Monday, August 10, 2015

Call Her Savage

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Call Her Savage (Fox, 1932) – Director: John Francis Dillon. Writers: Edwin J. Burke (s/p), Tiffany Thayer (novel). Cast: Clara Bow, Gilbert Roland, Thelma Todd, Monroe Owsley, Estelle Taylor, Weldon Heyburn, Willard Robertson, Anthony Jowitt, Fred Kohler, Russell Simpson, Margaret Livingston, Carl Stockdale, Hale Hamilton, & Dorothy Peterson. B&W, 88 minutes.

From 1927 through 1931, Clara Bow was one of the top box office draws in America. While many thought her momentum would slow down when talkies arrived, they were proven wrong when her talking films also racked up big box office grosses.

However, Clara was done in by her wild lifestyle and the negative publicity it generated. The party-hardying, scandals, and assorted rumors based on such scandals wore on the star’s fragile ego to such a point where she asked her studio, Paramount, to commit her to a sanitarium. Her career was essentially over. The next year she attempted a comeback by signing a two-picture deal with Fox. 

She made Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La (1933), which proved to be her last film, as she retired from the screen to take up ranching with husband, former cowboy star Rex Bell. When she retired she was 27 years old. She had done a lot of living since 1927. It wasn’t the failure of her two last films that brought about her retirement, for both made good money. It was the glare of the camera and the public spotlight that drove her to the shadows.

The gist of the film is that Bow’s character, Nasa “Dynamite” Springer, has an uncontrollable temper and doesn’t understand why.

To find out, the film goes back to before Nasa was born. Cut to a wagon train making its way across the prairie. Silas Jennings (Kohler), the leader of the train, and who turns out to be Nasa’s maternal grandfather, is busy fooling around with another woman in a back wagon while his wife rides on the lead wagon pretending nothing is wrong. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Indians attack, laying waste to many of the wagons while killing quite a few of the occupants. After the attack is beaten off, an old-timer (Simpson) who is on the ground dying blames Silas for bringing the attack down on them because of his adultery. Silas’s sensitive response it to place his foot on the man’s throat and push him into the ground until he is dead. Mort (Stockdale), another old-timer, scolds Silas with a Biblical curse stating that the sins of the father are visited unto their children, even three or four generations down the line. The scene closes with Silas’s daughter, Ruth, playing cowboys and Indians with her friend Pete, the young son of another couple. People nearby say the two will eventually marry.

18 years later we find Pete (Robertson) and Ruth (Taylor) are now married have settled in Rollins, Texas. Pete is an extremely busy guy, an up-and-coming businessman intent on forging a financial empire. He’s often away from home, leaving Ruth alone and to her own devices. One of those devices is Ronasa (Heyburn), a local Indian who often comes to visit Ruth, especially when Pete is away. They steal away to their favorite place, a clearing in the forest, where Ronasa breaks some bad news to Ruth. It seems his father and the tribe has arranged a marriage for him, and as the scene fades out, we know they’re going to make love one last time.

Another cut and it’s years later. We discover that Ruth had a daughter, named Nasa (Gee, I wonder where Ruth got that name from?), and we see her riding rather recklessly on her horse across the countryside. Suddenly, the horse bolts and throws her after coming across a rattlesnake. Nasa takes her bullwhip and beats the snake to death. (Let’s not even attempt to delve into the Freudian aspects of that act.) Her friend, Moonglow (Roland), a half-caste Indian, appears and laughs, causing Nasa to turn the whip on him. Moonglow takes it rather stoically, which causes Nasa to apologize and tend his wounds, bathing the wounds on his head and neck with a bandage she’s made by tearing her blouse.

Her father, passing by in a carriage, stops to see what’s going on. He asks his daughter why she was beating Moonglow. Her response? “I was practicing in case I ever get married,” she says with a smile. Dad tells Nasa he’d like to see her at home to talk about this.

Pete, now one of the richest men in Texas, has decided enough is enough and tells Nasa that he is sending her to a finishing school in Chicago. She’s overjoyed at the chance and soon becomes a regular on the social pages of the city’s newspapers, who refer to her as Nasa “Dynamite” Springer because of her raucous temper. But Dad sent his daughter to Chicago to settle down, not become the toast of the town. He shows up and throws a party for her to announce her engagement to Charles Moffett (Davis), a boring twit from an oil-rich family. It seems Dad has arranged the marriage in hopes that the Moffets will ship their oil over his railroad.

