Dorothy Arzner, Clara Bow and “The Wild Party,” 1929

March 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Dorothy Arzner/Courtesy

Dorothy Arzner was a pioneer director in several respects. Not only was she among the first female film directors of the Silent Era and the first woman to join the DGA; she was also the first woman director of a “talkie” and the inventor of the boom mic. She accomplished the former with “Manhattan Cocktail” in 1928. The following year, when Arzner was at the helm of  “The Wild Party,” starring Clara Bow and Frederic March, she accomplished the latter. 

Lobby Card for "The Wild Party"/Courtesy

Although Clara Bow was only 24 when she made “The Wild Party,” she was a movie veteran with 50 films to her credit. She was also understandably nervous about speaking on film for the first time and unnerved by the microphone. With that in mind, Arzner attached the mic to a fishing pole, which allowed Bow her customary freedom of movement on the set. The boom mic, as it became known, revolutionized filming and has remained an essential piece of equipment in every movie made since. 

Arzner, a no-nonsense, openly lesbian director who preferred men’s jackets and neckties to dresses, might have seemed an unlikely ally for an emotionally erratic sex symbol like Bow, the original “It” Girl. But Arzner held Bow in high esteem, calling her a natural actress and praising her electrifying on-screen presence. Significantly, the two had worked together previously, in “Get Your Man,” (1927), during which Bow, after some initial resistance, had come to respect Arzner as a director. 

“The Wild Party” opened to mixed reviews but critics and audiences generally agreed that Clara Bow’s voice was good enough for talkies. The actress herself was horrified, however, by the sound of  her Brooklyn accent: 

Although Dorothy Arzner reassured her, Clara was inconsolable. ‘How can I be in pictures with a voice like that?’ she wailed. Then she burst into tears.

Both their careers survived the advent of “talkies.” Arzner directed features until 1943, when a bout of pneumonia led her to take less stressful jobs–commercials and military training films. She lived until 1979, long enough to be feted as a film pioneer and honored by the DGA. Her personal life was successful as well: Arzner’s 40-year partnership with the choreographer Marian Morgan lasted until Morgan’s death in 1971.

Bow, whom Preferred Pictures chief B.P. Schulberg nicknamed “Crisis-a-Day Clara,” suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931. The following year she married cowboy actor Rex Bell and left acting for family life in 1933. She and Bell had two sons; still Bow remained emotionally fragile, attempting suicide during Bell’s run for Congress in 1944. Despite her myriad health problems, Bow and Bell remained married until his death in 1962. (Bell’s political career also endured; he was Lt. Governor of Nevada from 1955-1962.) Clara Bow returned to Los Angeles, living quietly under a nurse’s care. She died of a heart attack in 1965, at 60.

I am indebted to the following sources: “The Wild Party,” by Kendahl Cruver, “Manipulation vs. Minogomy: Clara and the Sexual Politics in ‘Get Your Man,'” by Jeffrey E. Ford, and Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne (Indiana University Press, 1994).

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