Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Life Among the Savages

Somewhere toward the end of Call Her Savage (1932, directed by John Francis Dillon), Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) and her beau of the moment go "slumming" in The Village. Their destination is a bar full of anarchists and degenerates, but that's just movie speak. It's a gay bar and it's not even really coded. Mind you, the movie had already thrown so many fastballs at the audience that it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it was. This is a movie about all kinds of love, so the "love that dare not speak its name" seems all of a piece. Pre-code movies are kind of awesome this way. There's a lot to digest in the subtexts of this movie. Hell, there's a lot to digest in the not so sub text of this movie. It's at an intersection of sex, gender, race, and class that seems to have permeated the zeitgeist of 1932.

Nasa Springer is the heroine of the movie, an untamed spitfire of a woman who rebels against her father and pursues her own wilder impulses down the rabbit hole. Pining for her is Moonglow, a halfbreed ranch hand on her father's spread. Her father is concerned with propriety, and after a scene in which Nasa takes a whip to Moonglow, he's had enough. He ships her off to a finishing school in Chicago. Nasa takes this pretty well, actually, and soon tears through Chicago society, earning the nickname "Dynamite." Upon her graduation, her father arranges a marriage for her, but she rebels and marries the shiftless Larry Crosby instead, who in turn marries Nasa as a means of needling his girlfriend. Nasa is then stuck with a marriage that has no use for her. She spends her husband's money, but she doesn't love him and spends no time with him. She does, however, bear him a child. When the couple finally splits, Nasa takes the child with her into a life of poverty. Unfortunately, the child meets with a tragic demise. Immediately afterward, Nasa inherits her grandfather's estate and flies to New York, where she meets Jay Randall, an heir to a mining fortune. Randall's father doesn't approve of Nasa and arranges a dinner party designed to humiliate and provoke her. He gets his wish. So she returns home to see her mother, who is dying. Her mother confesses the secret of Nasa's true parentage--Nasa's father is the son of an Indian chief with whom her mother had an affair. This information floors her, and gives her permission to let Moonglow, who has been ever faithful, into her life.

The racial politics in this movie are pretty retrograde. There's a discomfort over the very idea of miscegenation hanging over the movie--there were still laws against miscegenation on the books when this was made--and the way the movie seems to withhold its permission for Nasa and Moonglow to have any kind of relationship until it evens the social standing of its characters is pretty off-putting to a 21st Century point of view. It's not consistent, either. The movie blames Nasa's wildness on being a halfbreed, but Moonglow--also a half-breed--is the most stable, most stoic, most upstanding character in the movie. There's a tidy dichotomy on display in this depiction between the two halves of the phrase "noble savage."

But for all that, the movie is actually fairly progressive when it comes to the lot of women. This is a movie that spends virtually all of its running time railing against patriarchal power structures. Nasa leads a self-directed life, for the most part, and defeats the machinations of the men she encounters one after the other. The Hayes code, when it came, exacted retribution on women for not knowing their place in movies like this one. The code went out of its way to slut-shame any woman who had any kind of libido.

Call Her Savage is salacious, of course, whether it's the back-of-the-Conostoga tryst that sets things in motion at the beginning of the movie or the implied drug addiction of Nasa's husband or the various infidelities or the prostitution subplot late in the movie or the visit to the gay bar I already mentioned or the whipping scene near the beginning. This must have given local censorship boards fits. In spite of all of this, there's a certain squareness to it all, too. Nasa longs for a "normal" life throughout and Nasa's baby has the same kind of effect on his hard-boiled mother as the baby in say Torch Singer has on Claudette Colbert's hard-boiled mother. What is it that they say about a pram in the hallway? Well, we get that here. It tends to undercut the feminist liberation at the heart of the film--deliberately, I think, as a sop to the blue-noses.

Setting aside all of that, it's worth discussing the cinematic merits here. This is a movie that's very much in the mythopoetic Fox house style developed by Murnau and Borzage, though at the outset, this is merged with John Ford's silent westerns. The movie starts off with a two-tiered exposition that goes back two generations to provide a certain amount of religious cover for the film's more sensational elements, and it demarcates the exposition with the body of the film with what is tantamount to a title card shaped like the ten commandments telling the audience that the curse laid upon the Springer family by god will persist unto the fourth generation. Or something like that. It's a moment worthy of De Mille at his most disingenuous. Of course, the movie blames Nasa's interracial parentage, too, so it's covering all of its bases. Anyway. The opening of the film is an Indian attack on a wagon train, and its inclusion really gets the wheels of my mind turning trying to account for the film's timeline, given that the rest of the action takes place in 1932 or thereabout. It's best to consider this as taking place in "filmspace" rather than in any naturalistic universe, because it doesn't make much sense otherwise. The way this is lit is very much in the mode of Borzage, though, and there are shots in the film where, if you were to substitute Janet Gaynor for Clara Bow, this would be indistinguishable from something like Street Angel. Like the films Murnau and Borzage did for Fox, this is a picaresque, a film composed of vignettes that don't necessarily follow from previous vignettes. It swings wildly from hard-boiled to sentimental and back again, sometimes in the span of mere minutes. The picaresque is out of fashion these days, but it has some advantages, not least of which is the opportunity it gives for its actors to stretch their ranges. Clara Bow takes full advantage of this.

Clara Bow was coming out of a difficult period in her life when she made this movie. Beset by legal troubles and the perception that she couldn't make it in talkies, she was winding down her career in film. This was her second to last movie. I think she must have had a personal investment in Call Her Savage, because she uses it as a kind of tour de force. It's proof, if anyone needed it, that she would have been a perfectly good sound actress, and her strengths--mostly learned in silents--certainly translated. The camera is pretty much fixed on her face for long stretches of the film and it's totally in love with it. You can still see the "It" girl staring off the screen, but you can see something more, too. You can see the highs and lows of both the movie and of Bow's own life. There's a world-weariness and vulnerability to go with the wild-child flapper. It's a striking performance. She certainly blows Thelma Todd and Gilbert Roland off the screen, and every other actor too.

Call Her Savage is stupidly unavailable on home video, in spite of the various Pre-Code collections that have come onto the market in the last few years. This is doubly vexing because there's a perfectly good restored print of the film in the vaults of the Museum of Modern Art. Unfortunately, Fox doesn't give a shit about their old films. One wishes that someone like Criterion would come along and license this or that Fox would follow Warner and Columbia's leads and open up a DVD-R archive service. But, as I say, they don't really care.

I saw this at the Ragtag Cinemacafe in Columbia, MO, as part of their current "Forbidden Hollywood" series. I cannot tell you how much I love my local arthouse.


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Alfred Welles said...

Fascinating review. I don't know when I'm going to get to see this film, but I've added it to my list now. You've gained a follower.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Alfred. Welcome. Interesting choice of names you have there...