The easiest comparison is to think of Clara Bow ("The 'It' Girl") as having been to her era what Madonna was to the 1980s: She was smart, vivacious, she showed a relatively generous amount of skin, and she was keyed into the trends of the moment -- those that she didn't herself pioneer -- with pinpoint accuracy. Bow's era was the '20s -- the Jazz Age -- and she was the literal poster child of that historical moment. She wore her brunette hair short, she favored abbreviated hemlines, and, like the Material Girl herself, she projected a make-do, underdog attitude that always won over the guy in the end.
She wasn't called the "It" Girl because it was hard to determine her sex. On the contrary. Rather, the sobriquet comes from the title of the 1927 vehicle that sealed her fame, a film called, in its entirety, It. Taken from a novel by Elinor Glyn, It tells the story of a department store clerk named Betty (Bow) who lures the handsome heir (Antonio Moreno) to the store away from his society girlfriend, thus overcoming the disadvantage of an impoverished, downtown, single girl life. Along the way there are the usual misunderstandings and scandalous goings-on that still fill in the blanks in romantic comedies to this day. (In this instance the dupe is a man named Monty (William Austin) who memorably addresses himself as "old fruit" and his best friend as "old thing.")
And just what is this "it"? As defined by Glyn (who also produced, and who makes an appearance in the film), "it" is that quality of attractiveness, unself-consciously wielded by its bearer, that renders the opposite sex helpless and agog. Bow, as you will have guessed, has "it," as does Moreno (a Spaniard who made a career of playing the Latin lover opposite such "it"-endowed actresses as Pola Negri and Greta Garbo); the unlucky girlfriend and Monty do not. In other words, "it" is still what "it" is today.
It was quite a hit in its day, and even at a remove of many decades it's easy to see why. The fact is that Bow does have "it"; she appears in nearly every frame of the picture and threatens to burst out of every one. Her presence is magnetic, and she exudes an energy so chaotic that she seems unable to hold still: She sways from side to side, bounces, dances in place, rolls her eyes. She embodies the franticness of a notoriously frantic era (the crash was still two years away) and watching her here you're sorry all over again that it had to come to an end. The movie is in her sway, but its appeal is apparent, too: It's fast, cleverly written, and it shines in comparison to its now-clunky, silent peers.
It is newly available from Milestone Films, a company with a fine track record of restoring important period films to the video shelves. Extras include an audio commentary from film historian Jeanine Basinger, a stills gallery, and a DVD-ROM feature with production notes from director Clarence Badger.
The It parade.