By Mike Dub
If A Fool There Was marked the beginning of the sex symbol in popular American films in 1915, by 1927 Hollywood’s star system would be every bit as tightly manufactured as the assembly lines that built the films themselves. Marketing armies, in synergy with the production arms of Hollywood studios, publicized, codified, and commercialized the sex appeal of its stars with dizzying effectiveness. By the end of the 1920s, Hollywood had virtually perfected the system of selling sex.
It is at the apex of the first generation of sex-selling in Hollywood, just a handful of years before the Production Code would come in and spoil the party, that It was released. A huge hit that launched Clara Bow into top-tier stardom and made her the leading sex symbol of her time, It is a carefully constructed showcase for Bow’s talent, and her body.
The story is practically beside the point: poor but beautiful young shop girl Betty Lou (Bow) aims her sights on landing Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), the wealthy and hunky son of the owner of her department store. Mostly conventional rom-com difficulties arise: Waltham is already engaged to another woman; Betty Lou doesn’t fit into high society; a Three’s Company style miscommunication arises over a fatherless baby. The broad plot points are not that interesting, but they are held together with the energy and charisma of its star, who is not only irresistible, but spends an inordinate amount of time on-screen in her underwear.
From the very beginning of the film, its mission is clear: sell Clara Bow. All of the movie’s machinery – the script, the cinematography, the editing – work together to instruct the audience to recognize Bow’s beauty. The film doesn’t just give her the classical Hollywood close-ups. With didactic clarity, the film employs heavy-handed cutaways to men’s reactions upon seeing her, and displays her constantly surrounded by less attractive women.
The dialogue, with Seinfeldian zest, yearns to introduce “It” into the popular lexicon (which it did). Several times in the opening scenes, the movie defines the “It” quality, alternately as beauty, self-confidence, and charm. The constant definition engages audience expectations, creating a sort of ideological gap between the definition of the word and its personification. Finally, we see a close-up of Clara Bow, the first close-up of a woman, and we know that she has “It.” But just in case we missed even that obvious a visual statement, a man sees her and exclaims, “If I ever saw ‘IT’ that’s ‘IT’!” It’s hard to think of a more explicit introduction to a character in film.
The techniques employed in this film to showcase Bow may not be very different from how movies have always worked, but rarely is a film so obvious in the selling of its star. Surprisingly, it actually comes off as rather charming, and not at all cloying. Interspersed with the marketing of Bow, the film paints its characters in surprisingly modern strokes, the result of an obvious shift in acceptable social behavior throughout the 1920s. While A Fool There Was took great pains to project the sexually libidinous vamp as an evil, man-eating creature, It exists in a world of relatively liberated women who have jobs, who date, who live independently (though in poverty), and who ogle attractive men.
When she and her group of shop girls see Waltham for the first time, Betty Lou exclaims in carnal glee, “Sweet Santa Claus, give me him!” The ideal modern woman was not the kind of girl who married the small town boy she grew up with because she didn’t have any other options. She was a city gal, complete with her own sexual desire. Amazingly, even by today’s standards, Betty Lou does not suffer for her sex. In fact, she thrives.