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Fri, Jun 10

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Epsilon Spires

"IT!" Clara Bow Romantic Comedy w/ Pipe Organ Score by Jeff Rapsis!

One of the most popular and delightful films of the late silent era, "IT" (1927) is a sparkling and lighthearted romantic comedy that came to epitomize the radical upheaval of gender roles and social class during the Jazz Age. Live musical score performed by Jeff Rapsis on our historic pipe organ!

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"IT!" Clara Bow Romantic Comedy w/ Pipe Organ Score by Jeff Rapsis!
"IT!" Clara Bow Romantic Comedy w/ Pipe Organ Score by Jeff Rapsis!

Time & Location

Jun 10, 2022, 8:00 PM – 10:00 PM

Epsilon Spires, 190 Main St, Brattleboro, VT 05301, USA

About the Event

IT! (1927) the breezy romantic comedy that came to epitomize the upheaval of gender roles and social class in the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Inspired by a story by Elinor Glyn, who used the simple pronoun to encapsulate the spirit of the sexually-liberated youth of Prohibition-era America, a saucy lingerie salesgirl sets her sights on the handsome owner (Antonio Moreno) of the department store in which she works. Leading him on a romantic chase from the Hotel Ritz to the whirling attractions of Coney Island, Betty Lou (Bow) decides to crash a high-society yacht party in a last-ditch effort to get her man. The picture was considered lost for many years, but a copy was found in Prague in the 1960s. In 2001, 'It' was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." 

The quintessential flapper, silent film superstar Clara Bow's authenticity and spontanious energy are timelessly joyful to behold. In the film, the magnetic quality "IT" is defined as attributes beyond just basic sex appeal, including a personal sense of freedom, "self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not”.  Her image encouraged young women to choose a life for themselves instead of what was expected of them.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Bow was prone to playing the sexual aggressor in her films, a daring deviation from female passivitiy that revolutionized the role of women not only in cinema, but in society as well. In It, Bow's gregarious personality and strikingly, energetic beauty are brilliantly showcased, making it easy to understand how she became Hollywood's most popular leading lady of the era. 

To accompany 'IT!' Jeff Rapsis will improvise a score created live in real time as the movie is screened, in the tradition of theatre organists during the silent era.  Rather than focus on authentic music of the period, Rapsis creates new music for silent films that draws from movie scoring techniques that today's audiences expect from the cinema.

The Performance:

Jeff Rapsis lives in Bedford, New Hampshire, and accompanies silent film programs in venues throughout New England. A lifelong silent film fan, he began creating original musical scores and staging silent film programs in 2007 as a way to keep the form vibrant before the public. His technique is rooted in a traditional approach and texture, while applying imporovisation using contemporary scoring methods when appropriate to connect with today's audiences. Outside New England, he has accompanied films at the New York Public Library’s “Meet the Musicmakers” series and the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Rapsis has also provided original music for several silent film DVD releases by Looser Than Loose Vintage Entertainment of Manchester, N.H., and scored the independent feature film Dangerous Crosswinds (2005). His recorded scores also include piano music for Kino Lorber's reissue of Gloria Swanson's 'Zaza' (1923) and music for Reel Classic DVD's reissue of 'The Bells' (1926) starring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff. As a composer, his 'Kilimanjaro Suite' for large orchestra was premiered in 2017 by the N.H. Philharmonic. A journalist by profession, Rapsis is co-founder and associate publisher of HippoPress, a weekly newspaper based in Manchester, N.H. He also serves as executive director of the Aviation Museum of N.H., a non-profit educational center based at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

"It (1927) and the It Girl, Clara Bow The Power and LImitations of Personal Magnetisim" essay by Angela Moore

"How’s a girl to get ahead on a shopgirl’s salary, living in a tenement, acting as the sole support of her single-mother roommate in 1927? The capital—in lieu of financial or cultural—proposed by the film It, is, well, “it.” But what is “it”? It’s sex appeal, sure, but it’s also charisma, magnetism, joie de vivre, and je ne sais quoi—“something in you,” the film says, “that gives the impression that you are not all cold.”

One of the most popular and delightful films of the late silent era. Our heroine, Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow), works the counter in the “WORLD’S LARGEST STORE” in Manhattan by day and lives in a cramped Brooklyn tenement named “Gashouse Gables” by night. One day, the rich boss’ rich son, Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno), walks in. The film charts the course of their true love, from Betty Lou setting her sights on him (and with what eyes) to the two of them engaged, with all the complications and misadventures in between. A girl of Betty Lou’s lowly station can pull off such a coup because she’s in abundant possession of the titular “it.” Betty Lou “it”s herself into dinner at the Ritz, a trip on a yacht, and marriage to a wealthy man.

Uninhibited by the need to put feelings into words, silent cinema allowed Bow to convey something more elemental through her looks and actions. Betty Lou’s gaze is startlingly bold and desirous for the time and for her gender. She gives and takes with it at the same time—sizes up and communicates everything she needs to. Her nimble agility—why walk when you can run, dance, or hop—made her utterly modern in a decade defined by jazz and dance and a focus on physical health, a decade in which not only ankles but calves were liberated from the “hobble skirts” of the 1910s. Paramount producer Adolph Zukor said of Bow, “she danced even when her feet were not moving.”

