The film was Call Her Savage, a 1932 Fox Film (three years before the 20th Century merger) production that represented something of a comeback attempt for silent star Clara Bow, whose career had risen in the late 1920’s with the Paramount production It only to fall with the rise of the talkies, Bow’s own mental problems and a lot of sleazy rumors about her — most of them started by her former private secretary (today she’d be called a “personal assistant”) Daisy DeVoe, whom Bow sued in 1931 alleging financial misappropriation. DeVoe fought back with a series of charges mostly about Bow’s personal life, especially her sex life — the oft-repeated rumor that Bow was a nymphomaniac who took on the entire UCLA college football team in one night was one of DeVoe’s inventions — which sent Bow scurrying first into a sanitarium suffering from a nervous breakdown and then into the arms of “B” cowboy star Rex Bell, who married her in 1931. According to her Wikipedia page Bow wasn’t interested in a comeback — even though she was getting offers from MGM (who wanted her for Red-Headed Woman, which instead became Jean Harlow’s star-making film), RKO (who wanted her for What Price Hollywood?, eventually filmed with Constance Bennett) and Howard Hughes as well as Fox. She was willing to make a couple more films because she and her husband needed the money to maintain his ranch in Nevada, but she didn’t want to be tied down to a long-term contract and she apparently picked Fox because they only wanted her for two movies, this one and Hoop-La (that’s apparently the correct spelling) from 1933. I was interested in Call Her Savage, which TCM was showing as part of their Friday festivals of so-called “pre-Code” productions (the common, though inaccurate, term for the years between 1930, when the Motion Picture Production Code was first promulgated by the major studios to ward off potential government censorship of films, and 1934, when under pressure from the Roman Catholic organization called the Legion of Decency, the studios finally got ultra-serious about enforcing it) and which I’d recorded the previous week, partly as a late Clara Bow vehicle and partly because Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet said it was the first film in history to depict a Gay bar.
The initial omens weren’t promising; the credits listed Clara Bow’s name in an arc taking up half the main title and dwarfing the actual name of the film, and the story source was a novel by Tiffany Thayer, a soft-core pornographer (if he were around today he’d probably have the sort of reputation — and level of success — of Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks) whom Dorothy Parker famously dissed as “beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.” Prior to this my only direct experience of anything based on a novel by Tiffany Thayer had been the 1932 RKO film of Thirteen Women, a preposterous movie starring Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy in which Loy plays a half-caste woman out to murder, one by one, the 12 other women who snubbed her when she went to college with them. Though Loy tried her best to redeem a ridiculous role, it was the sort of part that led her to rebel against the way she was being typecast as Oriental villainesses, and after one more film in the genre (as Boris Karloff’s nymphomaniac daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu) she complained to MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and got a rare admission from him: “I was wrong about you. From now on you’re only going to be a lady.” Call Her Savage had all the earmarks of an interesting but not particularly good movie — a faded star trying at once to live down a scandalous reputation while playing a “bad girl” role that capitalized on it; a story by a racy novelist whose reputation was for writing as close to porn as could be got into mainstream print in 1932; and a studio that already had the reputation of being a place where careers went to die (like Bow, Jeanette MacDonald signed with Fox after Paramount dropped her — fortunately, after three Fox films MacDonald decamped to MGM and her sensationally successful series with Nelson Eddy!). Well, surprise! Call Her Savage turned out to be a masterpiece, one of the glittering gems of the “pre-Code” era alongside Love Me Tonight, I’m No Angel, Safe in Hell, Sensation Hunters, Three Wise Girls, Virtue and several others, one which used the relative freedom of loose Production Code enforcement to create an artistically and emotionally intense world in which people’s sexual drives are depicted as integral parts of their nature and characters fall in and out of love (or in and out of bed) with each other for reasons similar to those that obtain in the real world.
