|Sunny De Lane
|Released by Fox Films
Directed by John Francis Dillon
Run time: 88 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- “Am I the boss of this shebang?” asks a philandering wagon train leader to a reluctant conquest. When the train is attacked, he’s blamed for it, with one grizzled man shouting, “It’s agin’ god what you’re doing here!”
- His daughter, Ruth (Estelle Taylor), has an affair with a Native American man named Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn) and becomes pregnant. Her husband, Pete (Willard Robertson) doesn’t know about it and raises the girl.
- Their grown daughter, Nasa Springer (Clara Bow), is a temperamental firebrand, whipping her friend Moonglow (Roland), a half-Native American after he laughs at her savagely killing a rattlesnake. (There is a lot going on this film, if you couldn’t already tell.) After she whips him, she fixes him up with part of her blouse and laughs, “Let me know when it gets well and I’ll whip you again!”
- “Why were you hitting him?”
“I was practicing in case I ever get married.”
- There is, honest-to-god, a 30-second scene of Cara Bow wrestling with her dog. Bow clearly isn’t wearing a bra during this and her nipples are visible through her shirt.
- The audience is treated to a very intimate scene of Bow getting put into her undergarments by a maid.
- Larry Crosby (Owsley) is a gigolo living in sin with Sunny De Lane (Todd). Larry pushes Sunny over a chair and then asks his butler to fix the chair. He accuses her of sleeping with another man, savagely noting, “experience should have taught you that the name of ‘Smith’ was always suspicious on the hotel ledger.”
- “Ah, so it’s THAT little–“
- While catfights weren’t super common at this time, the one between Clara Bow and Thelma Todd here is a pretty elaborate scrape, with spectators betting on the outcome and Bow ripping at a good chunk of Todd’s dress. “I think the girls are going to get together,” smiles one bystander before people start taking bets.
- Larry and Nasa get married, and we’re treated to Monroe Owlsey dressing in silhouette, LADIES CALM YOURSELVES
- After the two split ways for six months, Nasa is called to New Orleans to visit her sickened husband, Larry eagerly tries to rape Nasa, throwing her on a chair and against a wall, pawing her.
- Larry attributes his sickness to the flu, but the doctor tells Nasa that “it” affects his mind. Though it is never said, it’s easy to assume that Larry has syphilis, an extremely controversial topic to even touch on at this time.
- When Nasa hits the skids and is living in a tenement with her kid, she resorts to prostitution to be able to afford the life-saving medicine that the baby needs. In a tidy bit of dramatic irony, her child dies in a house fire out while she’s walking the streets.
- Rich once more and in New York, she hires a guide to the city, Jay Randall (Anthony Jowitt), the son of a wealthy stockbroker who pretends to be poor to spend time with Nasa. When she asks for his qualifications, he assures her that, “I know a couple of risque stories in French.”
- Jay tells Nasa, “You’ll never be happy until some man takes you by the scruff of the neck and beats the devil out of you!”
- Jay takes Nasa to the Village to a little cafe where “wild poets and anarchists eat.” They arrive after the audience is given a glimpse of the place, including a pair of dainty men wearing French maid outfits and singing a song about their dream of working as chambermaids on a battleship.
- At the bar, they’re confronted by a ginned-up communist (Mischa Auer) who growls that they are “grinding down the proletariat!” This is played for laughs and soon Nasa has started yet another round of throwing dishes at unsuspecting diners.
- The film’s racial politics are pretty ugly; more on that below.
Call Her Savage: Melodrama Madhouse
“Nobody is good or bad. People just do the things they’ve got to do, that’s all. Something inside makes them.”
Much as they are wont to say about Midwestern weather, if you don’t like the story happening in Call Her Savage, wait five minutes. It’ll be something completely different.
Call Her Savage is a wild, tempestuous film that is neither ever grounded in reality nor ever very dull. Clara Bow selected the project personally and it’s not hard to see why. As an escalation of the women’s picture of the early-1930s, this one threatens to blow the rest down by sheer force of a maddened power. From The Divorcee in 1930 to the twin ‘atrocities’ of Baby Face and Redheaded Women earlier in 1932, Call Her Savage ups every ante to put its protagonist through the emotional ringer, all while wailing helplessly against the united forces of the patriarchy that keeps her down.
