Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
43. Call Her Savage (1932)
A Texas gal storms her way through life, brawling and boozing until her luck runs out, forcing her to learn the errors of her ways. Starring Clara Bow, Gilbert Roland, Thelma Todd, and Monroe Owsley. Screenplay by Edwin J. Burke. From the novel by Tiffany Thayer. Directed by John Francis Dillon. Distributed by Fox Film Corp.
“A cursed man’s daughter, Ruth, falls in love with Ronasa, an Indian, while her husband, Pete, is away on business. After Ronasa leaves to marry the daughter of another chief, Ruth has a baby, Nasa. She grows up to be a rambunctious woman, who is troubled by her changing, extreme moods. After seeing Nasa whip her gentle, half-breed friend Moonglow, Pete, now one of the richest men in Texas, sends her to a private academy. Nasa quickly acquires a reputation for her wild behavior. As her coming-out party approaches, Pete gives a story to the newspaper that Nasa’s engagement to a man of his choice will be announced at the party. Nasa explodes with anger and invites man-about-town Larry Crosby. Larry’s mistress, Sunny, arrives with another man and gets in a hair-pulling fight with Nasa. Larry then proposes to Nasa, who accepts, thinking that it will be a joke on her father. They marry the next afternoon. Larry comes in drunk late that night, and after Nasa, upset, questions the reason he married her, he confesses he did it to get even with Sunny.
“Nasa goes on a spending spree with Larry’s credit, until Larry’s lawyer tells her that he is dangerously ill in New Orleans and advises her to visit him. During the visit, Larry tries to rape her. She hits him over the head with a stool, knocking him out. One month later, Nasa gives birth and moves to a cheap boardinghouse. When she needs money for a prescription for the baby, she asks a neighbor’s girl to look after the child and picks up a man on the street. She purchases the prescription, but returns to find that her baby has died of smoke suffocation in a fire that started when a lecherous drunk followed the babysitter and dropped a lighted match. Moonglow, who has come with news that Nasa’s grandfather has died and left her $100,000, tries to console her, but she vows to get even with life. Nasa divorces Larry and moves New York, where she advertises for a male escort. Attracted to her, Jay Randall, the jaded son of a millionaire mine owner, applies, not telling her his real identity.
“When a brawl erupts in a Greenwich Village restaurant, after a man identifies Jay, Nasa confesses that she knew his identity the second day they met. Jay tells his father that he wants to marry Nasa, but his father warns him of her almost uncontrollable temper and challenges Jay to bring Nasa to a dinner party. To Jay’s and Nasa’s surprise, Jay’s father has invited Larry and Sunny. The dinner turns into a brawl. Jay rebukes Nasa and calls her ‘savage.’ Alone and drunk, Nasa gets violently angry at the men who have made her life miserable. When she learns that her mother is ill, she returns to Texas. Ruth dies after calling Ronasa’s name. After Moonglow tells Nasa that Ronasa was the son of an Indian chief who killed himself because he was in love with a beautiful white woman, Nasa realizes that the woman was her mother. She tells Moonglow that she is glad to be a half-breed and takes his hand.” (This summary is adapted from the one featured on TCM.)
Talk about a racy picture — and I mean that in more ways than one! First, if you’re looking for a film that exudes its obvious Pre-Codeness in every single frame, you can find none better than Call Her Savage, which features unapologetic murder, interracial adultery, attempted rape, willful prostitution, and asphyxiated kids (among other things). Second, the film knowingly deals with race in a way that now exists uncomfortably within our 21st century sensibilities. You see, to justify the depraved morality inherent in the film’s premise, which it should be noted is reportedly toned down from the novel upon which the screenplay is based, the picture presents two excuses; one is easy, one is offensive. The easy explanation involves the Biblically wrathful “sins of the father” theme that opens the picture when Nasa’s maternal grandfather murders a man in cold blood. As a result, all remaining evils are seemingly explained. The offensive justification, from where we sit today (and I’m sure to some even in 1932), is the explicit notion that Nasa’s raucous behavior is a result of her being a half-breed — and more specifically, the Indian blood that lurks in her veins. And no matter how romantic and noble the Native American characters are rendered in the film, the theme of “savagery” and the way the story uses her race is nothing short of problematic.
However, once it is accepted that this 1932 picture cannot be removed from its era (and if you want to enjoy these films, you have to accept this), the film offers many delights, chief of which is that oh-so-Pre-Code story. Now, it would be facetious to claim that the storytelling itself is worthy of praise, for there’s simply too much happening in this film — with so many story beats that transitions are awkward and sequences are choppy. It’s almost as if Call Her Savage is a buffet of Pre-Code riches and the overstimulation and plentiful selection leads to a film without sensible pacing or logical character motivations. So, in addition to the racial component, one must also overlook the telling, although, I posit that this is entirely worth it. Again, how often does one get the chance to see so much outrageous doings — catfights, dead tots, gay dancers — in a mere 92-minutes? So much of what we love about this era, and don’t get from studio films produced under the code, is present and presented with a no-holds-barred attitude, one that in itself, is audaciously Pre-Code. For this reason, Call Her Savage is seminal viewing.
Of course, another big draw for Call Her Savage is the performance of Clara Bow, who appears here in her penultimate film. Better known for her silents than her talkies, this picture was to be her big comeback, and indeed garnered Bow rave reviews and a crest of momentum that could have propelled her into a success that had been denied by prior efforts. But after one more picture, Hoop-La, which also did fairly well, Bow retired from the screen, seemingly exhausted mentally from the industry. I think of Call Her Savage, although not her final picture, as a metaphor for Bow’s persona. In the ’20s, Bow literally was the It girl, for she brought to the screen a vivacious reflection (and source model) for what was happening at the time to American femininity. By the ’30s, when sound came to town, Bow didn’t fare as well. Sure, part of it was her voice, but watching Call Her Savage, or any of her other talkies for that matter, it doesn’t appear to be a handicap. Rather, it’s the persona herself — what was once novel in the ’20s is now commonplace in the ’30s, and with Bow seemingly shellshocked by the microphone, she doesn’t make an ideal Pre-Code heroine — for whom boldness is a must.
In fact, one finds that Bow’s performance in Call Her Savage, which is generally well-cast all around (Todd and Owsley are both divine), isn’t as emotionally revealing as a Greta Garbo’s, or as nuanced as a Barbara Stanwyck’s; what one will find, however, is a dynamo persona that belies her silent roots — forced and uneven, but present and palpable. It suffices to say that this is a captivating and enigmatic performer who, despite having had better vehicles in the decade prior, benefits the final product with her unique charms. For as noted above, Nasa is a parable for Bow; once considered an All-American sex kitten, Call Her Savage seeks to explain why success in sound films had thus far been elusive: she’s not just All-American — she’s exotic, like a Native American (as it pertains to the ’32 aesthetic) — too wild and untamable, even for Pre-Codes. She’s not of a “normal” breed, and that’s why — even when Bow gives a solid performance, as she does here — she’s still overtaken by the sheer intrepidness of the material, which has Nasa admitting, and also, Bow, in the final few seconds of the film, that she’s “glad” to be different. Ultimately, both character and actress understand that they can’t conform to what society expects; it’s a very Pre-Code theme, making this subliminally and explicitly, an Essential.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!