Call Her Savage (1932)

Call Her Savage (1932)

Call Her Savage (1932). 92 minutes. Directed by John Francis Dillon. Starring Clara Bow (as Nasa Springer), Gilbert Roland (as Moonglow), Thelma Todd (as Sunny De Lane), Monroe Owsley (as Lawrence Crosby), Estelle Taylor (as Ruth Springer), Weldon Heyburn (as Ronasa), Willard Robertson (as Pete Springer), and Fred Kohler (as Silas Jennings).

Pre-Code movies often feature characters who use drugs on screen, but Call Her Savage feels as if it was itself created under the influence—a film verging on disaster, fueled by regrettable judgment, restlessness, and an inability to focus on any one topic for a protracted amount of time. It is the definition of a wild ride at the movies, relentlessly piling on edgy, pre-Code content and melodramatic plot points as it metamorphoses into a dozen different stories and paves the way for an outrageous finale. The film is constantly changing, constantly flabbergasting, and constantly tasteless. Above all, it is an ugly protracted joke about racial temperament that takes 92 minutes to reach its punchline. If it weren’t for the fact that it fits into a niche within its particular moment in film culture, I would say it was from outer space—but Call Her Savage’s bizarre nature originates here on earth amid the excesses and prejudices of mere mortals.

The film begins with a wagon train in the American West. A Conestoga driver named Silas Jennings spends his time pursuing women rather than keeping an eye out for natives, and when the wagon train is attacked, the travelers blame him for “bring[ing] down the wrath of God on all of [them].” The philanderer’s daughter Ruth grows up, and we see her as an adult cheating on her clueless husband Pete with the Native American Ronasa. Ruth gives birth to a daughter, Nasa, who is unaware of her heritage. A title card informs us, “For I… am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation…”

Nasa grows up well-provided for in Texas with her friend Moonglow (who is half-Native American) and is as wild as can be—too wild for her father Pete’s tastes. (“In all the time I’ve known you,” Moonglow says to Nasa, “you’re never two minutes the same.”) Pete sends her to a boarding school in Chicago to straighten her out, but she emerges in society as a debutante powder keg nicknamed “Dynamite” by the press. She immediately marries the loathsome playboy Lawrence Crosby, who soon becomes sick with what appears to be syphilis in New Orleans and attempts unsuccessfully to rape his own wife. Shortly afterwards Nasa gives birth and decides to walk the streets as a prostitute to support her baby; but when she returns home from her first night out, she finds that the building where she left the baby has burned down. Moonglow rescues her, and she resumes her life in New York City, where she has a disastrous relationship with a male escort. Finally, Nasa is summoned back to Texas where her mother lies dying—Ruth utters the name of Ronasa in her last moments. Nasa reunites with Moonglow and puts together the true story of her racial heritage. Feeling that it explains her whole life, she embraces Moonglow, whose mixed-race identity she now believes is a perfect match for her own.

Much as its protagonist is wild, Call Her Savage is a wild film, and its fierce nature can be partially located in its charged, erratic storytelling. From its onset, the movie habitually shifts gears and repeatedly exchanges one genre for another, starting off as a western, becoming at another point a high-society debutante story—then a depiction of a shoddy marriage, a hard-knocks streetwalker story, an urbane romantic comedy, and some kind of family tragedy. Call Her Savage demonstrates that it is difficult for a film to change its track so frequently and still feel cohesive, but acknowledging its lack of cohesion did not detract from the interest I took in watching the story spill all over the place. To the film’s credit, in never resting, it conveys a sense of constant action as it powers through multiple time periods, geographies, and story types. The narrative would benefit from more focus, but the filmmakers’ choices and the way that they are paced are at least intriguing.