The film begins with some preponderant multi-generational rattles, starting with a wagon train that is attacked by Native Americans due to the leader’s extramarital affairs. He’s warned that the sins of the father spread, and so his daughter, Ruth, grows old and has an extramarital affair of her own with a Native man named Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn). The result of this union is Nasa (Clara Bow), though her freewheeling and downright violent nature are abhorred by her wealthy but strict father (Willard Robertson).
We’re introduced to Nasa as she wildly rides a horse; she’s thrown off and confronted with a rattlesnake, which she merrily whips to death. Her friend “the half-breed” Moonglow arrives and laughs at the sight, so she whips him frenetically too. She relents and apologizes, “I hate to get angry, but I can’t help it! I wish I was like other girls!”
Nasa spends much of the movie decrying her temperamental nature, which is readily expressed through punching taxi drivers or jumping into catfights with romantic rivals. I’ve covered a lot of what happens to her up in the ‘Proof That It’s Pre-Code’ section because the film is a roller coaster ride of controversial riffs that never dwells very long. The movie takes us from Texas to Chicago to New Orleans to New York, going from a Western epic to a drama of a bad marriage to a woman forced onto the streets to a light romantic comedy and back to the Western to wrap things up.
Unfortunately, for as much as Fox crams into the picture, it’s not a very rewarding endeavor to watch, other than standing in awe at the gall of it all.
There are some touches of art in the movie, but almost too few. One montage of Nasa’s declining fortunes as she’s forced to live the tenement life that shows her going from taxis to streetcars and hotels to a walk-up is effective. However, the many scenes of Bow in various states of undress clearly occupied much more of the film’s consideration than much else.
The message of Call Her Savage, as Nasa so surmises in a drunken, frustrated haze at the film’s climax as she heaves a bottle through a mirror, is that men are pretty rotten. This is a common and completely understandable refrain, especially as Nasa has been beaten, cheated, and defeated by a cruel number of them.
Her most important relationship with a man is that of her father (the one who raised her, not the one from whose loins she has thus descended). She craves his approval and understanding, and this drama is felt more strongly than any of her romance with the male costars. This feeling could almost be called incestuous for all the ways she spurns him in the simple of hope of gaining his affection, though she could never say it aloud. (And they aren’t really related since he’s not her real father, so, uh, good?)
While it is true that Nasa is hot tempered and, especially in the early parts of the picture, she acts like an overgrown baby, she is also never given the benefit of the doubt by anyone. For a woman in this time, it didn’t matter how much money you had, if you didn’t fit in with conventions, you were derided and demeaned by men to make you as powerless as they wanted you to be.
This film’s view on Native Americans could be considered regressive at best. Besides the opening attack, which is relegated to almost being an act of God, the Native portrayals (all by non-Natives) are ludicrous. Ronasa is dreamy but completely dead outside. Gilbert Roland plays Moonglow with a stoicism bordering on non-existence. He is present at the beginning of Nasa’s story, appears for a few moments in the middle, and then appears only again at the end; the fact that he’s only a credible match for Nasa after she discovers she, too, is racially mixed, is an appalling reminder at how much has changed in less than a century.
(Important side note I don’t want to leave out: I do not understand how Nasa’s father never connected the dots that his daughter is the product of an affair with a man named RoNASA. Bizarre.)
Call Her Savage (and, oh boy, that title) also presupposes that much of Nasa’s wild behavior comes from her Native American lineage, which is also undeniably racist thinking. Worse, this dramatic twist hinders the character, implying that we’re watching the life of a woman whose mind is not her own, but that all the drama she goes through is actually simply us getting the payoff for her relative’s transgressions, which is not very dramatically compelling in the slightest.
One of the major problems with the film is that Clara Bow starts the thing at ’11’ and never backs down the dial. The script does her few favors, often have her only reiterating that she has no idea why she’s so hot tempered before she wanders into another physical altercation, whether that is kicking Thelma Todd in stomach or smashing a guitar over the head of some dreamy singer. Say what you will about Call Her Savage — and there is a lot you can say– but Clara Bow throws enough punches that this film cold almost be classified as an action movie.