John Francis Dillon, a director I’ve never thought much of (mainly because the most prestigious film I’ve seen of his before this one is Sally, the 1929 filmization of Marilyn Miller’s hit musical, done as dully and in the same stage-bound manner of most pre-Berkeley musicals), turns in a magnificent job here, using oblique angles and surprisingly noir-ish lighting; aided by the superb cinematographer Lee Garmes, he throws together a dazzling array of different visual “looks” to bring home the point of each scene. I suspect only his early death (at age 49 in 1934, just after directing Charles Farrell and Bette Davis in The Big Shakedown, in which gangsters just put out of business by the repeal of Prohibition decide to branch out into counterfeit or watered-down pharmaceutical drugs) prevented Dillon, who’d worked himself up from Mack Sennett comedies to silent features, from remaining a major director well into the talkie era. The screenplay is by Edwin J. Burke, who managed a tough assignment — bringing a Tiffany Thayer novel to the screen and making it both cinematically coherent and agreeable to the Hays Office, enforcement arm of the Production Code (and anyone who reads the American Film Institute Catalog entry on Call Her Savage will quickly be disabused of the notion that the 1930-34 era in American movie was truly “pre-Code”! Fox went through several drafts and several writers before Will Hays’ enforcer, Col. Jason S. Joy, finally reluctantly gave his O.K., being particularly upset by a scene in which the estranged husband of Bow’s character tries to rape her while suffering from insanity associated with syphilis) — and came up with a script full of both wisecracks and surprisingly emotional situations to show Bow’s emotional range as an actress. And Bow’s emotional range as an actress is probably the biggest surprise about this movie; there are sequences in which she’s the uncontrollable flibbertigibbet she’d been in her silent films (and which drove the sound engineers on her first talkie, 1929’s The Wild Party, nuts; since she wouldn’t hold still they couldn’t get a decent recording on her voice — a problem solved by The Wild Party’s director, Dorothy Arzner, who brought a fishing pole to the set one day and ordered the technicians to tie the microphone to one end so a grip holding the other could suspend it over Bow and therefore record her voice wherever she went: Arzner thus invented the mike boom) but also scenes, especially when her character is suffering, in which she is almost Garbo-esque in her non-acting, her refusal to “milk it,” her somber, serious mien.
Call Her Savage is a multigenerational saga which begins — another surprise — in a wagon train in the Old West; the wagon train’s leader, Silas Jennings (Fred Kohler) is ignoring his wife and children for another woman — whom he’s shown necking with in another wagon, a surprisingly “modern” image of the Old West. Jennings’ daughter Ruth is playing cowboys-and-Indians when a real Indian band attacks (and the sequence is staged in a surprisingly John Ford-ish way by Dillon — this is probably what a Ford Western from 1932 would have looked like if the undeserved failure of Ford’s silent masterpiece Three Bad Men from 1926 hadn’t led him to abstain from Westerns for 13 years, until Stagecoach), and Mort (Carl Stockdale), one of the men on the wagon train who’s been boring both Jennings and the audience with his religious pronouncements, is fatally wounded. Jennings stomps on Mort’s neck, both to put him out of his misery and to shut him up about how the Bible says the sins of the father shall be visited on the children, and so on through three and even four generations — obviously the filmmakers were pulling the Cecil B. DeMille stunt of showing spectacular sinning as an example of a moral lesson in how not to behave — and from our cinema-conditioned expectations we expect the little girl Ruth to grow up to be Clara Bow. Instead Ruth grows up to be Clara Bow’s mother (and is played as an adult — quite movingly — by Estelle Taylor, wife of the star boxer Jack Dempsey), who marries up-and-coming railroad tycoon Pete Springer (Willard Robertson) but is secretly in love — and carrying on an affair — with an Indian named Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn), until the elders of his tribe force him to break it off by arranging a marriage between him and the daughter of the chief of another tribe. Ruth gives birth to a daughter she names Nasa — the character that does grow up to be Clara Bow — and giving her a piece of her Indian ex-lover’s name offers a clue about her true parentage even though that isn’t a major dramatic issue until the very end of the film. (It also makes the movie a bit risible because anyone hearing “NASA” today will think of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — Charles joked that Nasa would have cousins named Tsa and Noaa — though the pronunciation of the name in the film is “Naaah-zuh.”)
Nasa grows up to be a wildcat, a tempestuous woman with a hair-trigger temper, fiercely jealous in her relationships and so determined to mess around with whomever she wants that, in order to get her away from her half-white, half-Indian boyfriend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland, who’s billed second even though he barely has 10 minutes of screen time in this 90-minute film), her dad Pete sends her to a finishing school in Chicago. Well, Our Heroine is overjoyed to go to Chicago because she sees the Second City as ideal territory to get herself deflowered by every male she can get to hold still long enough for her — and when dad arranges a party for her to announce the engagement she’s arranged between her and Charlie Moffett (Tyrell Davis, an even more insufferable queeny twit than usually got cast in these roles!), whom he wants his daughter to marry so Moffett’s oil-rich family will agree to transport their oil on Springer’s railroads, Nasa rebels and comes to the party with an ex-boyfriend, Lawrence Crosby (Monroe Owsley), who’s got his current girlfriend Sunny DeLane (Thelma Todd) in tow. Nasa makes quick work of Sunny, beating her in a catfight at the party and eloping with Crosby — though when he spends the wedding night with Sunny and shows up at Nasa’s at 1:30 a.m. quite the worse for wear, the marriage breaks up almost as soon as it started and Crosby offers to let Nasa use his charge accounts to buy anything she wants but doesn’t want to live with her. Nasa, of course, uses Crosby’s money to the max, adorning herself with furs, jewels and just about every other extravagance she can think of (including cosmetic treatments from Elizabeth Arden, which I hadn’t realized was already a trade name in 1932 — and which also startled Charles given the studios’ general unwillingness in the classic era to use the names of real businesses and products on the ground that that would be giving them free advertising).
