If you ignore the Hollywood Babylon-type tabloid coverage of her life, the most outstanding thing about Old Hollywood starlet Clara Bow is the sheer volume of work she managed to produce in the 20s & 30s. Starring in nearly 60 pictures total, as one of the few performers who successfully transitioned from the Silent Era to talkies, Bow was often locked in a Roger Corman-type schedule of filming several projects at once. As such, it’s a little difficult to determine which titles are worth your time. In 1925 alone, Clara Bow starred in 14 feature films, making nondescript titles like Parisian Love seem like they’re worth slightly less than a dime-a-dozen. Her career-making performance in 1927’s It inspired the term “it girl;” her early-career fashion choices in films like Poisoned Paradise & Daughters of Pleasure helped inspire the character design for Betty Boop (along with singer Helen Kane). By comparison, Parisian Love is just another face in the crowd; it wasn’t even the most significant film of that year for Bow, not in when compared to commercial hits like The Plastic Age. Still, as an hour-long taste of the boundary-testing, plucky sexuality that made Bow such a magnet for public fascination, it feels like a significantly risqué, defiant work.
Clara Bow stars as a street-tough “Apache” – an early 20th Century hooligan running wild in the streets of Belle Époque France. Working small-level con jobs, dressing in male drag, staging bar fights, and openly mocking police & social elites, she’s a Turn of the Century punk – one who only cares about her fellow Apache lover. Most of Parisian Love concerns a revenge mission to win this lover back when a member of the wealthy Parisian elite effectively “steals her man” by making him into a proper gentleman. After a botched burglary of the house of an upstanding science professor, their intended mark takes a liking to her injured lover and takes him under his wing, much to Bow’s jealousy. The queer implications of this love triangle are not subtle. The professor is obviously in love with his Apache ward – using the sexual surrogate of wealthy women worthier of his class to make-out with the injured thief while he looks on intently. Bow’s lovesick scamp also witnesses these commissioned kisses and enacts her revenge by seducing & marrying the professor to effectively rob him blind while rousing the jealousy of their shared rags-to-riches lover. It’s a story that would traditionally end in tragedy, but instead plays out here in straightforward romantic melodrama.
The queer implications of its love triangle feel slightly risqué for its time and the story is refreshingly reluctant to punish its criminal Parisian street punks for their transgressions the way it would have under the soon-to-come Hays Code, but that’s not what makes the movie a joy to watch. Parisian Love is mostly enjoyable for allowing Bow to play a lying, stealing, punch-throwing, crossdressing badass on a mission. She kicks wealthy old men who sexually corner “the help” at parties. Her tendency to dress in drag on her heist jobs gives the appearance of two “men” kissing onscreen. Her confidence in rallying other Apache toughies to aid in her revenge mission (with promises to share the professor’s stolen wealth, of course) is refreshingly non-“ladylike” for an Old Hollywood sex symbol. I watched Parisian Love the same day that the racetrack near my house opened for its first race of the season. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition, where young New Orleans punks & weirdos dress up like the social elite in a kind of wealth-drag for early afternoon cocktails before dispersing for family meals. I got the same sense from Clara Bow in Parisian Love – a snotty punk gone undercover among socialites, dressed in their garb but not in their values. I can’t pretend to have seen enough Clara Bow pictures to know how that image fits into her massive catalog, but it did feel incredibly, defiantly punk in a 1920s context – making it clear to me why people fell in love with her so thoroughly in her heyday.