perceive the subtle changes from the girls she had played in the past, she probably would have welcomed it as a refreshing change of pace. And with the added support of a leading man she liked and was close friends with (Richard Arlen), Clara probably had all the encouragement she needed to do whatever she was told. Maybe, maybe not. One can look at it either way based on the evidence within the film.

Whatever happened and whoever was responsible, the result was a film every bit as schizophrenic as The Wild Party -- if in entirely different ways. On the one hand, Dangerous Curves is probably the most visually beautiful of all the Bow films, and Clara herself never look lovelier. Several images haunt the memory: the circus tent at dawn (find a good print and Harry Fischbeck's photography positively glows); Clara staring out the train's window as she pines for Arlen; Clara in her rider's outfit framed against a tent. The type of visual sophistication that Mendes brought to the film is one that's absent from almost every other Bow film (only Wings (1927) had any kind of visual style), and immediately gives lie to the belief that all the early sound films were visually monotonous. Unfortunately, this visual sophistication is achieved at the expense of some glaring continuity errors that suggest either a disinterested director, or one that couldn't see much beyond his nose. Clara's outfit changes back and forth during the course of one scene where she and Arlen attempt to work out their wire act; Clara's beauty mark appears, disappears, and dances across her face throughout most of the film. These gaffes suggest that Curves may have been a much more disorganized production than has hitherto been acknowledged. Indeed, with its script rewrites and the still stressful environment that constituted an early sound production, it's amazing that Dangerous Curves didn't emerge as a jumble fiasco. The film garnered good reviews, made money, and then disappeared and was promptly forgotten.iii Afterward, Clara reverted back to her old formula (with slight variations) for the remainder of her career at Paramount.

Like many an early sound film, Dangerous Curves has no music over the credits. Instead, we hear the voice of a sideshow barker describing the many wonders to be found within the film's circus setting. Buffs will recognize the voice of T. Roy Barnes, later to gain cinema immortality as the pesky salesman looking for Carl La Fong in W. C. Fields' 1934 It's A Gift. Immediately after establishing the film's circus atmosphere, the credits fade to various shots of the circus acts in progress (included are shots of cowboy riders - which immediately cause one to think of Rex Bell - yet to have entered Clara's life). The Famous Riding Farone's are introduced one at a time - Pat Delaney (Clara) being the third of the four. Already the film is going against one's expectations; in nearly all of Clara's films she's given the quintessential "star" entrance (usually consisting of long, loving close-ups). Not so here. The first shot of Clara lasts little more than a couple of seconds - just enough to introduce her - before the film cuts away to the act in progress. Not that this seems particularly jarring while one is watching the film -- it's only after one views it in relation to the other Bow films that its uniqueness becomes apparent. Then, there is Clara's first dialogue scene - and the knowledgeable spectator will be thrown off even further. For what may be the only time in her career, Clara's line readings are stilted and arch, emphasizing her Brooklyn accent and her (supposed) commonness. The entire sequence plays somewhat off-balance, particularly after the beautifully controlled vocal performance Dorothy Arzner elicited from Clara in The Wild Party. The way director Mendes encourages Clara to perform seems demeaning, approaching insulting, and hardly seems the work of a director who was trying to expand Clara's talent. The uninitiated might immediately attribute it all to the crudity of early sound film, but the other performers (note Joyce Compton here) come no where near approaching the awkwardness of Clara in some of her scenes. Even the wisecracks - which should sound perfectly natural coming out of Clara's mouth - don't, and since this ineptness can't be found in any of Clara's other performances, it's either the result of a misguided director, or a star who's suddenly found herself in over her head. Although there's still considerable charm to be found in many of the scenes, this is not the Clara Bow we have known in the past. More changes are to follow. We soon learn that Clara's character is infatuated (i.e. in love) with the tightrope walking star of the show, Larry Lee (Richard Arlen), but is too shy to approach him, associating him with her father, another tightrope walker who was killed while performing. This is definitely not the old Clara, who tended to pounce on any of her previous leading men with reckless abandon, and overpowering sex-appeal. In Dangerous Curves, everyone tends to treat Clara like a child, and the film is nearly over before her love interest Arlen even knows that she's alive. And even then, her treats her pretty shabbily - something that Clara never put up with in the past from her men. But she's not the old Clara Bow anymore.

