Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Savage Clara

Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) is the latest in a family of passionate individuals.  Her grandfather, Silas Jennings (Fred Kohler) indulged in an extramarital affair on the wagon train west; her mother Ruth (Estelle Taylor) fell passionately in love with the Native American Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn).  Nasa is prone to wild outbursts and fits of temper, and the only one who seems to understand her is her best friend, the half-Native American Moonglow (Gilbert Rowland). Nasa tries to be accommodating to her father Pete (Willard Robertson), but when he decides to announce her engagement to HIS pick for her spouse, Nasa impulsively elopes with ne'er-do-well Lawrence Crosby (Monroe Owsley), causing a serious rift with her father.

Based on a novel by Tiffany Thayer (who Ben Hecht called "a fellow pornographer"), Call Her Savage (1932) is about as pre-code as you can get. We've got adultery, attempted rape, venereal disease, prostitution, drug abuse, alcoholism, homosexuality, and various states of undress (my colleague's review at Pre-code.com will give you a bit more information and images!). With all that included, it's rather frightening to realize that the producers took things OUT of the film that were just really too extreme even for a pre-code film (The article at the AFI Catalog goes into a great deal of detail outlining some of the scenes in the book that didn't make the movie.)

As portrayed by Clara Bow (the film was developed for her, according to this TCM article), Nasa is a bit of a wildcat, and the scenes where Nasa throws a temper-tantrum tend to be over-the-top.  However, when Ms. Bow is quiet, as in a scene where she sits on the floor beside her mother, or when she is trying to decide how to get money to support her child, her genuineness is quite touching. An experienced silent actress, Ms. Bow still relies on some of those tricks to get her point across.  At the same time, her skills as an actress enable her to do more with just her eyes then most actors can do with their whole bodies.
Clara Bow's life was not easy.  Her father abandoned her and her mother when Clara was very young. Her mother was mentally ill and at one point threatening her daughter with a knife as Clara lay in bed. It seemed that Hollywood might change all that, as Clara became more and more successful - nicknamed the "It Girl" because whatever "It" was, she had It (TCM article), she appeared in the first picture to win an Academy Award (Wings), and made the transition to talkies. But, the betrayal of her former secretary, who laundered much of Ms. Bow's dirty laundry in public during a court case, as well as her anxieties regarding her performances in sound films, caused her to retire. She'd recently married cowboy star Rex Bell; they would have two children and settle on a ranch in Nevada. Clara, however, became increasingly reclusive and uncommunicative; when Bell decided to run government office, Clara attempted to kill herself. Clara was briefly hospitalized for her disorders; though she and Bell never divorced, she ended up living alone in a bungalow on their property. Ms. Bow died of a heart attack at age 65, in 1965.  (See also this article from The Guardian in 2016)

Thelma Todd  as Sunny De Lane is not well served here. She has very little to do except be petulant and nasty.  As Larry Crosby's lover, she spends most of her time taunting Larry and insulting Nasa. An actress of some skill, especially in comedic roles, Call Her Savage is really a waste of her time.

It was good to again see Monroe Owsley, who we've encountered in a number of pre-code film - usually as the villain. And he certainly is playing that character here. Larry Crosby is a reprehensible human being, who takes joy out of humiliating people. His mad scene is well done, and a later encounter with Nasa is full of venom. It's rather hard though to understand why Nasa is so taken with him - he's rather despicable. But, given Nasa's predilection for doing whatever her father DOESN'T want her to do, marrying Larry is perfectly in character.
We also wish there had been a bit more of Gilbert Roland. An attractive man, he is even more admirable in this film for his willingness to tolerate Nasa's fits of pique.  Mr. Roland would go on to a successful career in film and television, working until his retirement in 1994. Though he has an equally small role in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), he uses what he has to memorable effect. He's also wonderful opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies (1950).

The New York Times, in its review of November of 1932, was not terrifically impressed with the picture. The reviewer complements Mr. Owsley and Mr. Rowland, but felt Ms. Bow overdid it a tad. We'll leave you with a scene from later in the film, where Nasa gives in to her frustrations. Our suggestion - watch the quiet moments:

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