In Babylon, Margot Robbie dances on the tabletops, shimmying her ta-tas, stomping her heels — and driving men into rowdy fits of ecstasy. She has the body, and the free spirit to match. She is, simply put, an “It Girl.” And her character is based on the real-life “It girl” from early Hollywood: Clara Bow.
Videos by Rare
Damien Chazelle’s recent epic Babylon portrays the early days of Hollywood, before talkies and sound stages when the roads of LA were still unpaved. The three-plus-hour movie depicts the era as one non-stop debaucherous defined by excess, jazz, and piles of cocaine.
That perception of Hollywood’s roots traces back to Hollywood Babylon: filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s 1959 tell-all, which purported to dish on all the ’20s celebs… even as their exploits were essentially exaggerated.
In both Hollywood Babylon, and Babylon itself, there’s one story that sticks out from among the colorful chaos. That of Clara Bow, the famous flapper who came to be known as the world’s first “It girl.” Though she is called Nellie La Roy in Babylon, and played by Margot Robbie, the real-life parallels are instantly recognizable.
Clara Bow was born around 1905 in a Brooklyn tenement. And she had a rough childhood. Bow’s parents had two daughters before her who both died in infancy.
Her father was absent mostly, though around enough to sexually abuse Bow throughout her teenage years. (These were events that Bow recalled years later in psychotherapy.) Her mentally ill mother, in a fit of psychotic rage, once tried to stab Bow and was committed to a sanitarium.
The same year, at age 13, Bow left school to find work. She entered a magazine contest which won her a role in Beyond the Rainbow. However, her scenes were cut. “I wore myself out trying to find work, going from studio to studio, from agency to agency, applying for every possible part,” Clara Bow once told the journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns But there was always something. I was too young, or too little, or too fat. Usually I was too fat.” A version of this quote appears in Babylon, from the mouth of Nellie La Roy just after visiting her mother at the sanitarium.
Soon, though, all the work would pay. In 2022, Bow’s real debut came in Down to the Sea in Ships. From there, she earned many other silent film roles throughout the decade. But she was typecast; the parts were all cutsie, ditzy… and promiscuous.
Her role in 1927’s Mantrap exemplifies the Clara Bow image perfectly: a party-girl manicurist who serial flirts her way out of trouble. The character was written specifically with Bow in mind. But it was her turn in It, in 1929, which defined Bow’s legacy.
In It, Bow plays Betty Lou, a spunky shopgirl who charms her rich boy boss with the simple pleasures of Coney Island. As the title suggests, Betty Lou is an “It girl.” The term originated in Britain in the early 1900s, and while today it connotes a certain level of class, back then, it was recognized simply as a young socialite who is popular, vivacious, and overtly sexual. Bow was all three.
Bow was also unique behind the scenes. She hated rehearsals, preferring to take spontaneous directions. She worked with the pioneering female director Dorothy Azner often and responded perfectly to physical commands. Bow could cry on cue — even shedding a single tear when asked. And that talent, or trick, was highlighted up close in Babylon, the camera closing in on the tear-streaked face of Margot Robbie’s Nelly La Roy. Olivia Hamilton, the wife of director Damien Chazelle, plays a version of Azner.
Bow’s uniquely physical flair was perfect for silent films. But as the decade transitioned into talkies, the Brooklyn native struggled to perform. Her harsh New York accent was a tough sell and Bow cracked under the pressure of microphones and hitting marks. In Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger described an instance when, while filming Azner’s The Wild Party, Bow’s high-pitched voice — supposedly — blew the soundboard. That difficult shoot also appears in Babylon, in excruciating detail.
In the end, Bow did star in a number of successful talking films. But as her career waned throughout the depression, it was entirely eclipsed by her messy personal life.
Clara Bow’s Chaotic Love Life
In 1926, Clara Bow signed a contract with Paramount that, infamously, did not include a morals clause. And that’s symbolic of how Bow lived her life.
Like the characters she played, Bow was a bit of a tramp. One of the most famous stories concerns Bow and the (entire) USC football team. Bow hosted the players regularly for parties and swims, though the boys, for their part, said nothing happened. “We were too damn innocent,” quarterback Morley Drury, once said of his own date with Bow. A toned-down version of this group dynamic appears in Babylon with Nellie La Roy breathlessly announcing the team members are her new personal slaves.
And that was also far from the craziest Bow sex story. In the early ’30s, The Coast Reporter published a series of stories about Bow stating she traveled to Mexico for orgies and that she also had sex with her male and female house staff — and her own cousin — and her Great Dane! The sensational stories were impossible to confirm, even then, but tabloid trash was still an emerging form. Readers believed what they saw in print.
Rag mag rumors aside though, Bow certainly slept around with plenty of verified names. Among them: her Wings co-star Gary Cooper, the director Victor Fleming, and Gilbert Roland, a Mexican-American actor whom Babylon‘s Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is partially based on. Bow loved Roland, but her racist father forbade the union, and the pair eventually split. However, they remained friends through the end of Bow’s life.
It’s one of the few romantic spots in Bow’s long line of dramatic affairs.
In 1928, she met a married doctor while in the hospital, Earl Pearson. One thing led to another and when Pearson tried to leave his wife for Bow, she threatened to sue him — and name Clara Bow in the papers. To prevent scandal, Paramount wiped out Bow’s trust fund to pay off Mrs. Pearson. This had been their insurance plan, considering Bow’s lack of a moral clause. The scandal left Bow high and dry, with Paramount not too keen on renewing her contract.
Thus began the beginning of the end of Bow’s career. Throughout the legal issues with the Pearmans, Bow began confiding in her hairdresser Daisy DeVoe… who quickly became Bow’s friend, secretary, and de-factor handler. In addition to maintaining the star’s famed, flaming red-haired look, DeVoe was now integral to every aspect of her employer’s life.
For a while, this arrangement worked well and DeVoe helped Bow clean up her finances. But in 1931, Bow fell for the cowboy actor Rex Bell, and the push-and-pull of power proved devastating for both women. Knowing that Bell planned to have her fired, DeVoe emptied a file cabinet from Bow’s house which contained financial documents as well as love letters from Bow’s many boyfriends.
According to the podcast You Must Remember This, DeVoe initially planned to stay loyal to Bow and return the documents the next morning. But when she arrived, she found the household had been turned against her. Bow pressed charges, and DeVoe was indicted on 37 counts of grand theft.
The trial would become a full-on media frenzy.
DeVoe had a lot of damning information to reveal about Bow — and it all came out in the courtroom. Staying cool on the stand, DeVoe depicted her former friend as a cruel, alcoholic nymphomaniac. Bow tried to defend herself, but the silent actress’ speaking stage fright got the best of her. She came off as nervous, unprepared but, in the end, DeVoe was convicted on one count and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Meanwhile, Bow’s reputation never quite recovered. She would act in two more lucrative films, the popular Call Her Savage and 1933’s Hoop-la before retiring from acting in Nevada, with Bell, who became the state’s lieutenant governor. The couple had two sons together, Rex Anthony Bell, Jr. and George Beldam.
Bow died in 1965 of a heart attack at age 60, three years after Bell died at age 58.