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Two years ago the TCM Classic Film Festival screened The Museum of Modern Art's newly-made preservation print of the forgotten pre-Code potboiler Call Her Savage, starring Clara Bow, the world-famous "It" girl who became the lasting emblem of the sexually liberated flapper of the Roaring 20s. Ms. Bow's overall sex appeal hasn't diminished -- her vivacious spirit, teasing eyes and winning smile carry the same allure. It from 1927 is Bow's iconic role, as a shop girl with an sweet yet daringly aggressive attitude toward romance. Victor Fleming's Mantrap (1926) puts Bow in an outdoors setting, where she's equally irresistible with her hair in a mess and soaking wet. And Ms. Bow's star status gave her top billing in 1927's epic Wings, as a girl-next-door who volunteers to serve as a truck driver at the front lines.
Women were impressed by Bow's freshness and honesty. Her characters might have a naughty streak but were never openly wanton. She made sex look healthy. You could conceivably take her home to mama, provided mama had an open mind and a sense of humor.
Although her popularity didn't slip too much with the coming of talking pictures, Bow wasn't comfortable with sound and encountered personal difficulties. A nervous disposition didn't help. She took her secretary-manager to court for financial mismanagement, and became difficult on movie sets. She suffered an emotional breakdown in 1931, and was dropped by Paramount, her home studio. But after marrying cowboy star Rex Bell and taking a few months' time-out at their ranch in Arizona, Clara bounced back. Given multiple work offers, she accepted one from the Fox Film Corporation.
Call Her Savage is a potboiler about a 'fast' woman, a familiar topic among pre-Code dramas of 1932. The problems begin in the first scene. A prologue in the 1850s sets up the wholly obsolete premise: sexual misconduct is an Evil that is passed along the bloodline like a hereditary disease. A wagon train survives an Indian attack but rejects its leader, who was in a wagon having sex when he should have been keeping watch. His daughter grows up to be the unhappy Ruth Springer (Estelle Taylor). Ignored by her Texan husband Pete Springer (Willard Robertson), Ruth takes up with a man who appreciates her, the Indian Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn). Their mixed-race offspring is Nasa, a third-generation firecracker with her grandfather's sex drive and the base instincts of a wild red savage. As a teenager Nasa romps around like a wildcat on her father's ranch, roughhousing with her Great Dane, and teasing her father's foreman Moonglow (Gilbert Roland) with a 'play' punishment that involves a real whipping. She scornfully reminds Moonglow that he's a half-breed. Disgusted with Nasa's rebelliousness and busy with his new railroad company, Pete sends her away to school in Chicago.
Nasa is soon living on her father's new wealth while making a terrible name for herself as a playgirl. Shocking headlines about her misconduct induce Pete to announce her engagement to a "safe" young man, prompting Nasa to marry the wealthy wastrel Larry Crosby (Monroe Owsley). Crosby immediately ditches his new wife for his favorite girlfriend, Sunny De Lane (Thelma Todd). Left alone, Nasa goes on a spending spree until summoned to New Orleans, where Larry is reported to be dying. He instead seems to be suffering from a delirium, and tries to rape Nasa in his hospital room. When Nasa gives birth to Larry's baby she worries that the child may be afflicted with whatever was ailing Larry. Too proud to go to her father for money, Nasa lives with her baby in a cold water flat, and when the money runs out, tries to earn some by walking the streets....
"The sins of the father are visited upon their children even unto the third and fourth generation." Call Her Savage begins with some extreme pre-Code excesses, and morphs into a melodrama of sordid relationships. It's as if Clara Bow returned from her Arizona recovery, saw what the new films were doing and decided to pull out the stops. Does Jean Harlow attract a lot of attention with semi-transparent clothing? Bow spends her first scene in a revealing blouse with no bra, wrestling with Gilbert Roland and then whipping him, all the while jumping around to express her 'unbridled vitality.' Our sex education goes a step further when Bow's Nasa proceeds to wrestle on the floor with her enormous dog, a spectacle carrying sexual associations of its own.