Then she receives word from Crosby’s attorney that he’s in a New Orleans hospital and is not expected to live, and (in the scene that so bothered Col. Joy) he makes an attempt to have sex with her in his hospital room even though he’s obviously suffering from something quite a bit more serious than flu, the illness he told her he had. When she won’t give Crosby his mercy fuck he demands his jewels back, then throws them out of the hospital window, apparently totally impoverishing her. Nasa settles in New Orleans and has a son (and given the way she’s been carrying on it’s anybody’s guess who the father is, though given her concern about whether her son is O.K. after she realizes Crosby has syphilis Charles was convinced we were supposed to assume that Crosby was the father), and settles into an SRO hotel where, desperate for $6 for medicines she needs for the baby, she turns a trick with a sleazy guy she meets on the street. While that’s going on the girl Nasa trusted to baby-sit walks off, another sleazy guy accidentally sets the hotel on fire, and by the time the firefighters put the blaze out the baby has already died from smoke inhalation. Nasa also receives word that her grandfather has just died and left her $100,000 — “a bit too late,” she says with a grim bitterness quite removed from what most people think of as Clara Bow’s acting style — with which she finances a trip to New York (though given the way she went through Crosby’s money it’s hard to avoid the idea that at her rate of spending when she’s flush, $100,000 — even in 1932 money — will last her about two weeks) and hires a man she thinks is a professional gigolo to show her around. We know the man is really rich and is looking at the job as a way to get in Nasa’s pants, but we don’t know precisely who he really is until he takes her to that first on-screen Gay bar — actually a Greenwich Village restaurant that, he explains, is “so dangerous only poets and anarchists eat there.” Just before Nasa and her guide walk in we see two waiters in drag doing an outrageous little song about being sailors going out on a battleship to “service” the crew members, and in a front table we see two very butch women sitting together. But once Nasa and her date enter he’s recognized almost immediately by a customer (an unbilled but instantly recognizable Mischa Auer) as viciously anti-labor tycoon Jay Randall.
Nasa tells Randall she’s known who he was since the second day they were together, and Randall of course is in love with her and wants to marry her — but his dad Cyrus Randall (Hale Hamilton) quickly puts a stop to that by inviting Lawrence Crosby (ya remember Lawrence Crosby? Apparently he recovered from his unmentionable disease with the treatments of the day — the mercury and arsenic compounds that were front-line drugs for syphilis until they were mercifully replaced by penicillin after World War II) and his once-again girlfriend Sunny DeLane. Nasa and Sunny have the predictable bitch fight (though this time, unlike the previous ones, Dillon cuts away from it and depicts it with sound effects alone), Randall breaks their engagement — and just then Nasa receives word that her mom is dying back home in Rollins, Texas. She returns there and mom tells Nasa on her deathbed that it was really the Indian Ronasa, not Pete Springer, who was her biological father — which revelation leads Nasa to give up her “savage” ways and settle down with fellow half-breed Moonglow (ya remember Moonglow?). After seeing a bunch of films both old (Something for the Boys, Doll Face) and new (the most recent Godzilla) that fell far short of their potentials, it was refreshing to watch a movie like Call Her Savage where everyone concerned got it right and nailed every aspect of their story they were aiming for: Dillon’s assured direction, Garmes’ deep cinematography (the “down” parts of the story in which Nasa is suffering were obviously inspired by the “street” films about urban poverty that had been the rage in Germany in the 1920’s, and Garmes copied the shadowy chiaroscuro look that in the 1930’s would have been called “the German look” and nowadays is known as film noir), Burke’s mordant script and, most important, the surprisingly nuanced and multidimensional acting of Bow combine to create one of the finest films of its era.