But Nasa has other ideas. She invites sometime boyfriend, playboy Lawrence Crosby (Owsley) to the party. It isn’t long, however, before Crosby’s current squeeze, Sunny DeLane (Todd) crashes the party and gets into a catfight with Nasa, who makes quick work of her. Having disposed of Sunny, Nasa now decides to elope with Larry, who proposed to her right after the fight.

On her end, the marriage isn’t quite working out as she thought. She spends her wedding night waiting for Crosby to return from wherever he went. Her only visitor has been her father, who tells her that he has had enough and never wants to have anything more to do with her. Larry eventually shows up, half in the bag, but a few hours later he receives a phone call and gets dressed once again to rejoin a “poker game” he used as his excuse for coming home late. When asked why he even bothered to get married by his bride, he tells Nasa that he only married her to get back at Sunny for stepping out on him. He also tells her that his family is filthy rich and that she can have access to a healthy allowance and full use of his charge accounts, as long as they don’t have to live together. Nasa gladly agrees, and in the following scenes we see her using Crosby’s money to adorn herself with furs, jewels, gowns, and just about every kind of extravagance she can think of, including cosmetic treatments.

But in the midst of all this high living, Nasa gets word from Crosby’s lawyer that Larry is very sick. He’s in a New Orleans hospital and is not expected to live. Running down to New Orleans to see him, she is informed by his doctor that Larry is suffering from a STD and that his mind is gone. When she enters his room, he attacks her, wanting to have sex. She fights him off, bonking him on the head with a stool. When he comes to, Larry is furious and demands she give him back his jewels. When she hands them over he throws them out the window and cuts her off financially. Apparently, this impoverishes her. Worse, she’s expecting a child and is extremely worried whether Larry passed on his illness to the child. She lives in a rundown New Orleans boardinghouse and has a son, who is healthy despite being born prematurely. Desperate for money to buy medicine for her child, she leaves her son in the care of a neighboring young girl while she turns a trick on the streets for the prescription money. Meanwhile, her babysitter has left the child unattended to take care of another errand. A lecherous drunk has followed the young girl and, in the hall, accidentally drops a match and sets the building on fire. Nasa returns home only to be told by the firemen that her baby has died of smoke inhalation.

Moonglow, who has come to New Orleans to find Nasa, tells her that her grandfather has died and left her $100,000. He tries to console her, but Nasa vows to get even with life. She divorces Larry and moves to New York to make a fresh start. Lonely, she advertises for an escort in the newspaper. Attracted to her, Jay Randall (Jowitt), the son of a millionaire mine owner, applies for the job under an assumed name and is hired. His job will be to escort Nasa to various functions. When she asks to see the less-known side of New York, Jay takes her to a Greenwich Village restaurant “so dangerous only poets and anarchists eat there.” Just before Nasa and Jay walk in we see two waiters in drag doing a little song and dance about being sailors going out on a battleship to “service” the crew. In case we don’t get it, the camera cuts to a front table where we see two very manly-looking woman sitting together. When Nasa and Jay walk in, an anarchist (the unbilled Mischa Auer) immediately recognizes Jay as the anti-labor tycoon Jay Randall. This causes the restaurant to erupt into a full-scale brawl.

Jay apologizes for the deception but Nasa tells him she knew who he was since the second day they were together. Jay then confesses his love for Nasa and proposes. However, his dad, Cyrus Randall (Hamilton), has had his prospective daughter-in-law checked out. He warns Jay about Nasa’s uncontrollable temper, but Jay persists, and brings Nasa to meet Cyrus, who, in turn, invites the couple to a dinner party where they can all get to know each other. When Jay and Nasa arrive, they discover to their surprise that Cyrus has also invited Crosby and Sunny, who is now his on-again girlfriend. It seems that Larry has made a miraculous recovery and is once again healthy. The tension grows all through the evening, erupting into the predictable brawl after Larry makes a disrespectful crack about Nasa’s dead son, and Sunny follows with a crack about Nasa herself. The brawl ends with Larry covered in food and Sunny sporting a black eye. Jay ends the engagement, calling Nasa “savage.” (Hey, we have a title!)

