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Film Friday: "The Wild Party" (1929)

In honor of Clara Bow's 110th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the only film I've seen with her so far, which also happens to be the first sound picture she made.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Dorothy Arzner, The Wild Party (1929) revolves around Winston College, an all-female school where the students seem to be more interested in having fun and partying than studying. When the young and attractive professor James "Gil" Gilmore (Fredric March) starts teaching Anthropology there, all the girls immediately feel attracted to him, especially Stella Ames (Clara Bow), the wildest and most popular student in the school. She recognizes Gil as the man with whom she once accidentally shared a berth on a train, thereby risking her reputation, but he does give any indication that he remembers Stella.

After being thrown out of the school's traditional costume party for wearing revealing outfits, Stella and her friends go to a roadhouse, where they are soon bothered by drunk men. While all the girls are able to leave, Stella gets caught up in a bar fight and is subsquentely abducted by the men. Gil comes to her rescue and the two kiss and exchange confidences, but the next morning he acts as if nothing happened, even giving her an humiliating lecture about her lack of dedication. Hurt, Stella returns to her old lifestyle of wild parties, which includes dancing with and kissing strangers, but has a change of heart about Gil after hearing that he was shot by one of the drunks who abducted her, and when Gil returns to campus a month later, they profess their love for each other. The following day, however, Stella is expelled after taking the blame for receiving a suggestive love letter that was actually sent to her best friend, Helen Owens (Shirley O'Hara). As she prepares to leave college, she's certain that she has lost Gil's love, but is happily surprised when he follows her on the train and asks her to join him on an expedition to Malaya, where there will be no "morons," only savages. 

James "Gil" Gilmore: You haven't the slighest idea what true freedom means. Instead, you jazz around glorying in sham freedom. Life to you is just one wild party. You have no aim. All you want is cheap sensation.

By mid-1928, the success of The Jazz Singer (1927) could no longer be attributed to a passing trend or a stroke of luck. As Warner Bros. began to rake in large profits due to the popularity of their sound films, every other major studio rushed their conversion to the new technology to supply the public's sudden demand for "talkies." Paramount Pictures, the industry leader, acknowledged the craze by sending special effects engineer Roy Pomeroy, who had just won an Academy Award for his work on Wings (1927), to study sound technology with experts from Western Electric at the company's headquarters in New York. When Pomeroy returned to Hollywood, he was entrusted with the studio's first full talking picture, Interference (1928), starring William Powell and Evelyn Brent, which received mixed reviews.

After Paramount announced that their 1929 program would be entirely made of sound pictures, voice tests became mandatory for every actor on the lot, including 24-year-old Clara Bow. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Bow arrived in Hollywood in 1923 under producer B. P. Schulberg's personal contract and soon rose to become Paramount's biggest star, appearing in such hits as Mantrap (1926), It (1927) and the aforementioned Wings. Voice tests at the studio were administered at Pomeroy's office without shooting a foot of film, but Bow was given special treatment: her voice test would also be recorded by a camera, with Dorothy Arzner directing a scene from what was to be her first "talkie": The Wild Party.

Dorothy Arzner and Clara Bow on the set
Arzner's work in Hollywood started in 1919, when director William C. DeMille, brother of Cecil, got her a job as a stenographer at Famous Players-Lanksy Corporation, renamed Paramount in the late 1920s. Determined to pursue a career as a film director, Arzner quickly moved to be a script writer and then a film editor, until the studio finally allowed her the chance to direct her first picture, the successful social comedy Fashions for Women (1927), starring Esther Ralston. Shortly after, Paramount put Arzner in charge of Bow's Get Your Man (1927) and she was astounded by the actress's "innate artistry" and "infallible instincts." Although Bow was initally displeased about having a woman direct one of her pictures, she liked Arzner and the two soon became good friends.