Perhaps it's because Dangerous Curves is such a character driven story, that the film's success or failure in anyone's eyes depends on how one responds to the individual performances. Clara is charmingly awkward, but one is never quite sure whether the nervousness is faked or real. And all the charm in the world can't make the viewer understand why Clara's character does what she does, or why she gives a damn about Arlen. Then again, Arlen has more problems than even Clara has, being forced to portray a character who is alternately vain, pompous, immature, and thoroughly dislikable. If nothing else, Arlen should get credit for nerve. To play the role as he does, Arlen runs the risk of confusing the audience, and forcing them to decide whether he is really playing a bad character, or just playing a character badly. How one takes it depends very much on the viewer's attitude. Sadly, no matter what one concludes, the viewer is inclined to want to grab Clara by the hair and try to shake some sense into her. To Clara and the other characters in the film, Larry Lee (Arlen) may be the "King of the Highwire," but to the audience he comes across as the King of Losers.iv (This is particularly apparent whenever Arlen plays drunk - and it's these rather awful moments that cause this author to have doubts in Arlen's acting.) No one really cares that this guy gets raked over the coals by the scheming Zara (Kay Francis). Hell, he deserves to be. He's a user and he gets used. Does anyone in his right mind really believe his final declaration of love to Clara (after she's stupidly risked her life and lost her job to cover for him)? One is more likely to laugh it off and dismiss it with a cynical "Yeah, right!" One is fairly certain it won't be long before he falls off the wagon again, and in spite of Clara's declaration otherwise, it also seems certain that she will be there to help him up and pick up the pieces. As one's sympathy is always with Clara (even while questioning her character's actions) it's easy to view Dangerous Curves as an unrewarding, and even degrading film. The more one's attachment to Clara and the "Star Image" that she cultivated, the more one is going to dislike seeing that image dismantled, re-arraigned, and reassembled into something we never thought it could be: a soft-hearted marshmallow who allows herself to get trampled on and taken advantage of at every turn. One goes into the film anxious to see how her talent can be used, and comes out of the film dismayed at how it could be so mis-used. "IT" has become something one can only bemoan as "what."

