The TCM Festival does a great job screening pristine new copies of beloved films like West Side Story or The Godfather, but I value it most for its work in championing the obscure and almost forgotten, for those movies can turn out to be something more special than simply rare. Such is the case with Clara Bow’s final screen appearance, Hoop-la (1933). The original negative destroyed by fire, it existed in one sole print, gifted by Fox to the Museum of Modern Art as part of a huge collection. Once the whole lot had been basically preserved (35mm neg, 16mm print), the head of MOMA’s collection Katie Trainor explained, the sheer volume of titles required that inquiries about specific films were of great help in prioritizing the restoration work list. Enter David Stenn, author of Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, whose repeated bothering the museum about Hoop-la resulted eventually in the the world premiere of a brand new 35mm print this weekend Its value turned out to be somewhat greater than mere rarity.

The Players

  • Director: Frank Lloyd
  • Script: Bradley King, Joseph Moncure March
  • Producer:William Fox
  • Camera: Ernest Palmer
  • Cast: Clara Bow, Preston Foster, Richard Cromwell, Minna Gombell, Herbert Mundin

The Plot

Young Chris turns up at the circus where his pa Nifty is manager. The latter throws over his floozy for the sake of propriety, and she vengefully pays belly dancer Lou to seduce the boy. Nifty is displeased; a rupture looms.

It’s splendid this film was rescued from obscurity, not simply for its being Clara Bow’s very final screen appearance, but also because she’s terrific in it, showing just what a loss to the screen she was, retiring at age 28. She had made a great come-back with Call Her Savage and was now done with movies (and dieting). Although she took Hoop-la to pay the bills, she gives a ravishing performance as Lou, the trampy circus belly dancer with a heart of gold. Tasked with seducing the hick kid, she finds to her amazement that she falls for him too. Once again she proves herself to be an irresistibly natural performer, saucy and snappy, completely over her sound-stage fright, and with a well-practised silent technique through which she channels the tender inner life of a hard-shelled hussy. Watching this made me realise where Susan Hayward got a lot of her act from, but she never caught the sweetness.

Good work is done also by Preston Foster as the father, with something of Sterling Hayden’s emotional anxiety to his face, desperate for his son to stay out of trouble and get a better start in life than the one against which he himself rebelled. The father-son relationship is not played for subtext, but there’s still something strange going on with the patriarchal concern: propriety has Nifty pick his son over girlfriend Carrie, and the pair are repeatedly posed together like lovers. He and Lou compete over the kid almost like spouses and she ends up as both mother and whore: this is pre-code, so we are treated to a most extraordinary snake-dance outfit in the final scene, the like of which would not be seen again until Debra Paget in Das indische Grabmal (1959). Her entrance is in glorious deshabille, playing craps, and she several times gets to exercise her favourite seduction technique, which is getting naked.

Co-screenwriter March was an inspired poet and while there’s not a great deal of his lyricism on show here, the circus background is conscientiously evoked, and the emotional relationships effectively considered. Lloyd directs with efficiency and Bow and Foster raise the film with the sensitivity of their performances (Cromwell as Chris is a bit drippy, but that hardly matters). It is Bow and Foster who raise the ending to genuinely emotional heights also: we can’t be sure Chris and Lou will always be happy, but for this moment, everything works out perfectly, as Nifty lets professional pride override the personal and Lou realises that this very instant is some kind of perfect happiness. In Bow’s final shot ever she doesn’t even speak, but lets a succession of emotions play over her face as she dances, and it’s a stone-cold knockout.

Rating 8.34/10