Alone and on what seems like a perpetual bender, Nasa receives word that her mother is dying back home in Rollins, Texas. She returns, and sits at Ruth’s bedside. Ruth dies after calling Ronasa’s name. Later, Moonglow tells Nasa that Ronasa was the son of an Indian chief. He killed himself because he realized he was in love with a beautiful white woman. Nasa suddenly realizes that the white woman Ronasa was in love with was her mother, and that she is Ronasa’s daughter. Now that she knows who she really is, Nasa vows to give up her “savage” ways; she is glad to be a half-breed, she says as she takes Moonglow’s hand. Fade out.


Those viewing Call Her Savage will agree that it is one wild film, even for the Pre-Code era. Her good friend, producer Sam Rork, developed the film especially for her. Both needed a hit – Bork was in a slump caused by the failure of his recent films and Bow was just getting out of the nuthouse.

Despite her off-screen problems, Bow was still a big box office draw. The problems, based on unsubstantiated rumors of her wild antics over the years, came to a head in 1931, when Bow sued her private secretary, Daisy DeVoe, alleging financial misappropriation. DeVoe fought back with a slew of charges, mostly concerning Bow’s sex life, such as the famous story about Bow taking on the entire USC football team during a party. The fact that DeVoe invented most of her charges against Bow mattered not to the press, who sensationalized DeVoe’s claims and half-truths as the trial continued. The result for Clara was a nervous breakdown that had her sent to a sanitarium.

When she was deemed able to return to work, she didn’t lack for offers. Reportedly, Louis B. Mayer wanted her for Red-Headed Woman before settling for Jean Harlow, and RKO offered her the lead in What Price Hollywood? (The role eventually went to Constance Bennett.) Bow decided on a two-picture deal with Fox, as she reportedly didn’t want to be tied down to a long-term contract. Fox offered her $250,000 for the two films, plus creative control, though she did have to lose 25 pounds, as the contract called for her to maintain a weight of 118 pounds.

Bow’s choice of director was John Francis Dillon, who had been around since 1914 and wasn’t known for giving his actors a hard time. As leading man she chose Gilbert Roland, a friend who had worked with her in 1925’s The Plastic Age. (Although Roland is seen in only about 15 percent of the film, he was sill given second-billing.)

The screenplay by Edwin Burke was based on a lurid novel of the same title by Tiffany Thayer, which left little to the imagination, with a storyline that featured incest, masturbation, lesbianism, and sadism. Thayer was a writer of salacious genre romances so awful they made Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Suzann look like Henry James. Dorothy Parker, reviewing Thayer’s An American Girl in the New Yorker, said, "He is 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." Thayer was on quite a roll in 1932. Besides Call Her Savage, he had two other novels made into films: Thirteen Women, by RKO in 1932, and The Illustrious Corpse, which Tiffany filmed as Strangers of the Evening.

Though Call Her Savage was released in 1932 before the Code became mandatory, producer Rork and Fox still submitted the script and rough cut to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for an opinion, although they were not bound to follow it. The PCA was not in favor of turning Thayer’s novel into a film because of its storyline. However, the studio, anticipating trouble with local censor boards, bypassed much of the novel’s controversies, toning down the narrative considerably.

But the PCA did suggest that the love scene between Nasa’s mother and Ronasa be more on the romantic, rather than the sexual, side. They also wanted the studio to tone down Crosby’s venereal disease and make his attempted rape of Nasa into more of a violent outburst. And the PCA also wanted the studio to shorten the scene where Nasa walks the streets as a prostitute to suggest her fallen circumstances were subtly implied, rather than explicitly.

What screenwriter Burke decided to leave in still made Call Her Savage one hell of a lot of fun to watch. When we first see Clara Bow, she’s traipsing around in a blouse without support of undergarments that leaves nothing to the imagination. A shopping montage follows this later where she tries on several low-cut gowns. She also whips Gilbert Roland, frolics with a huge Great Dane (An answer to the popular, and false, rumor that she did so with her own Great Dane, which caused the perpetrator of the rumor a healthy stay in jail.), parties with lots and lots of men, gets married, leaves her husband, has a child, turns to prostitution, and watches her baby die in a fire, not to mention the fact that she punches out Thelma Todd – twice. There’s enough melodrama in Call Her Savage to sustain a couple of films as she goes from one crisis to another, seemingly never topping to catch her breath. Of course, at the end she discovers what we in the audience knew early on: the reason why she’s so volatile is because of her American Indian blood. Being the child of a savage she had no choice but to be one herself. It was the same in the novel. I would have thought she got her volatility from Grandpa Jennings, who was quite a wild one himself, but the racism of the times made it more “sensible” for the “savage” blood to come from a supposed savage. This was, after all, the heyday of Social Darwinism.