Still, even if one is inclined to view Dangerous Curves as a failure, it's an extremely interesting failure, and one wishes that it had ended up being a more positive influence over her career. If one feels frustration at certain aspects of the film, there's also the positive frustration of the other "great" film that seems to be struggling to escape from every frame of Dangerous Curves. It is this daring and provocative film - one that is unconstrained by Hollywood convention - that occasionally peaks out from the gray clouds of the film like rays of sunlight. Outwardly, all Dangerous Curves wants to be is about a girl who finds true love under the big top. However, a closer examination reveals a different film - a film about a woman's hopeless struggle for sexual independence - amid a battery of tiresome Hollywood clichés. Why couldn't the story of Dangerous Curves be about Clara alone? Why couldn't it be about her struggle to get what she wants from the world? Why does the film, and moreover, why does Clara's character need to have a romance with Arlen? Does she need him for anything except to satisfy the boneheaded Hollywood conception that a leading lady must have a romantic partner? Quite frankly, she doesn't. But producers seemed more willing to stick Clara with bad leading men than to let her go it alone. Whenever Dangerous Curves is concentrating on this Clara - the one who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it - the film becomes much more dramatic and self-assured. I'm not by any means suggesting that Clara couldn't play anything beyond the "It Girl", but the bottom line is that throughout much of Dangerous Curves, Clara is simply uncomfortable with what she has to do. Perhaps the answer lies in what Stenn said in his book: "this was the real Clara."v Well, maybe it was. Certainly, if that was the case, Clara did not like playing herself. As fellow flapper Louise Brooks once observed: "She manufactured this whole person. Clara didn't exist except for that character she created for herself."vi Stripped of "her character," did she suddenly find herself a little girl lost? It may well be. Look at the scene late in the film when Clara plays to her own image in the mirror as she prepares for her high wire debut.vii Suddenly, she seems much more confident - much more the old Clara - than she has appeared at any other point in the film. Is it because for the first time in the film, she is playing her old self-assured and confident self? There is a glow in this scene - an unmistakable Clara glow - that really makes it something special. There is no story, cliché, or convention to hold her down; she's play-acting for herself, and one almost believes they can see glimpses of the Brooklyn girl who fought her way though the "Fame and Fortune" Talent Contest. The world is hers, and she's ready to take it on. Nothing is there to stop her. Nothing but story and cliché, and after a few wonderful minutes, she's allowing herself to be stepped on again. She can't break the "sexual image" she herself has created. She cannot break the convention Paramount is determined to stick her with. Her love must take precedence over everything - even herself - and she must sacrifice her dreams for the sake of a man who can't even remember her name. The key to making any plot turn or character motivation work is audience understanding. If the audience doesn't understand, the whole story will be cast off and rejected. Just compare the effect of Clara's sacrifices in both The Wild Party and Dangerous Curves. In Party, there was 70 minutes of carefully grounded friendship to provide the audience a basis for which they could really believe Clara would take the actions that she did in the film; in Dangerous Curves, we see Clara do the same and more for a man who does nothing but take advantage of her, and her naiveté. Thus, while in The Wild Party, Clara's sacrifice for friendship (over her love) seemed enriching and noble, in Dangerous Curves, the even greater sacrifice Clara makes for her love seems only trivial and rather stupid. And therein lies the failure within the film.

What is the point of taking a great star and making them appear to be idiotic and ridiculous? Perhaps it was to discourage said star from being more adventurous in their selection of material. The record makes it painfully clear Clara gave scant attention to the scripts the studio provided for her, and rarely fought for any control over her films. With hindsight, its easy to say that her reputation would be much better if she had. Certainly, every film Clara made after Dangerous Curves was a reflection more of Paramount's whims of the moment than any serious consideration for Clara and her career. What excuse is there for something like Love Among the Millionaires (1930)? Nothing, except that everyone is making musicals at this moment, and Clara's going to make one whether she wants to or not. If that doesn't work, we'll try putting her in frothy comedies (True to the Navy and Her Wedding Night, both 1930), and if that doesn't work, we'll put her in gangster dramas (No Limit and Kick In, both 1931). Clara's career at Paramount after Dangerous Curves was a steady, downhill slide, and it wasn't until she went to Fox and made Call Her Savage in 1932, that she had anything as interesting to do. But even by that point, the writing was on the wall, and the future held only one more film (1933's Hoopla). After that, there was only 34 years of retirement, motherhood, and seclusion.