If Call Her Savage is entertaining, then it is the kind of movie that is entertaining not in spite of but rather because of its messy nature. And one of the reasons that its all-over-the-place story has the potential to keep us amused in parts (even as it avoids following through on its commitments) is that it exhibits what we might term pre-Code overload, with all of the pros and cons that entails. Everywhere one turns in this film, racy pre-Code culture is on display. This includes a nude Bow stepping into her lacy underwear or rolling around on the floor braless, a first-night (i.e., wedding night) scene, a rape attempt, a character suffering from a sexually transmitted infection, prostitution, child death, a kept man, Clara Bow whipping men (yes, with an actual leather whip), cat fights with women ripping off hair and clothing, drinking, and gambling—to name just some of what we see. In addition, the film contains an early depiction of openly gay culture on screen; when Nasa goes to a Greenwich Village restaurant, there is a dinner show with two men dressed as French maids singing a campy song. And of course, the film makes use of the concept of miscegenation, the practice of intermarrying or interbreeding between races—Nasa’s father is really a Native American and her mother is white. (Anti-miscegenation laws existed in parts of the United States, and when the Hollywood Production Code was enforced in 1934, it abolished the depiction of mixed-race relationships on screen.) These elements combine to make Call Her Savage particularly rich in characteristic pre-Code mores.

The conceptually successful pre-Code films, however, while rich in stimulating and frequently envelope-pushing subjects and supporting details, actually approach their content more strategically. For example, Baby Face (1933) takes one edgy topic—a woman sleeping her way to the top of a corporation—and allows it to play out to its conclusion, and The Story of Temple Drake (1933) focuses on the story of a woman who is raped and what her life is like in the aftermath of the crime. In contrast, Call Her Savage floats through pre-Code cinema sampling a little bit from everything that has come before, trying it on to see if it fits, and moving on to the next possibility. The film does not embrace any one dominant pre-Code element because it does not embrace any one dominant anything. As a result, its use of edgy content, while fun, can potentially leave viewers feeling overstimulated and mentally fatigued.

Many of the pre-Code elements in Call Her Savage that I have mentioned are brash and explicit. But perhaps surprisingly for a film as bold as this one, there is at least one thing that Call Her Savage treats rather hazily and without comment. That is, the movie dances around one topic that we might think a pre-Code film would be comfortable with: sexually transmitted disease. Syphilis appears to be what Lawrence Crosby suffers from when he is bed-ridden in New Orleans, and yet the language that the characters use to describe Crosby’s illness is obtuse: the doctor merely says, “He’s very ill… He’s dying,” and later “Didn’t they tell you? His mind’s affected.” When Nasa asks Crosby himself what is wrong, he plays it cool (“Flu,” he says, “been pretty sick”). Interestingly, although direct discussion of Crosby’s sickness appears to be off limits, Call Her Savage is comfortable showing the ill and somewhat insane Crosby attack Nasa sexually in an attempt to rape her in his bedroom when he is unattended. So while the characters do not address sexual disease directly, perhaps out of fear that the topic is too sensitive, the film does not mind showing an attempted rape that Nasa is not given an opportunity to process emotionally and for which there is no consequence for Crosby, who appears to make a full recovery and later reenters society. Call Her Savage both delicately retreats from provoking us and crassly provokes us in the same scene, revealing how the film couples a certain amount of tight-lipped morality with an edgy approach to its subject matter.

In many other scenes the film presses at the boundaries of good taste without exhibiting the same urge to squeamishly pull back. For example, in one strange scene early in the film when Nasa is still living with her parents in Texas, we see the clearly mature Bow enter the family home, greet a large pet dog, and spend what feels like half a minute rolling around on the floor with the giant animal. Disjointed and unrelated to anything else going on on screen except for the general concept that Nasa is wild and prone to spontaneous displays of vim, the moment seems to be primarily an opportunity to see Bow up close without a bra on; she is practically falling out of her small shirt with breast features that are visible through the fabric.

