Friday, June 3, 2011

It (1927)

It (1927)
seen online via YouTube

So if you're a hardcore film buff, chances are you've heard of It, even if you haven't seen the movie, so you might think I'm gonna talk about how awesome Clara Bow was. Not so. Well, she was awesome, but I'm not here to talk about her. Instead, I want to talk about Elinor Glyn. Who was Elinor Glyn? The opening credits for It indicate that the screenplay was based on a story by her, and she makes a cameo appearance as herself. Characters within the movie read her writings and are well acquainted with her reputation. But who was she?

Wikipedia says Glyn was a British erotic fiction writer who wrote some scandalously sexy (for the early 20th century) novels, then came to Hollywood and was influential in the careers of not only Bow, but Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. It was a novella of hers, as well as a series of articles in Cosmopolitan, and the movie quotes Glyn:
"IT" is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With "IT" you win all men if you are a woman—and all women if you are a man. "IT" can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.
So... "it" is charisma? Coolness? That's sure what it sounds like. Within the context of the movie, Bow's character aggressively pursues the man of her dreams - her boss (another can of worms entirely), but if I understand this definition properly (which I probably don't, but whatever), if she's got "it," she shouldn't need to do anything in order to get him. Instead, she makes him spend all his money on her, plays head games with him, changes her mind about him, and changes it back again in the end. That's a lot of work for someone who "draws all others with [her] magnetic force" (maybe she's a mutant!).

Glyn, it turns out, was a high society chick who married a dude she didn't really connect with, so she started fooling around with other dudes. Her big hit novel from 1907, Three Weeks, was supposedly based on one of these affairs, and it got everybody all fired up. She wrote some more books, and when Hollywood came calling in 1920, she answered. (By that time her old man was already dead.)

Glyn had some unique (again, for the early 20th century) ideas about love and romance which she expressed through her books. Role-playing, erotic observation, dominance and submission, passion restrained by Victorian manners - these were recurring themes in Three Weeks, which was adapted into a movie four times (including the 1924 version which Glyn oversaw herself), and would come to shape her ideas about sex in general, especially for women. She thought women should be able to have sex for fun and not just mere procreational purposes, and that making money was blinding people to the pleasures of the flesh.

Glyn would go on to adopt a public persona inspired by her Three Weeks protagonist, the "Tiger Queen." She dyed her hair red, gave herself "cat's eyes," decorated her Hollywood suite in a Middle Eastern style, and gave interviews on a tiger skin rug, alluding to a famous seduction scene in Three Weeks. She still came across as a classy British lady, however, even though her books made her persona non grata amongst actual British high society, and that made it easier for her to spread her ideas about sexuality.

It was a marked change in Glyn's sexual philosophy when compared to Three Weeks. The Tiger Queen of that novel was a sophisticated older woman tutoring a young aristocrat in the ways of the flesh, whereas It's Betty is a young, vivacious, working-class "flapper" going after an older man. Glyn had originally defined "it" in masculine terms, the "savage beneath the grace" that her protege Valentino personified.

What happened was that It producer B.P. Schulberg wanted the movie to be a vehicle for Bow, and Glyn's contract specifically stated that she had to promote Bow as the "It Girl," before they even met! As a result, Glyn reworked her definition of "it" so that it could accommodate Bow as well, however vaguely. Even though Bow's Betty is a departure from Glyn's version of "it," the movie turned her into a star. Other actors and actresses would soon get the "it" label, diluting the definition to the point where Glyn was the only one who really knew what "it" was (she maintained it was about more than just sex appeal).

If you want to know more about Glyn, check out this terrific essay by Laura Horak, from which most of the information here comes from.


  1. Oh my gosh, Elinor Glyn sounds so awesome! I love learning about interesting people in history, so thanks so much for the informative post! I haven't seen IT but I think I'd rather just read Glyn's work instead.

  2. I had a feeling this would interest you! Like I said, the movie quotes her, the characters talk about her, she actually appears in it as herself - I was all ready to talk about Clara Bow, but I found I was more interested in Elinor Glyn instead. So there you are.


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