Lost Silent Film Featuring Clara Bow Discovered in a $20 Box of Old Reels

Bow, who also serves as inspiration for a new Taylor Swift song, was one of Hollywood’s first starlets

Clara Bow in The Pill Pounder
Clara Bow in a still from The Pill Pounder, which premiered 101 years ago San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Silent film star Clara Bow, Hollywood’s first-ever “It Girl,” made a triumphant return at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival after one of her lost movies resurfaced in a Nebraska auction. The Pill Pounder was shown on April 11—more than a century after its 1923 premiere.

The iconic flapper, who captivated audiences with her charm and electrifying presence, is making headlines this spring for several reasons, as her name also serves as the closing track title for Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department.

Filmmaker Gary Huggins stumbled across Bow’s lost movie after buying a box of 20 vintage reels at an auction in Omaha. He wanted just one reel, an old cartoon, but could only acquire it by bidding on the full package. Huggins placed a winning bid of just $20.

“It was the best $20 I’ve ever invested, for sure,” he tells Marlo Lundak of the local TV station WOWT, which first reported the find.

When he watched The Pill Pounder, Huggins recognized Bow immediately but was unfamiliar with the short film she appeared in. Upon further research, it became clear that the movie was thought to have been lost.

“It’s going to be surreal watching a film whose survival was unknown just six months ago,” Huggins told the Washington Post’s Cathy Free ahead of the film festival. “It’s such a charming little comedy that I hope audiences everywhere will get a chance to see it.”

Bow in Dancing Mothers
Clara Bow in Dancing Mothers (1926), a movie that was screened alongside The Pill Pounder at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The Pill Pounder is one of Bow’s earliest films. The plot revolves around a pharmacist who hopes to host an illicit card game in the back of his drugstore. While Bow, 17, only appears in a few scenes, her early star power is evident.

An early review of the movie in the Exhibitors Trade Review called Bow “perhaps the most promising of the young actresses,” according to the American Film Institute. Bow rose to fame a few years later when she starred in It (1927), a film about an irresistibly cool and charming shopgirl named Betty Lou. She went on to star in over 40 silent films—and about a dozen talkies—and became one of America’s first sex symbols.

Huggins sold the reel to David Stenn, a Bow expert and biographer.

“When someone said to me, ‘Would you be interested in a print of The Pill Pounder?’ I assumed they were making fun of me because I thought, ‘Would I be interested? It would be a miracle.’ And it is a miracle,” Stenn tells WOWT.

Bow was not only a film icon, but also an inspiration to young women who wanted to challenge narrow ideas of femininity that were widespread in the 1920s.

“Men wanted to have her, and women wanted to be her,” adds Stenn. “You have to imagine a time when the idea of a woman having independence and autonomy didn’t exist, and you went to the movies and saw Clara Bow. She was really the first truly liberated woman on screen.”

Clara Bow acting in the Pill Pounder
The newly discovered copy of The Pill Pounder was found in remarkably good condition. San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Huggins’ copy of The Pill Pounder is in remarkably good shape. While the movie dates to the 1920s, the newly discovered copy is a 35-millimeter print from the 1950s or 1960s, per the Guardian’s Pamela Hutchinson. Unfortunately, although the picture is clear, it is not a complete copy: It’s missing its original intertitles, and a few scenes appear to be absent.

“It would be nice to know what the titles were, but you can certainly get the gist without them,” Kathy Rose O’Regan, the festival’s senior film restorer, tells the Guardian.

A 2013 study from the Library of Congress estimates that around 70 percent of silent films have been lost, and Stenn thinks that a third of Bow’s films are missing.

As the film industry transitioned from silent films to talkies in the late 1920s, Bow felt insecure about her Brooklyn accent and “nervous stammer,” Stenn told the Washington Post. She retired from acting in the early 1930s and lived a quiet life in her later years.

Huggins’ find sheds new light on one of the star’s first pit stops on the road to celebrity.

“Now we have a wonderful opportunity to see Clara Bow in The Pill Pounder on the big screen,” Stenn told the Washington Post. “She’s a genius on the level of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and nobody who is breathing right now would have seen this film before.”

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