Everything in the film is pitched at this height of melodramatic excess, from the battle, early in the film to Nasa’s spiraling descent and wild return to grace. The only time the film ever sees fit to dial it back come in the last ten minutes, is the quiet, passive final ten minutes that offers no real catharsis between daughter and father, only an (extremely racist) explanation and a fadeout. She can blame men all she wants for her troubles, but the film accuses the grandfather she never met for all of it– what’s satisfying in that?
Call Her Savage is a wild film, operatic and unhinged. It’s hard not to be underwhelmed by the drama, but also be impressed by its unbridled zaniness. It’s one of those movies that defies categorization, really, and simply must be seen to be believed.
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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links
- This review is an update, rewritten in 2021 with new images. The old review sucked. What do you want me to say?
- This would be Clara Bow’s second-to-last film before retiring. Her follow-up would be 1933’s Hoopla.
- Based on the book by Tiffany Thayer, who also wrote the book that was the basis for 1932’s Thirteen Women. You should read his Wikipedia page; I would definitely click this link and roll down to ‘Critical Reception’ if you have the time. Some other details about him:
- In the late 1930s, Thayer took over “The Fortean Society Magazine”, an organization of skeptics and anarchists, and came to dominate the group.
- You can also read his declassified FBI file that responded to his tenure the magazine at the bottom of the Wiki page, It is 170 pages long, and, yes, I read all of it. One FBI source refers to Thayer as “eccentric and uncommunicative”. At one point in the document, he openly sends letters to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI mocking them for trying to shake him down for information; Thayer ends the letter with a curt “Aloha!”
- “Doubt” (the renamed magazine) reached an estimated 17,000 members in the 1940s. The magazine would cover a wide variety of subjects, from UFOs to the Loch Ness monster. Some things I’ve seen in the magazine include skepticism about radar (“a fairy tale”) and an unfettered hatred of lie-detectors, a disbelief in Darwinism, a disgust with Einstein, stories of instantaneous combustion, extreme vaccine-skepticism, a fervent belief in astrology, and more. The Society also used a “perpetual” 13-month calendar that they pushed for the UN to adopt. (The UN did not.)
- During World War II, Thayer pushed hard for all men to become conscientious objectors, believing that the War was a cover for the governments and banks working together creating a global military dictatorship. (Page 121 from that file is the meat of it.) Thayer also worked with organizers trying to get Truman and other government leaders to be put on trial for war crimes. He also, “frequently expressed opposition to Civil Defense, going to such lengths as encouraging readers to turn on their lights in defiance to air raid sirens.”
- After the war, “he not only dismissed flying saucers as nonsense, but also dismissed the atomic bomb as a hoax.” Thayer was also accused of being against Flouridation and a believer of the Flat Earth conspiracy theory.
- TCMDB goes more into Bow’s background up to this point:
By 1932, when Call Her Savage was released, Clara Bow had climbed her way to stardom, become an icon of the Roaring ’20s, and survived the coming of sound. She had also been vilified in the press for her personal life, victimized by her secretary who aired her dirty laundry in public, and scandalized by a nervous breakdown. She was 27 years old.
Bow would make only one more film after Call Her Savage before retiring to her marriage with cowboy actor Rex Bell. Throughout the rest of her life, she suffered with mental illness, at times checking herself into various facilities. She attempted suicide in 1944 when Bell decided to run for the Senate in Nevada. Five years later, she entered yet another institution where she endured electric shock treatment. While her experiences in Hollywood likely did not cause her mental health issues, the exploitative nature of publicity and promotion undoubtedly exacerbated it. Call Her Savage was released at a key juncture in her life and career, and it is important to understand the film in that context.
