Bow down
The original It girl
Clara Bow
by uploaded: 17-05-2004
It girls now are usually posh lasses with too much money and not enough class. But it was actually a Brooklyn shop girl who started It all

Long before Monroe boop-boop be-duped a generation of men out of clean trousers, before Bardot pouted, and before Chihuahua-toting Belgravia princesses mwah-mwahed their way on to the pages of Harpers, there was the original It girl: a saucy working class gal from Brooklyn turned silent movie siren. Her indefinable 'It' quality – a mixture of sex appeal and liberation – has made Clara Bow a role model for cinematic bints everywhere.

Bow was the epitome of the modern American girl: emancipated, hedonistic and unashamedly sexy. In her short but full career (over 40 films in under 10 years), Bow became the embodiment of the feisty flapper. Born into poverty in Brooklyn, she won a role in a movie at 16 and, after a meteoric rise, became the name that was on everyone's lips. But it was as the resourceful shop assistant who sets her cap at her boss in It (1927) that Bow went stellar.

Bow, "the royal mounted policeman of sex", always got her man. Much was made of her cupid's bow lips, her saucer eyes and her ripe body. But let's not put too fine a point on her finer features. It was her wholehearted embracing of freedom – all over New York's female workers like a rash in the twenties – and, crucially, her brazen sexuality that pushed boundaries. Many moviegoers were the very same sassy shopgirls Bow was portraying. The wider public, in the grips of a cultural shift that welcomed newness but urged temperance, was frankly shocked.

Flappers were seen as fast, a little too fast for Prohibition America, and Bow lived this existence to the full on and off screen. Maybe she was too reckless; her gambling debts and infidelities soon outshone her luminous screen presence. She fell foul of the prurience of the public, the snobbery of bourgeois society (when sound came to the cinema, Bow's Brooklyn accent was a handicap) and was the victim of jealousy and media sensationalism.

Bow died in obscurity, a recluse, mentally distressed and suffering from that most dreaded of Hollywood diseases, obesity. She is most remembered for what she stood for in her youth. But although we love her for the irrepressible girls she played on screen with such vivacity, we also love her in her last incarnation as a fat, batty, forgotten old bint – and for teaching us that you can be dirt poor, talk like a Brooklyn cabbie, and drink and shag like a sailor but still have 'It' in spades.

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It's a wonderful life

Route to stardom:
Dirt poor and star-struck, she wins beauty contest at 16 – first prize is a role in a picture. Movie stardom and the high life ensues

Best known for:
Epitomising the roaring twenties and being the original owner of the elusive 'It' quality

Best known film:
It, 1927. Plays department store girl Betty Lou who falls for her boss Cyrus Waltham Jr.

Cupid's bow lips, dazzling eyes, fulsome figure, wrapped in a ball of acute, vibrant energy

Memorable lines:
“So you're one of those Minute Men - the minute you meet a girl you think you can kiss her!” (as Betty Lou Spence in It, 1927)