On the one hand, we are clearly watching a young woman play with a beloved pet. On the other hand, the scene does take the great female sex symbol of 1920s cinema, partially expose her anatomy, and show her cavorting on her back and hindquarters in a fairly direct effort to titillate us. That much may be obvious, but determining how to read the image of the braless Bow mingling specifically with the enormous dog growling and biting in play is not straightforward. Is the scene a tacit attempt to animalize Bow’s sexuality, with some kind of light, vague wink given to animal-human sexual relations especially as the dog straddles, paws, and chews at her towards the end of the scene while her physique is provocatively on display? Then again,  the episode is so bizarre and completely gratuitous that we might be tempted to say it defies explanation. At the end of the scene, the film simply cuts away, and nothing about the interaction with the dog is ever mentioned in dialogue.

Perhaps the cut away is a sign that the film is again practicing some kind of restraint, and perhaps the fact that we leave the whole thing behind us without comment is a sign that the film is vested with some modicum of decorum. Any way around it, Call Her Savage’s weird sense of propriety mixed with its barely there boundaries might register as twisted and difficult to process. It is true that the movie is a puzzle in many regards. However, its periodic reluctance to commit fully to risqué content at least means that there is plenty of room for surprises—and Call Her Savage, while lacking grace and refinement, is decidedly rich in shock.

The film’s taste issues are not limited to grotesque displays such as these. The acting, and in particular the acting of Clara Bow as Nasa, plays a role in establishing Call Her Savage as a film that is in every way too much. Of course, Bow’s performance in Call Her Savage has a great deal to do with her roots in silent film. She is remembered today primarily as a silent star who acted in era-defining films such as It (1927) and Wings (1927). Whereas many silent actors found themselves in a precarious situation at the beginning of the sound era as they struggled to find a place in the new world of talking pictures, Bow was fortunate and an early sound-era success (financially, at least)—she was a top box-office draw in 1929 and 1930, critical years for actors transitioning to sound, and demonstrated repeatedly during those years that she had a steady and loyal audience. Call Her Savage was to be her penultimate project; after her next film she would retire with her husband Rex Bell to Nevada, where she would suffer a mental collapse and subsequently be institutionalized. The strain of shooting sound films was something that Bow discussed publicly, criticizing sound film for its emphasis on dialogue over action and its stiffness as well as the way that it changed her on-screen persona. “I hate talkies…  You lose a lot of your cuteness,” she told Motion Picture Classic in September of 1930.

For the most part, Bow’s performance in Call Her Savage sufficiently demonstrates the drawbacks of being a silent actress in a sound medium. That is to say, Bow never really let go of her silent acting techniques, even when she acted in sound films, and the result in Call Her Savage is largely a dramatic mismatch between the two worlds. Bow plays her scenes with extreme looks, gestures, and actions; her early scenes with Moonglow along the water in Texas, where (among other things) she has a tantrum in the dust, whips him mercilessly until he bleeds, and changes her facial expression with nearly every sentence, are good examples. To be fair, some of what she does in these scenes, such as whipping Moonglow, come from the script and direction (as does other wild behavior in the film, such as Nasa smashing a guitar over a singer’s head, repeatedly tearing at the hair and clothes of rival Sunny De Lane, throwing dishes at the patrons of a Greenwich Village restaurant, and smashing a mirror in her penthouse), but how she poses and emotes while doing these things would appear to come from the actress herself.

If Call Her Savage demonstrates how over-the-top Bow’s approach to sound performance was, the film also furnishes us with direct evidence of what an accomplished silent actress she could be. Consider the silent sequence that we see when Nasa is in New Orleans as a new mother living in a seedy tenement. A doctor has prescribed a medicine for her baby’s illness that is more expensive than she can afford. Back at her apartment, she sits at a table, holding the written prescription in one hand and counting the coins in her purse. She comes to the conclusion that she will walk the streets as a prostitute to earn the money she needs for the medicine, and we see her prepare to go out and hustle.

There is no dialogue throughout this sequence (which is intercut with scenes of dialogue showing Moonglow in his efforts to locate her), and Bow does an excellent job of conveying what her challenges are without saying a word. Her despair, her fear, and her desperation are subtle yet palpable. Part of the success of this sequence is owed to the staging and the focus on Bow sitting at the table in the apartment, but Bow’s face is so focused as she contemplates her predicament that a great deal of the credit for the sequence’s convincing nature must go to her. I found myself watching this part of the movie and wishing that it could go on longer: it was symptomatic not only of what Hollywood lost when it transitioned to sound but also of what Bow lost. More than cuteness, she lost an opportunity to communicate with and move the audience in a more primal and effective way. She may have been the “It” girl of the 1920s, but Bow was also a capable actress, and the fact that Call Her Savage could not find more moments like those in the New Orleans tenement for her to work with is a shame.