She was just automatically a natural. A marvelous actress, full of animation and projection of her thoughts and emotions. The whole thing was emotional with Clara; she understood the emotional content of every scene. Whichever way she did it was so right, so alive. It was like a dancing flame on the screen. They all called Clara 'the "It" Girl,' the outstanding 'flaming youth.' Well, she was all that, but I think she was also the one flaming youth that thought.
(Dorothy Arzner)

Clara Bow as Stella Ames
Although Bow's filmed voice test consisted of only one brief scene, she was completely terrified. She was already self-conscious of her slight stammer and was certain that speaking in a film would result in nationwide humilliation. Adding to her worries was the fact that a few days before she was scheduled to do the test, she was given a 102-page shooting script for The Wild Party and was overwhelmed by the idea of having to memorize so many lines. While her test progressed smoothly during its shooting and recording, Bow literally screamed in anguish upon hearing her voice played back for the first time. "How can I be in pictures with a voice like that?" she cried. 

After Bow's voice test in mid-December 1928, and despite her devasted reaction to it, The Wild Party went into production on January 2, 1929, giving Bow just two weeks to prepare for the daunting task of making a sound picture. As hard as she tried, Bow could not seem to adjust to the new medium, as "talkies required a restraint she had never developed and rendered useless the abandonment she had," and she felt "constant fear" throughout The Wild Party's production. Arzner tried to help her by attaching the stationery microphone hanging above the soundstage to a fishpole, giving Bow more freedom to move instead of halting below it every time she spoke. In most cases, however, the microphone had to be hidden in a prop near a mark, such as a vase or a pillow, as her eyes would unconsciously travel upward towards the off-camera mike. "We had quite a time in the beginning," Arzner later recalled, "because to be aware of the pantomime which she was accostumed to, then have words to remember, was very difficult for her.

Fredric March and Clara Bow
Although Arzner is best known for her work with female stars, launching the career of actresses such as Sylvia Sidney in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933), she had an eye for male actors as well. For the part of Gil, Arzner cast Fredric March, in one of his first leading film roles after a successful career on the New York stage. March went on to be featured as the male lead in three more Arzner films, Sarah and Son (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931) and the above-mentioned Merrily We Go to Hell, and also appeared in a second film with Bow, Frank Tuttle's romantic comedy True to the Navy (1930).

When The Wild Party was released in April 1929, it received general mixed reviews, with much of the criticism being directed at Bow's Brooklyn accent. While one reviewer commented that her voice had "a harsh tonal quality that is not very easy on sensitive eardrums," Variety assured that she possessed "enough of a voice to insure a general belief that Clara can speak, as well as look not as well, but enough." In addition, The New York Times noted that "Miss Bow's voice is better than the narrative. It is not overmelodious in delivery, but it suits her personality," but dismissed the film as "intended for dwarfed intellects." Despite the variance in critical opinion, people flocked to the theaters to see America's most popular film star talk and The Wild Party broke house records in several big cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago. In smaller cities, however, Bow's sound debut was shown in silence, as theater owners refused to convert their facilities for what was still considered a fad.

Shirley O'Hara and Clara Bow
Talkies caused a chaotic and bewildering flux within the film industry, changing not only the way pictures were made, but also the way they were watched. Gazing at a silent screen upon which mouths moved without speaking a word, audiences began to idealize not only how stars sounded, but what they said as well. Although legend contends that Clara Bow's "thick Brooklyn accent" ruined her career, the quality of her voice was never really an issue to her, Paramount or her fans. It was the changing nature of filmmaking that destroyed Bow's career. Like many other silent stars, including Charlie Chaplin and Louise Brooks, Bow found the new medium limiting and simply did not embrace the novelty of having to memorize scripts, speak into microphones and hit chalkmarks.

I hate talkies. They're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me. And people are so quick to pounce on you if your voice isn't perfect [...] I can't buck progress, and I have to do the best I can.
(Clara Bow)

From her very first line in The Wild Party, it is evident that Clara Bow is extremely nervous and unsure of what she is doing. Her voice is shaky and you can tell that she struggled to let go of the broad pantomine she was so adept of. Fortunately, Arzner wisely adapted to her style by giving her many close-up shots of her reacting to off-camera events as if to demonstrate that she does not need dialogue to express emotion. Recalling the words of the great Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), who needs dialogue when you have a face like Clara Bow's.


____________________________
SOURCES:
Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn (2000) | Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne (1994) | Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2001) | The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 by Donald Crafton (1999) | "The Real Clara Bow" by Elizabeth Goldbeck (1930)

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  1. What a great classic

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