It (1927)

"It" (1927) featured image

It (1927). 72 minutes. Directed by Clarence G. Badger. Starring Clara Bow (as Betty Lou Spence), Antonio Moreno (as Cyrus Waltham, Jr.), William Austin (as Monty), Jacqueline Gadsden (as Adela Van Norman), Priscilla Bonner (as Molly), Gary Cooper (as reporter), and Elinor Glyn (as herself).

According to Elinor Glyn, whose serialized novella “It” was the inspiration for the movie of the same name, “It” is:

“…that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With ‘It’ you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. ‘It’ can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.”

This sounds very similar to the definition of the so-called “X-factor,” the mysterious source of talent that entertainment industry casting directors, talent managers, and moguls claim emanates from great film and theater stars. It seems a bit strange to suggest that what governs our sexual and romantic interests also governs our entertainment interests, but essentially that is what Glyn and the movie It imply. The central figure in It who encompasses both the male characters’ sexual interests and our interest as an audience is the engaging silent superstar Clara Bow.

The movie strives to teach us the “It” concept from its earliest scenes, where the mustachioed character Monty explains it to his friend, department store owner Cyrus Waltham, Jr. Monty reads aloud from Glyn’s magazine serial to Waltham, but Waltham is not very interested in Glyn or her concept, not even when Glyn appears coincidentally at the Ritz one evening when he is dining there. The use of then-contemporary author Glyn in this way seems to be an attempt at making the movie’s plot seem current and relevant but is rather unnecessary. Glyn looks a bit like a matronly Valkyrie when she appears in the restaurant, and it is never clear why we should view her as an authority on sexual magnetism.

In spite of this, Monty is an eager student of the Glyn philosophy. He spots the charming Betty Lou Spence working in Waltham’s department store and identifies her as the quintessential embodiment of “It.” His friend Waltham is captivated by Betty and quickly falls in love with her. Their romance becomes complicated when Betty, in order to prevent her roommate Molly from losing her baby to meddlesome social workers, pretends to be the child’s mother. We then learn that Waltham cannot tolerate the thought of marrying a single mother. When Betty learns of Waltham’s prejudice, she quits her job and turns on him. Together with Monty she plots revenge against Waltham. In the end, however—in a conclusion that involves, of all things, a major yachting accident—Waltham and Betty both have a change of heart and end up together again.

I suppose the idea that some people possess a universal sexual magnetism, or “It,” has had few such apt test cases as Clara Bow herself. She has an electric personality, eyes that are exceedingly expressive, and a face that was made for the movies. She also wears some of the best-looking clothes that I have seen on screen in a long time; I am not sure how a shop girl on Betty’s salary could have afforded them. If ever there was a silent star to rival Louise Brooks for cuteness and universal appeal, it was Bow.

And yet I must say that her hair looks exceedingly strange for some of this movie, with a sort of short, dark bouffant and puffy bangs that vaguely resemble the coiffure of 1980s TV horror host Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. No one else in this movie wears hair like Bow’s, so it is clearly meant to make her stand out. Yet perhaps even the universal sexual magnetism of someone like Bow can be impaired by a bad hairstyle—either by style that was bad originally or that has not aged well. This leads me to conclude that the idea of universal magnetism that the movie espouses might not actually be very universal.

It is fairly risqué. Betty rooms with Molly and Molly’s baby, and Betty seems to be the sole source of support in the household. There is the slightest suggestion that perhaps Betty and Molly are more than just roommates—but it would appear that there is nothing more explicitly going on between them other than a platonic friendship. Then there are the many shots of Bow in her underwear—either while she cuts off the dress she is wearing to transform it ludicrously into a sexy evening gown; or while she has fun at the seaside amusement park with Waltham, turning and slipping in a rotating tunnel over and over again, clutching at her skirt to prevent her panties from being revealed to Waltham as she tumbles over him. At one point there is also an indulgent shot of her lying suggestively on top of Waltham’s department store desk. And, of course, Betty poses successfully as an unmarried mother, something that we today largely do not find risqué but that was at the time.

Waltham meanly reconsiders his feelings for Betty as a result of her feigned parental status, but Betty seems proud to pretend to be the mother to Molly’s son—consequences be damned. Partly because of her attitude, the film characterizes Betty as a kind of flapper, someone who embodies the free-living spirit of the jazz age. Yet interestingly, when she goes to the amusement park with Waltham, and he tries to kiss her at the end of the night, she is outraged and slaps him across the face. Betty, in spite of her sexiness, is actually both a bit conservative and fairly complicated—nuanced, in other words, in spite of the rather flat and uncomplicated suggestion that she as “It” girl is a universal sex goddess.

Ultimately, the makers of It want us to think that its story is sexually liberated, and I will grant the movie the points I have made above, but I also find It to be rather oppressive. Waltham is cruel to Betty when he thinks that she is not just a flirtatious young woman but that she actually has a baby. Even then his drive for her is so great that he proposes keeping her as a mistress while marrying the more socially acceptable Adela Van Norman. Betty should have run off for good then, but instead she decides she wants revenge, which then of course results in her falling back in love with Waltham, who has not done very much to deserve that love. The end of the movie takes place on a yacht, and due to an accident Betty falls overboard. Waltham jumps into the sea to rescue her, but she says no thanks: she is swimming home. I suppose this is meant to exhibit some of that bold, magnetic self-confidence Glyn writes about, the kind that the opposite sex allegedly cannot get enough of. Still, for a minute it looks as if Betty’s story might be sharing something useful about Glyn’s central concept with the women of the world: if you really have “It,” you do not need to settle for the man who a few scenes earlier was content to keep you as his lady on the side. But then Waltham follows Betty, finds her clinging to the side of the ship, and they embrace. Presumably we are supposed to be happy for them. If you ask me, she should have kept swimming.