Of all the filmed versions of Jack London's novel The Call of the Wild, the rousing, slick 1935 version starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young may be considered the most memorable. That's not due to anything that transpires in the film, however - nope, it's because Clark and Loretta's shacked up offscreen (resulting in a child whom Loretta claimed was adopted). Fox's Blu Ray edition gives this William Wellman-helmed actioner the polish it deserves - despite flaws in the movie itself, the disc comes recommended simply for restoring footage (about 10 minutes' worth) which has gone unseen since the film was originally released.
Given that the London book is narrated by a dog, it comes as no surprise that this Call of the Wild shapes the story into something a whole lot more familiar (and safe). Producer Darryl F. Zanuck tailored this rowdy tale to the manly appeal of Gable, who was then riding high from It Happened One Night. Indeed, the lovable scalawag he played in that one isn't too far from Gable's Jack Thornton, the charming gambler-prospector who goes on a search for an elusive gold strike in 1900 Yukon. As the film opens, Jack is down on his luck and needing to win the last few bucks required to go back home to Seattle. His path changes, however, with a chance encounter with his gregarious old friend, Shorty Hoolihan (Jack Oakie). Armed with Shorty's hand-drawn map of a sure-thing gold deposit located in the wilderness of northern Alaska, the two men set off with the help of Buck, an untamed Saint Bernard dog. On their way in, they come across an abandoned campsite with a beautiful, frightened woman who is near-death from fighting off wild wolves. The woman, Claire Blake (Loretta Young), tells them her presumed-missing husband was also in search of the gold strike. As they progress on their journey, Shorty goofs off, Buck proves his worth, and Jack and Claire fall for each other. All the while, the party must deal with the intrusions of the sinister Mr. Smith (Reginald Owen), a rival gold-hunter who angles to take Buck away from Jack.
The Call of the Wild counts as enjoyable, old-fashioned fluff, buoyed by the obvious chemistry between Gable and Young. Gable does well by this hearty, outdoorsy material, and Oakie is an energetic if distracting whirl of activity. Young's performance is inconsistent - she even affects a haughty accent for one scene; according to the commentary, it came from being instructed to imitate Bette Davis. If the film seems a bit listless and poky-paced (especially in the first half), it may have been the result director William Wellman's dissatisfaction with the material. As one of Hollywood's top directors of the Pre-Code period, The Call of the Wild came as proof that it took Wellman awhile to regain the zip and zing of his earlier work. It's a fun movie, but I can't help but ponder how much better it would have been had it been made in 1933 with the manlier, quasi-abusive Gable and the flirtier, more nubile Young.
If there's another thing nagging at The Call of the Wild, it's the fact that the dog doesn't get nearly enough screen time. Gable shares a real bond with Buck, who is amazing even by dog-performer standards. Had the film centered on just Jack and Buck, it would have been appreciatively more unique (not to mention closer to the source material). As it is, the story serves as pleasant, somewhat predictable action-romance fare, even if most of the characters and storyline seem incidental compared with the primal man-and-dog angle.
The Call of the Wild was the final production of 20th Century Pictures before it merged with Fox in 1935. In later reissues of the film, 20th Century Fox trimmed it down to fit on a double bill. This truncated version is the one that Fox has played on television and released on home video in the years since - until now. In addition to the restored scenes, the Blu Ray edition reinstates the 20th Century Pictures fanfare on the opening credits (nice!). Given the fact that a lot of Fox's Blu Ray catalog titles are slipshod, underwhelming re-releases of their DVDs, this is a welcome and delightful surprise.
The Blu Ray:
While the original negative wasn't used on this restoration, the 1.33:1 picture has a satisfyingly clean, grainy texture that preserves the original viewing experience. Very few instances of age and spots are seen, and the light/dark balance is generally good (a few outdoor scenes are a bit too contrasty).
The disc sports a pleasant DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mix that does its best with the limitations of '30s-era sound recording. It's a relatively clean listen with little distortion, pops or hiss. Subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French are provided as well.
Fox's DVD edition of the film had plenty of bonus stuff, yet the gossipy, enjoyable Audio Commentary from author Darwin Porter counts among the few extras that made it over to Blu. A Theatrical Trailer from one of the film's later reissues is also included.
Outdoorsy adventure with a touch of hokum, Call of the Wild ditches literary pretension for audience-pleasing escapism with Clark Gable and Loretta Young at their most iconic (and one fantastic dog in support!). Fox's Blu Ray is the original, uncut version - with a picture as crisp and invigorating as newly fallen snow. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.