Call Her Savage was developed especially for Bow by her friend, producer Sam Rork. Both Rork and Bow needed a successful film to overcome recent difficulties. The producer was experiencing a slump, while the star was recuperating from a nervous breakdown. In 1931, Bow’s secretary and close friend, Daisy De Voe, revealed her employer’s sexual exploits during a court case brought against De Voe by Bow and Bell. The press, who had begun to depict the poorly educated Bow as an inarticulate low-life, sensationalized De Voe’s claims and half-truths, which affected the star’s mental health as well as her standing in the Hollywood community. After she was able to return to work, Bow signed a two-film deal with Fox Film, and Rork persuaded Fox executive Sidney Kent to produce Call Her Savage. Bow had story approval and signed off on the first draft of the screenplay in September 1932.
- A still of Clara Bow from this film is on the cover of Mark A. Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus, one of the most detailed overviews of the pre-Code era. He expands upon the film in his update to the book, Forbidden Hollywood:
For Bow’s comeback vehicle, Fox Film submitted the Tiffany Thayer novel Call Her Savage, a book that any other studio would have dropped with singed fingers. Jason Joy wrote to Hays, “The book is about as far wrong as it is possible to be.” Besides having elements as incest, masturbation, transvestism, and venereal disease, the book was patently racist[.] […]
Lamentable though it was, the plot gave Bow what most actors crave, a role with multiple identities. In one fast-paced film, bow plays a wild teenager, an impulsive debutante, a jilted newlywed, a thrill-seeking party girl, a young mother, a prostitute, an aloof society gal, a slumming brawler, a sexy drunk, and a repentant daughter.
Jason Joy sent a letter to each state board: “Because it is a new Clara Bow that the screen is presenting… we are all very hopeful that the picture will be judged as a whole for the character study that it is, all parts of which inter-link importantly.” In Call Her Savage, Fox mounted more titillating scenes than Paramount, more production value than M-G-M, and more topicality than Warner Bros. What it forgot was taste.
- Here are the New York’s censors’ cuts from What Shocked the Censors. Sadly, no close-ups of Clara Bow getting dressed for you, but it looks like the visit to the cafe in the village got to stay in.
- Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times bemoans:
This pictorial tale hails from a novel by Tiffany Thayer and it was directed by John Francis Dillon, who is evidently no great believer in subtlety. It is scarcely an offering that can be recommended for its plausibility, but who knows but that there may be a girl somewhere like Nasa Springer. Miss Bow does quite well by the rôle of this fiery-tempered impulsive Nasa, but whether the flow of incidents makes for satisfactory entertainment is a matter of opinion.
- Variety says the movie is “sure to be big money” but also points out that Clara Bow is “story proof”. They also complain about how close the filmmakers stuck to the novel, saying “There is the material in its footage for three unified picture scenarios, and the pattern is probably the most befogged of recent releases.”
- Cliff Aliperti at Immortal Ephemera has the most positive review of the picture I’ve found:
While Call Her Savage is great fun mostly because it’s all sin and exploitation there is a performance in there as well. Nasa has her share of hard times to overcome culminating in a drunken stupor where she revisits all of the terrible things men have done to her before breaking a mirror. She stands framed by the broken glass, broken herself.
I get the feeling that if Barbara Stanwyck had done this it’d be considered a can’t miss classic. If Jean Harlow had done it it’d have more general notoriety than Red-Headed Woman (1932). But Clara Bow starred in Call Her Savage and I don’t think any actress could have done this one any better. A perfect fit.
- Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, rightly notes, “Something sensational happens on the average every three minutes.” and adds, “With so much racy sex content on view, the film’s moral message rings hollow.”
- Cal York’s Hollywood Goings-Ons headlines in Photoplay with this story, which I don’t buy at all. But it does make good copy.
- Because of the intense interest in Clara Bow, this movie got a ton of play in movie magazines, touting “Clara’s Return.” Here’s coverage of it in The New Movie Magazine, Movie Classic, and Modern Screen. (That last one, written by Faith Baldwin, asserts that Bow really does kill a snake with a whip at the start of the film.)
- Here are advertisements for the film. You can tell Fox really was hoping for a hit, but the film only earned a profit of around $17,000.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is in my list of Essential Pre-Code Films.
- Call Her Savage was a Fox Film release, which means that it is now owned by the Disney Corporation– I do find this funny at the very least. This film is available as a print-on-demand DVD over at Amazon, though sometimes people do sneak copies of it up onto YouTube…
More Pre-Code to Explore