Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Christ, I don’t think you could even talk about half of the things that happen in this movie five years later.
- Sex, drugs, murder, all that jazz.
- A baby dies. Yes.
- Prostitution and attempted rape. Again.
- Homosexuals! Really! Though saying their portrayal is progressive in any way would be a lie.
- Also, not very progressively racially. But we’ll get to that.
If you haven’t gotten a taste of Pre-Code Hollywood yet, Call Her Savage may not be a bad place to start. It’s not a particularly good film, but it has more plots in it per capita than any movie released today. If you think that ‘plots’ crack is an overestimation, here’s a quick checklist for you:
Spoiled rich girl going wild on the town? Check. Bad marriage ending with the man going mad and the woman poor and pregnant? Check. Woman reascends to glitz and glamor and gets involved in a romantic rivalry with another man who she thinks is a tour guide but turns out to also be rich? Check. Woman eventually driven mad but turns out okay when she realizes she’s half Indian? …okay, that may not be a cliche.
Call Her Savage stars Clara Bow in a fairly rare talkie for her. She was a huge star in the silent era, encapsulating the epitome of sex appeal in the amicable comedy It and tearing a hole through the 1920’s conceptions of female sexuality.
And there’s not a whole lot of Clara Bow you don’t see in this movie, either emotionally or physically. Bow herself was a wild woman, carrying on public escapades and illicit affairs that today’s divas could only dream about.
For all the controversy around her, though, Bow was a silent film actress, and as such, when we get to a talkie like today’s feature there’s an obvious theatrical flair to the proceedings. Norma Desmond said they had faces, and that’s what Bow’s got. And she does an awful lot with it.
But though Bow carries the most of Call Her Savage, she somehow doesn’t register as the most notable thing about it. Going across the country, upstairs, downstairs, in corners that even Hollywood at its riskiest seemed to shy away from, the film is probably one of the more vibrant time capsules I’ve seen of its era.
Let’s take the movie’s opening, seemingly mired in exposition as we flashback to the grandfather of Clara Bow’s character takes his young family on a journey through the Old West. He’s gallivanting with with a prostitute a few wagons back when Indians attack and kill a number of people. They warn him that the sins of the father will trickle down along the generations– this unabashedly wrathful God stuff played big in the filmography of D.W. Griffith and gets plenty of play in the 30’s as well. This became less common after Gone With the Wind turned such introductions into a more literary pursuit.
These strains of religious justification are a window dressing to condemn the sordidness that the movie delights in exploiting. Yeah, I can hardly believe the hypocrisy myself.
That brings us to another ‘boy, this was sure made in the 1930’s’ piece of the film which involves Bow’s character’s mother: she fell in love with an Indian and ended up having his baby. So when I tell you the title is Call Her Savage, it isn’t just because she’s a crazy fool. She’s half Indian.
The political incorrectness doesn’t quite end there. The 1930’s were a long time ago, and while we live in, at best, a semi-post-racial society now, things were infinitely more codified in the 30’s. Bow’s half-Indian past gives the film just as much of an excuse to pull out the stops as it’s God-fearing opening, as well as neatly setting up the end of the film; that cute Indian stable hand will come in handy after Bow learns a thing or two about humility.
And it takes a bit. The movie is like a rollercoaster. Bow goes from highs to lows with ridiculous haste, with scenic detours to the madhouse and even an anarchist’s bar, which brings one of the first portrayal of homosexuals onto the movie screens. I won’t say much about it other than it’s not very flattering.
The movie itself isn’t very flattering, either, as it clunks between plot points like someone had simply spliced a series of shorts together. It used to be when you went to the movies, you paid your ten cents and sat in the theater as they ran films, shorts and cartoons in a continuous loop. You can walk into Call Her Savage at any point and leave five minutes later with your own nice little story.
This isn’t always a bad thing, but the performances are too clunky to sustain what little momentum was supposed to be there. Bow has a great smile, but she always plays to the cheap seats with her performance.
I don’t know if Call Her Savage was cathartic for Bow or not. She complained about the part, saying that she was sick of playing prostitutes and other flimsy parts, though anyone reading her own biography may notice a similarity here and there. Then again, with this movie, there’s so much, it may just seem too familiar to anyone who watches it.