Perhaps Bow and her filmmakers calculated this exhibitionism to wow the audience up front. For the rest of the movie our star sticks with occasional daring cleavage, and concentrates on enlivening a checklist of salacious and/or sordid events. There's a rough catfight at a fancy party between Nasa and her husband's girlfriend Sunny. The rape scene in New Orleans. The implication that Larry might have passed a venereal disease on to Nasa and the baby. The implied molestation of a young babysitter by a sloppy drunk. At one point Nasa must sell herself on the street to buy medicine for her baby, much like Louise Brooks' Lulu in Pandora's Box.
Something sensational happens on the average every three minutes. She falls in love with another millionaire named Jay (Anthony Jowitt) and they visit a notorious Greenwich Village club frequented by "artists and radicals". The entertainment is a pansy act by two prancing, mincing waiters. An excited communist jumps up and makes an impassioned speech about the proletariat. It's none other than Mischa Auer, Hollywood's go-to guy for wacky Reds. Auer looks very young!
Jay's father breaks up the relationship by inviting Larry (who has recovered) to dinner... Larry's date is Sunny, which leads to a second brawl. Other pre-Code movies stretch the limits of taste by threatening children for dramatic thrills; Warners' Three on a Match is a good example. Call Her Savage goes over the line by depicting the death of a baby, the third generation victimized by sin -- or is it the curse of the religious pioneers? With so much racy sex content on view, the film's moral message rings hollow.
Call Her Savage's dares to depict interracial relationships, which gives us a demonstration of the unenlightened racial attitudes of the day. In the prologue, Ruth's noble Native American lover is barely seen embracing her. They're a sympathetic couple, but morally condemned just the same. Gilbert Roland's Moonglow is so passive that he doesn't react when Nasa calls him a half-breed. She whips him until his face is bloodied, and he still doesn't protest. The shabby treatment of non-Anglos extends to Mexican-Americans as well. The young Nasa becomes angry because one of her father's ranch hands won't stop playing his guitar at her demand. She simply smashes the guitar over his head, because her 'hot' blood makes her rambunctious and unpredictable. 1
Call Her Savage didn't re-ignite Clara Bow's career. Director John Francis Dillon seems to have little control, and we see nothing of Bow's earlier buoyant personality. Nasa comes off as wanton and out of control, not naughty-cute or playful. Bow's performance in the teenage scenes makes little sense, and she spends the rest of the movie angry, moping or in despair. Clara looks older and heavier, especially in the face. Many silent stars made adjustments to their screen personas, but Bow's biographers give the impression that she didn't know herself well enough to make wise decisions.
Leading man Monroe Owsley is one of those handsome but unpleasant actors who that specialized in playing rich heels in tuxedos. Not quite up to the script's stronger dramatic scenes, he's nevertheless effective as a low-down SOB. Second-billed Gilbert Roland has a nothing part. Wearing heavy makeup -- especially the painted lips -- he doesn't look nearly as handsome as he does twenty years later, in middle age. The other big star is Thelma Todd, a tall & gorgeous blonde now best known for her role in the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers. Clara Bow breaks the primary rule for female stars: don't play scenes with actresses that are more attractive.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of Call Her Savage does not appear to be mastered from MoMA's restoration, but is instead from a dupe of a worn film element. Although the show is intact and of reasonable image quality, it is marred by a pattern of light scratch marks printed into the image from beginning to end. Occasional analog tape flaws crop up, suggesting that the transfer was done before digital mastering. Just the same, viewers eager to see Clara Bow in a hot-cha romp will most likely not be disappointed. Call Her Savage is a record of a bad career move, and an example showing just how trashy a pre-Code drama can get.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Call Her Savage rates:
(spoiler) The film's premise is based on ugly principles that persist today with white supremacists. Nasa is attracted to the mixed-race Moonglow but would never consider sleeping with him, even after she sells herself on the street. Then Nasa's mother confesses her sin on her deathbed. As Nasa and Moonglow are both "half-breeds", the Production Code, bigoted censors and Nasa herself are satisfied that they can have a happy future together. We try not to judge old movies that reflect outmoded attitudes, but Call Her Savage is more unpleasant that most. It can't be dismissed as twisted fun, as we get in an equally racist show like, say Thirteen Women.
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T'was Ever Thus.