Clara Bow’s Last Hurrah: The Fox Talkies

Originally published in Films of the Golden Age magazine

by Raymond Valinoti, Jr.

By June 1931, Clara Bow was considered a has-been. In the previous year, uninspired films and scandals had damaged the “It” Girl’s box office potential. The strain of bad publicity and declining popularity took an emotional toll on the insecure Bow. Indeed, her doctors declared, “It would be dangerous for her to make a picture at this time…Her trouble can only be overcome by absolute rest.” Paramount, convinced that Clara was no longer profitable, terminated her contract.

Bow went into seclusion with her soon-to-be husband Rex Bell at a desert ranch on the California-Nevada behavior. Free from the pressures of film stardom, her health soon returned. Her ego was also boosted by letters from fans declaring their loyalty to her. This sentiment was expressed in one letter from Iowa, “…when you quit the films, I quit going to them.”Fans’ support notwithstanding, Bow might have settled down as a housewife (she married Rex Bell in December 1931) if not for an article in the popular film magazine Photoplay. Published in August 1931, “Where Now Clara?” declared that she had “done a complete humpty-dumpty” and like Pola Negri was waning in exile. Clara chafed at being compared to her. Maybe Negri couldn’t adopt to sound, but Bow had no problem with that. She believed her problem was that her material was weak. Surely if Clara was given superior vehicles, she could resurrect her career.Evidently, this was the feeling of most of the Hollywood studios. Despite her recent box office disappointments, Clara Bow’s name still had a certain luster that guaranteed widespread popular attention. The scandals had also evaporated from collective memory.

So every studio, with the exception of Paramount, offered her a contract.  After careful consideration, Bow decided to sign up with Fox. This studio offered her a deal for two films. She had intended to make only one movie. But Fox proposed a salary of $250,000 if she did two films. This was too good an offer to pass up during the Depression. Clara had to stay in Hollywood for a while anyway because her actor husband was committed to a ten-picture deal.

For the first time in her career, Clara Bow would have creative control over her films. She would have final approval of scenario, leading man, and director. Clara decided on a cinematic adaptation of a Tiffany Thayer novel, Call Her Savage.

Her choice of director was John Francis Dillon. Her choice of leading man was her friend Gilbert Roland, who had worked with her in The Plastic Age (1925). Film production lasted from September to late October 1932. Call Her Savage was released the following month.Call Her Savage’s scenario has, in the words of Bow’s biographer David Stenn, “enough melodrama for three movies.” As the tempestuous heiress Nasa Springer, Clara introduces herself in a spectacular way. Riding a horse at breakneck speed, she is felled by a rattlesnake. Incensed, she assails the offending snake with her riding crop. When she notices her half-breed friend Moonglow (Roland) laughing at her, she flogs him!

During the course of the movie, Nasa gets into a catfight at her coming-out party, elopes with a playboy (played by Monroe Owsley) who only marries her to spite his mistress (Thelma Todd), is nearly raped by her rotten husband, descends into poverty, becomes a prostitute to support her baby, loses her child, becomes wealthy again, falls in love with another playboy (Anthony Jowitt), falls out of love with him, and goes on an alcoholic binge. She sobers up when she learns her mother Ruth (Estelle Taylor) is dying. On her deathbed, Ruth reveals to her daughter that her real father was an American Indian named Ronasa. Now that she knows she’s a half-breed, she can marry Moonglow, the one man who truly loves her.

The public enthusiastically embraced Clara Bow’s return to the screen. According to David Stenn, when Call Her Savage opened in New York City’s Roxy, the 6,200-seat movie theater had its highest grossing week since its reopening after renovations. In other cities, box offices had to close early due to the rush for tickets. Call Her Savage was among fifty nominees chosen in a reader poll as best picture of 1932 in the May 1933 issue of Photoplay.  Reviewers generally praised Bow but had reservations about the film. The Los Angeles Times summed up the critical consensus: “…It is generally conceded that…she is still sufficiently exuberant in her technique to qualify as a natural actress…Her vitality and sincerity unite (in a) likable personality that disarms criticism and wins for her the whole-hearted approval of the masses…[but] Call Her Savage has been condemned by the more discriminating as a flashy, trashy, tasteless and unpleasant exhibit…”

There is some truth in these accusations. Made two years before the Production Code was rigidly enforced, Call Her Savage indulges in coarse titillation. The whipping scene is a prime example with its violent and sexual overtones. Even more lurid is a scene in which Clara romps with a Great Dane. The passionate way in which she grapples with the dog suggests a bestial encounter. Evidently, it is a reference to a widely circulated and false rumor that Bow had intimate relations with her own Great Dane. It is astonishing that Clara, who was appalled by this gossip, would agree to subject herself to such exploitation. Was the point of this scene to mock the notion that Bow would make love to her dog? We will never know.Call Her Savage’s resolution is also somewhat racist. It is implied that Nana Springer’s excitability is due to her American Indian blood.