If one is inclined to reject the argument that Dangerous Curves is a film strangled by Hollywood conventions that can't be broken, I would urge them to take a look at another film made six years later by another sex symbol struggling to break her image. When it was released in 1935, Riff Raff got more attention for the color of Jean Harlow's hair than anything else (for the first time, the Platinum Blonde went "Brownette"). But the similarities with Dangerous Curves are revealing and startling. In Riff Raff, Harlow plays a working girl inexplicably in love with a braggart and louse (Spencer Tracy). When she finally marries him, it leads to her becoming a thief for him, going to jail for him, having his baby, breaking out of jail to be with him… You get the idea. And never once are we given any insight or reasoning as to why Harlow is so madly in love with him that she would do any of this.viii And in the end, like in Dangerous Curves, this poor excuse for a human being promises to reform for her, which the audience is suppose to take on faith as being a happy ending. It just doesn't make any sense - unless one looks at it within the context of 1930's Hollywood convention. The woman can suffer anything for the sake of her man, but the man rarely does anything as drastic for the sake of his woman (almost all of Greta Garbo's career was spent going through the torture of the damned for her men). None of the behind the scenes personnel were the same between Dangerous Curves and Riff Raff, and they were produced at entirely separate studios, and yet they play like they were constructed out of the same simple minded, male dominated, erector set.ix Hell, you don't even have to go that far to see convention crushing logic within a film. Look at Clara's follow up to Dangerous Curves: The Saturday Night Kid (1929). In that film (which granted, has an even bigger villain in bad, little sister Jean Arthur than moronic leading man James Hall), Clara loses her job, is condemned as a thief, is forced to beat the hell out of her sister (maybe that's a good thing for Clara, as Arthur causes all her troubles), but really, in the end, if she gets married it will solve all her problems. Maybe audiences of the time believed it, but its hard to stomach today. And it makes the gutsiness Dorothy Arzner was able to exhibit in The Wild Party all the more noteworthy.

In the end, Clara and every other actress in Hollywood had to work with what they were given. It's because of that fact many are inclined to overlook the inconsistencies that dominate a film like Dangerous Curves. And in fact, the film plays a lot more smoothly than this analysis might suggest. True, any serious consideration of the film has to acknowledge its inconsistent performances, screenplay, and direction. And one must also acknowledge that it seemed to cast a pall over everything Clara would do afterward - even if it could only boast to showing that Clara could play more than the "It Girl." But Clara had neither the power or stamina to fight the studio for the future she deserved to have. So we are left with the future she was given, and the ramshackle vehicles that Paramount saw fit to provide her. That's why it's hard to think poorly even of Clara's worst films, and Dangerous Curves is far from that. It's simply a film that doesn't have the courage to follow its true convictions. A lot of films fail to do that. Dangerous Curves wanted to expand Clara's image; it resulted in condemning her to it for the remainder of her career. Yet the mirror image of what might have been still shines through. It remains alluring and compelling. And for me at least, the sheer beauty that dominates much of Dangerous Curves, mostly expressed through Clara, but also prevalent in the film's shimmering, romantic imagery, makes all objections secondary. Thus it remains, even in it's imperfect state, among the supreme films in the Bow canon.


Footnotes

iOr that’s the story according to David Stenn, which is seconded by James Robert Parrish in The Paramount Pretties (Arlington House, 1972) . The author finds it hard to believe that any Bow film released in 1929 could be hidden from the public, as Stenn and Parrish imply. It’s just as likely that the public was more indifferent to the result than Stenn and Parrish would like to believe.

iiAs such, it would certainly be fascinating to compare the first draft script to the finished film. The author is unaware if a copy is still in existence.

iiiThat the film did make money is confirmed by James Douglas Eames in The Paramount Story (Crown 1985).

ivJoyce Compton gets one of the best lines in the film when she declares : “The only people that stuck up ham can see are himself and Zara. And that’s even crowding Zara!”. Amen.

vStenn, Runnin’ Wild (DoubleDay 1988). The author is paraphrasing, but it’s the point Stenn struggles to make.

viLousie Brooks, Hollywood-Star Treatment (HBO Video).

viiIndeed, Dangerous Curves seems to be constructed out of a series of contrasting “mirror images”. Clara and her reflection appear in several shots. Kay Frances’ Zara shows one image to Arlen’s Larry Lee, and another when he is away. And of course, Arlen is one man when sober -- and quite another when drunk.

viiiHarlow had one advantage that Clara did not, in that she was still playing the same essential character she had already developed. She also has the advantage of spitting in Tracy’s face at one point, something you wish Clara would do to Arlen in Curves.

ix Riff Raff was directed by J.Walter Ruben and was produced by Irving Thalberg for MGM.