Given that “it” is largely sex appeal, does It wheel out the old chestnut that the only chance a female underdog has for betterment is through her physical attractiveness and a man’s attention? Or does it acknowledge a simple Jane Austen-like truth—that society offered limited ways for women to change their lives in a time when, despite an increase in women working outside the home, it was still rare for them to achieve equal pay or leadership positions?

That the film’s idea of female empowerment is marriage to a rich handsome man is questionable. Regardless, something I really love about this film and others from the 1920s and ‘30s is that not only the characters but the films themselves have the values and worldview of the underdog. It celebrates working-class values such as loyalty, ingenuity, integrity, and the ability to have a really good time. A scene in which a couple of pious welfare workers attempt to separate Betty Lou’s sick friend from her baby bears the intertitle, straightforward in that silent-movie way: “Poverty is no disgrace—until meddling neighbors hear of it.” The film doesn’t pass judgement on or pity its working-class characters; it wants them to prevail. A delightful makeover scene in which Betty Lou and her friend improvise with what they have to create an image of glamour, isn’t shameful but triumphant. 

What’s more, unlike in many stories of cross-class romance like My Fair Lady or Pretty Woman, Betty Lou doesn’t have to learn middle-class modes of being to earn love. Instead, she draws her love interests into her world. She takes Monty on the bus, she refuses to be sat in the corner at the Ritz, she takes Waltham to Coney Island for hot dogs. She play-acts being of a higher class at the Ritz and at the yacht party, but it’s when she’s herself at Coney Island that she wins Waltham’s heart. To a certain extent, he’s attracted to her because of her working-class characteristics. Basically, she couldn’t be less staid. In a way, the lesser social pressures on working-class women give Betty Lou the freedom to actively pursue Waltham, as well as the “indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not” that the film decides is a crucial component of “it.” Her rival, Adela—who isn’t bad, just boring—is free from financial worries, but bound by the social expectations of women in her class.

It could assume a working-class female audience would share its values because of the great social changes of the 1920s. The decade saw working-class women leave domestic service to enter the workforce in shops and offices. They were moving to the cities and leading more exciting lives, and they were spending their newfound money at the movies. 

By 1927, women made up more than 80% of the cinema audience. This led to a proliferation of films about “working girls,” as well as a crop of new, modern stars. And Clara Bow, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, was the “quintessence” of the flapper—“pretty, impudent, superbly assured, as worldly-wise, briefly-clad and ‘hard-berled’ as possible.”

But Bow was not only new and fashionable, she was an underdog star communing with her underdog audience. The horror of her real life story would seem ridiculous were it not true, even if it was likely not so much worse than many others of her time and situation. Born in 1905, she grew up in extreme poverty, moving around Brooklyn. Her father was often out of work and her mother suffered from epilepsy that would eventually kill her when Bow was 17. Bow was the victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and her mother once tried to kill her with a butcher knife during a psychotic episode. One of her close childhood friends died from a building fire in her arms. In her later years, when acting, the memory of this alone would enable Bow to cry on cue.

Bow played mostly working-class characters (shopgirls, waitresses, even a Parisian “apache”), and her fans identified with her. They recognized something genuine in her and felt protective of her. At the height of her fame, she received 45,000 fan letters a month—double that of anyone else in film history, according to her 1988 biographer David Stenn. There’s a lovely little moment in It, just before Betty Lou enacts her master plan to win Waltham back, where she breaks the fourth wall and gives the audience a conspiratorial look—it feels like fellowship, even friendship, with her working-class audience.

Part of Bow’s mass appeal was that she seemed to confirm for her fans the slim chance of the underdog succeeding, the ugly duckling transforming, the American Dream. In any earlier age, Bow would likely have lived in debilitating poverty in Brooklyn forever. But in this period when only personality and beauty were required for superstardom, movies offered her a magic carpet out of poverty—just as they did for Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more of the Golden Age’s brightest stars.

While Betty Lou navigates the smart set with confidence, Bow herself was shunned by Hollywood society, who found her unpredictable and uncouth. Louise Brooks, an actor who later went to Europe to make some of the greatest silent films, admired Bow greatly. She once asked her husband, director Eddie Sutherland, to invite Bow to one of his parties, to which he replied, “Oh, heavens, no! We can’t have her, we don’t know what she’d do—she’s from Brooklyn.” At this time, Hollywood was largely populated by nouveau-riche snobs with fabricated backstories, and Bow recognized, “I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. I’m a big freak, because I’m myself!” Like Joan Crawford after her, she was better friends with the film crew than with the cast or directors. 

It preserves Clara Bow's spirit of quickness and lightness, as well as her perceptible tenacity. On-screen, her remarkable strength of personality was enough to win her everything she desired. In life, it wasn’t enough to ensure happiness or agency. Yet by embodying something to emulate, she taught young women how to flirt, how to have fun, and how to not care what people thought of them. She played a part in changing the attitudes of a generation. That’s what the most persuasive stars can do."

Tickets

  • "IT" Clara Bow Comedy

    Admission for one to IT (1927) with live pipe organ soundtrack by Jeff Rapsis! This is your confirmation- no need to print anything out we will have your name at Roll-call. Refreshments will be provided. Please choose your seating with respect for others and let us know if you require special arrangements. $2 from every ticket goes directly towards the historic preservation of the venue. Thank you for your support! Enjoy the program!

    $15.00

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$0.00

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