Given Bow’s latent talent and potential appeal, it is doubly unfortunate therefore that she is acting in a film that is essentially a racist joke. Bow’s Nasa is raised by Ruth and Pete Springer but is really the daughter of Ruth and Ronasa, Ruth’s Native American lover. This is obvious to us from the movie’s onset, and should be obvious to anyone who knows of Ronasa and meets Nasa—it is not difficult to surmise that they are related in some fashion due to their unusual names. Still, Nasa does not come into the full understanding of her lineage until the final scene with Moonglow, whom she has always been fond of, as they sit by the pond in Texas together at the movie’s conclusion. Experiencing a kind of epiphany, she muses aloud in the film’s final lines:

It makes clear many things I never understood before. We’re both alike. I’m half-breed, too… Moonglow, I’m glad.

With an awareness of the supposed nature of her wild roots, and apparently free to fall in love with Moonglow, whom she now feels an open affinity for, Nasa ends the movie together with him romantically.

The film’s final moments thus transform the “savage” of the title from merely “wild” to a pejorative for Native Americans, but the idea that Nasa’s racial epiphany explains her long-term behavior is bunk even by the movie’s own standards. Her wildness is not replicated by the other Native American characters that we see in close-up. Ronasa is shown to be gentle and sweet in his scene with Ruth, and Moonglow is peaceful, tolerant of Nasa’s behavior, and consistently loving and thoughtful towards her. Moonglow is also proactive in his compassion: he is the reason Nasa learns of her inheritance, and he rescues her from her hellish existence in New Orleans. Call Her Savage undermines the worth of these characters and any chance the film itself has of appearing to be deep by reducing their roles to pieces in a racist puzzle.

The movie may be reluctant to depict its male Native American lovers as wild and untamed, but elsewhere, the film labors excessively to confirm that its bigoted assumption about the generalized personality type of Native Americans is true in Nasa’s case. Call Her Savage works towards this conclusion for all of its running time through Bow’s over-the-top performance. But if Nasa is “savage” in the sense of “untamed” and “impulsive,” then the movie has also been mimicking her intemperate behavior by rushing us into one scenario after another. The film’s final assertion that Nasa is doubly “savage” is therefore not merely an unappealing way of characterizing her; Nasa’s coming to terms with her wildness in a racialized context enables the film to come to terms with its own identity—namely, with its repeated practice of shifting and overturning scenes, themes, and vignettes—in a racialized context as well. That is, as Nasa becomes aware of her identity, Call Her Savage reveals its own commitment to “savage” ferocity. The film’s fluctuations in tone and genre are ultimately not just a frenetic means of storytelling: they are also cinematically reminiscent of the very stereotypical temperament associated with Native Americans that the film so eagerly depicts.

Needless to say, the final reveal of Nasa’s racial identity is deeply unpleasant, and the fact that the film is operating at its most basic levels to support that reveal is also disagreeable. I suppose it is possible to observe that at least Call Her Savage’s cinematic approach is well-mated to its subject matter, but it is more likely that we find ourselves sitting there at the end shaking our heads in disbelief at any number of things we have seen rather than feeling prepared to congratulate the film on its artfulness. And yet even those of us who wish to forget Call Her Savage’s crude racial punchline might still be imprinted long-term with the images of Nasa throwing dishes at restaurant patrons, lacerating her best friend with a riding whip, or inexplicably rough-housing with a dog—all intriguing (albeit befuddling) moments that are hard to shake. You can call Nasa “savage” if you want to, and you can call this movie a tasteless mess, but one thing for certain is that you cannot call it boring, not by a mile.