‘It’ starring Clara Bow at the Central Library

The ‘Brooklyn bonfire’ is back!

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They say you have either got it or you don’t — and Brooklyn had it first.

The concept of the “It Girl” comes from the 1927 silent film “It.” And the original “it girl” was Clara Bow, a borough-born actress and the star of the film, which catapulted the phrase into popular culture — and caused the public to fall in love.

“ ‘It’ was marketing a concoction,” said silent film enthusiast Ken Gordon, who is holding a free screening of the film at the Central Library on April 6, with accompaniment from a live pianist. “There was no such thing as an ‘It Girl’ before. They were describing some one who the public had a crush on.”

The screening is part of an ongoing silent film series, which Gordon has curated at the library for the past 12 years. The location is just blocks away from Bow’s birthplace on Bergen Street in Prospect Heights.

After a rough upbringing, Bow made her film debut in 1922 after winning a small role in a magazine contest. By the time “It” premiered in 1927, Bow was already a successful silent film actress, known to some as “the Brooklyn bonfire.”

The film centers around an independent woman who works in a department store. People of the time would have identified her as a “flapper,” said Gordon.

“It was liberating,” Gordon said of the main character’s status as a working woman. “Flappers were just women who were taking control of their own lives.”

The film openly discusses what “it” is, suggesting the general idea of sex appeal without actually saying the phrase. But Bow’s character, Betty Lou, also shows a great degree of freedom. She represents a liberated woman who is self-made, and has influence over others. Betty Lou sets her sights on her employer’s son and spends much of the film pursuing him. She eventually gets her man, and on her own terms, using the power that “it” lends her.

The film is generally thought to be set in New York City — even though it never mentions a specific location, and it was actually filmed in Los Angeles. One scene in particular, which shows Bow’s character walking along with an amusement park in the background, is generally assumed to represent Coney Island. But regardless, Gordon said, Bow’s presence makes it Brooklyn.

“They never say it’s Brooklyn, but it is because she’s there,” he said.

Bow was never quite able to make the cross over from silent films to talkies, which most producers were making at the time. She was concerned about how people would judge her Brooklyn accent, and how delivering lines would affect her screen presence.

“She was petrified of talking on screen,” Gordon said. “She was worried it would destroy her image.”

Bow did do some talkies and kept working until 1933, racking up almost 60 film credits to her name, but she later became reclusive and estranged from her husband and children. She reportedly died in 1965 while watching television. Though the end of her life was not exactly glamorous, Gordon appreciates that she did things on her own terms.

“She did it on her own,” he said. “She was the ‘It Girl.’ ”

“It” at the Central Library, Dweck Center [10 Grand Army Plaza between Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 230–2100,]. April 6 at 1 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
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