CURRENT RESEARCH PROJECT—The Flapper and the Cripple: Disability in Clara Bow’s America

This project starts from two observations. The first comes from Andrew Bergman, who noted in a 1971 book [We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films (1971)], that “Every movie is a cultural artifact and as such reflects the values, fears, myths, and assumptions of the culture that produces it.” The other is disability scholar Douglas C. Baynton’s assertion in a 2001 essay that “Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.” Focusing on movies featuring silent film icon Clara Bow but deploying other primary sources as well, this monograph uses disability as a category of analysis to examine the period from the end of World War I to the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a period roughly corresponding to Bow’s film career. Chapter 1 sets the scene by looking broadly at the prominence of the language of disability in the early-twentieth century; a surprising number of people at the time sought to make sense of the Jazz Age using a disability lens. Chapters 2-4 then focus more specifically on three prominent disability-related issues during the period: rehabilitation, beginning with World War I veterans but extended to civilians in the Smith-Fess Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920; eugenics, an idea which, despite its nineteenth century origins, became a particularly popular scientific fad in the period; and scientific racism and immigration restriction, which relied on ideas of “fitness” and “normality” to define who was properly part of American society. All three feature strongly in Bow’s films.

The final two chapters, while maintaining a focus on Bow’s films, also incorporate more elements of her personal life and career into the story. Chapter 5 examines celebrity in the period and argues that films and film stars became substitutes for the popular nineteenth century entertainments popularly known as freak shows. In Chapter 6 the transition from silent films to talkies is analyzed as something akin to “curing” the movies of a disability (deafness)—at least that was how contemporaries viewed the change. In all, an examination of disability in Clara Bow’s America offers new ways of thinking about the interwar period in the United States.

 

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