Saturday, December 7, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: CALL HER SAVAGE (1932)

In her comeback after a year off the screen following a nervous breakdown, erstwhile It Girl Clara Bow is like a psychopathic Betty Boop. In 1932 Bow may already have seemed like a relic of another era, even though her early talkies had been popular, but the transgressive rage of her performance as Nasa Springer puts her in kinship with 21st century bad girls. With her explosive hair and sometimes-visible double chin, Bow may be little sexier to modern eyes than Mae West, but the violence of Nasa's personality is as vivid now as it must have been then. Violence is Nasa's defining trait. We first see her trying to whip a snake to death for scaring her horse into throwing her. When a young, hunky Gilbert Roland appears, she turns the whip on him. He takes it without resisting, without flinching, as the flogging goes on and on until her father appears to break it up. Nasa goes home, and in one of the film's most notorious scenes she happily wrestles her pet Great Dane. By "happily" I mean she rises from the mat visibly stimulated, if you know what I mean. Dad decides she needs refinement in a Chicago finishing school; by the time the heiress graduates she's a celebrity, nicknamed "Dynamite" by the yellow press for her habit of getting into brawls. This is so well established as a character trait that by a late point in the picture director John Francis Dillon doesn't have to show her in action. We see her showing up at a dinner party that immediately proves awkward when an ex-husband shows up as well. As the party sits down to eat, we dissolve to the aftermath; a devastated dining room, the ex and his new girl licking their wounds. Before that, we get a major action scene set in a Greenwich Village dive where singing waiters do a gay act. Eventually Nasa and her escort have to fight their way out, and Bow is plausibly brutal in the melee; she looks like she isn't necessarily pulling her punches. Throughout, "unhinged" best describes Bow's performance, though she comes across better in her character's more muted moments. There's sometimes something forced in Nasa's more manic moments, as if whatever Bow's channeling isn't easily rendered in words.  Bow's voice was criticized once she began talking on film; people may have expected a kewpie-doll, boop-a-doop simper, but got a trumpet evocative of a maturity belied by Nasa's antics. It's a pleasant voice once you get used to it, but it limits Bow's emotional range somewhat. She's at her worst when she seems to chant rather than cry, "my baby, my baby, my baby" after the little one in killed in a tenement fire during one of Nasa's down-and-out moments, while she was out tentatively whoring to make ends meet between the end of her marriage and her discovery, that very night, of her inheritance of a new fortune. Whatever you make of her voice and how she uses it, hers remains a primarily physical performance, her fury the problem the picture must solve.

The answer Call Her Savage offers is either offensively racist or deeply ironic. The script tries to have it both ways, letting Nasa draw one conclusion while leaving blatant evidence for another conclusion altogether. Either way you look at it, Nasa's wildness is explained by heredity. Before we meet Clara Bow we get a historical prelude tracing Nasa's lineage to a brutal pioneer grandfather. After fending off an Indian attack on a wagon train, he angrily finishes off a wounded fellow-pioneer who reproaches him for negligence, our man having been petting heavily with a woman in the back of a wagon. In front of everyone he grinds the victim's throat beneath his boot heel. Afterward, he's warned that God will punish his heirs if not him for his sins. His daughter, Nasa's mother, grows up to be an unhappy wife, the one ray of sunshine being her Indian friend Ronasa. By the end of the picture, Nasa has deduced that Ronasa was her father, making her a half-breed. She declares herself glad to know it, presumably because this makes permissible a union between her and Roland's character, also a half-breed and the one man who's behaved decently toward her in the entire picture. It seems also that her newly discovered heritage bestows self-knowledge on Nasa -- or does it? Does she now believe that she was wild because she had Indian blood? The audience may think the same thing, unless they remember Nasa's savage white grandfather. Heredity is clearly meant to be destiny in this picture, though it also invites us to see Nasa's troubles as the sins of the grandfather visited upon her. Is she the way she is because of her vicious grandfather, her Indian father, or does the latter compound the effect of the former? Yet Ronasa, a purely romantic figure, hardly seems the type to sire a wild child. Ultimately, Nasa's blood forms a Rorschach blot, inviting us to tell more about ourselves than her when we account for her character from the clues the movie gives us. It's the one way in which this crazy, brawling melodrama can be called subtle, and it keeps the film fascinating eighty years later.

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