The film also suggests that a half-breed like Nasa could never belong in high society. However, this concept’s offensiveness is tempered by the depiction of high society as shallow and petty.  For the most part, Clara Bow’s performance soars above the film’s trashiness. She tries too hard to appear wild in her first onscreen moments, particularly when using her whip, and consequently looks comical rather than fierce. After this unpromising start, she quickly recovers. Bow radiates a sensuous charisma that dominates the screen. Despite over a year’s absence from films, Clara still has star presence; most of the other performers cannot compete with her. Only Thelma Todd confronts Bow (literally, because they engage in the aforementioned catfight), but she cannot steal Clara’s thunder.

Bow also exhibits her remarkable thespian skills, infusing her role with depth and believability. When she expresses her emotions (“There’s nothing I want to be- except happy. And I’m not. Why?”) one feels she’s not merely acting but is actually baring her soul. In her scenes with her baby, Clara conveys such an affecting maternal tenderness that one shares her heartbreak when she loses her child. It is Bow’s acting that holds Call Her Savage together; the empathy she inspires the audience makes the film’s excesses insignificant. Clara Bow was delighted with the film. In later years, she told film historian Rudy Behlmer Call Her Savage was one of her three favorite films. (The other titles were Mantrap and It.)

Clara was reluctant, however, to make another film for Fox. Indeed when the studio finally selected another property in the summer of 1933, Clara was disappointed in it. Entitled Hoopla, it was based on a play called The Barker and had been previously filmed in 1928. Clara told Behlmer, “I don’t like remakes. I tried to get out of doing it, but no go.” Anxious to complete her contract, Bow worked on the film in the fall of 1933. Hoopla was released in November.  Hoopla’s scenario is far less convoluted than the one for Call Her Savage. In this film, Bow plays Lou, a hard-boiled cooch dancer in a carnival. Another dancer, Carrie (Minna Gombell), is furious that carnival barker Nifty Miller (Preston Foster) has dumped her. Vengeful, she offers Lou one hundred dollars to seduce Nifty’s beloved son Chris (Richard Cromwell). Soon Lou actually falls in love with Chris and regrets her scheme. The romance is mutual but Nifty, who wants Chris to pursue a respectable career, opposes his son’s marriage to Lou. But by performing to pay Chris’s way through law school, Lou proves her worth to Nifty.  Some critics complained that the scenario was trite.   The New York Times sniffed, “Except for a feeble attempt to spice the fable in the…[Mae] West manner, Hoopla is the old story of the carnival barker whose son is caught in the mesh of the shimmy dancer.”   Not everyone panned Hoopla; Variety lauded it as “a good Clara Bow picture…

It presents the star the way her fans fancy her plus a…mature performance…Miss Bow seems ripe to come back strongly with proper handling and this performance will help plenty.” Audiences evidently agreed; Hoopla performed well at the box office.

Nevertheless, Hoopla’s liabilities are obvious. The plot is cliched, even by 1933 standards but it could have worked if all the leading actors were satisfactory. Instead, Richard Cromwell and Preston Foster’s performances cripple the film. In attempting to convey naivete, Cromwell’s Chris comes off as imbecilic. One can understand why Lou’s convinced she can deceive him, but one cannot understand how she eventually falls for him.

Too refined and too young to play an earthy aging barker with a grown son, Foster’s acting is so artificial that it’s painful to watch him.Clara displays professionalism by never condescending to the material or her co-stars. If not for her vivacious performance, Hoopla would be a disaster. But as long as she’s on the screen, she compensates for Cromwell and Foster’s acting. Although Bow’s character of Lou is initially amoral, she is so charming and lively that it’s difficult to dislike her. One believes that deep down she isn’t so bad.  So although her character transformation is fairly abrupt, one can accept it, if not the object of her affection.

Bow further enhances the credibility of her transformation in a notable scene with Cromwell. They are boarding a train just after Lou has attempted to seduce Chris. As she stares at her leading man, the dreamy astonishment in her eyes reveal she is actually falling in love. One can understand from this single scene why Clara Bow was a sensation in silent films.

Fox was still interested in Bow after the film’s release. The studio considered her for a proposed musical that was eventually released in 1934 as Stand Up and Cheer! But Clara declared, “I’ve had enough…I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off.”

She also considered her emotional state too delicate to handle any more filmmaking rigors. So at the age of twenty-eight, she retired to raise a family. Clara Bow never attempted another comeback.In a sense it is regrettable that Bow decided to quit when she was still young. Although her Fox films were flawed, they revealed her as a durable actress who could hold her own with other contemporary stars like Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow. The Fox films’ popular success showed Bow had regained her box office appeal. Perhaps her career could have soared to new heights if she had the stamina to stay in films.  On the other hand, Hollywood has been notoriously unkind to older actresses, relegating them to small parts or pathetic self-parodies. Clara’s early retirement spared her from either fate. Whatever their faults, Call Her Savage and Hoopla succeed as star vehicles. By salvaging unpromising material with her allure and sincerity, Bow displays true greatness.