Another weird touch in the movie occurs when Nasa and Randall visit the Greenwich Village bistro. The evening’s “entertainment” consists of two waiters in frilly aprons singing a bawdy song about sailors. They are seen to be clearly gay as they skip and prance to the music. Vito Russo, in his book, The Celluloid Closet, notes this is the first time a gay bar is depicted in a film, and by mid-1934, such scenes wouldn’t be shown again until the late ‘60s.

That this film rises from the muck to be not only watchable, but also entertaining is solely due to the performance of its star. I must admit that I didn’t think too much of Bow in the opening scenes cracking the whip first on the snake, and then turning it on poor Roland. She seemed more comical than serious, as if she was trying too hard to be fierce. The peek-a-boo blouse she was wearing in that scene didn’t help matters, either. However, as both she and the film settle down to a coherent narrative, her natural charisma begins to dominate the proceedings and she still radiates a star presence that makes it seem as though she had never left the screen in the first place, picking up right from where she left off.

In her scenes when confronting husband Crosby in the hospital, and later, when she returns to her flat to discover her baby had died in the fire, Bow literally becomes heart-rendering in the emotional depth of her performance. It’s something we wouldn’t normally have thought Bow capable of doing, and especially doing such in a film such as this. Part of the credit has to go to director John Francis Dillon, whose hands-off style helped Bow recover her balance as she returned to the grind of making a film. While some critics credit Dillon for his use of oblique camera angles and noirish lighting, I believe he was simply smart to take the advice of his cinematographer, Lee Garmes, who infuses the picture with the shadowy look that was the staple of the German “street films” of the 1920s, used to great effect by G.W. Pabst, for example. Finally, the script by Edwin Burke is smart enough to dispense with the parts of Thayer’s novel he knew would never pass the censor’s muster, and emphasize the sections he could get away with. Reviewer Mark Gabrish Conlan, in his blog, Movie Magg (Sept. 30, 2014), notes that anyone “who reads the American Film Institute Catalog entry on Call Her Savage will be quickly disabused of the notion that the 1930-34 era in American movies was truly ‘Pre-Code’” for “Fox went through several drafts and several writers before Will Hays’ enforcer, Col. Jason S. Joy, finally reluctantly gave his O.K.”

Though Call Me Savage was a huge hit, Bow would make only one more film, Hoop-La (1933), before retiring to her ranch with Bell to start a family. Had she continued on in films, her persona, like that of another Pre-Code dervish, Jean Harlow, would have been restyled to meet the new standards, and it is thought by many historians that she could have retained her popularity into the late ‘30s, at least. But it’s a moot point, for it was a growing fear of being in front of a sound camera that sealed Bow’s departure from Hollywood. She could not exorcise her demons, which would continue to plague her throughout the rest of her life, leading to a suicide attempt in 1944 and another stay in a sanitarium in the late ‘40s, where she underwent electroshock treatments. Though she didn’t stay long, Clara Bow still made in indelible impression as she grew from a mere flibbertigibbet to a serious actress. 


  1. Wow! What a plot, that required an actress of Clara Bow's powerful talent to produce! Who could possibly bring the role of Nasa to life today?

    This is overdue for a re-make, which may be a challenge in these dumbed-down, cookie-cutter, "politically correct" times.

    1. From Ed:

      Call Her Savage was indeed a powerful film, but you ask who could play the role today, and then answer your own question when you state that it may be a challenge "in these dumbed-down, cookie-cutter, 'politically correct' times."

      You're absolutely right, of course. The film cannot be remade today for those very reasons. Also the subject matter was somewhat racist at bottom, so today's studios wouldn't even touch it. Even if it were modified, there's plenty more wild antics in the average Lifetime made-for-TV movie than in Call Her Savage.

      The difference? One of quality. For all its wildness, Call Her Savage was a well made film. The average film today is a mess.