CLARA ON THE COUCH: CONVENTION, CAMP, AND CONFUSION IN "CALL HER SAVAGE"
An Analysis by Jeffrey E. Ford
When Clara Bow left Paramount Studios in 1931 there were a great many in Hollywood who probably determined that her career in movies was through. Certainly, based on the box-office performance of her last Paramount films, there was no reason to doubt this assumption. However, less than a year after her departure from films in the wake of scandal, she was back in Hollywood as one of its highest paid stars. The turnaround was remarkable. For the first time in her career, Clara would have complete approval of project, script, co-stars, and director.1 It was more control than the star had ever exercised, even at the peak of her fame. And even if it’s hard to determine how much of this control Clara actually weaved within the bizarre conglomeration that was her highly anticipated comeback film, Call Her Savage (1932), the end result is certainly one of the most striking, interesting, and intensely personal of her entire career.Today, with the space of nearly 70 years between us and the film, it’s possible to examine Call Her Savage from any number of prospectives: as Star Vehicle, as melodrama, as pre-code exploitation, and almost certainly (again by today’s standards), as Camp masterpiece. Looking at the film from any one of these angles might be interesting, but none would be entirely helpful when trying to place the film within the context of Clara and her career. Moreover, it can certainly be argued that much of the film can be viewed as something of an autobiographical essay, in which case all its Camp and extreme melodrama take on a far more intriguing – and perhaps even darker level. The more one compares the facts of Clara’s life to the episodes she endures within Call Her Savage, the more one is aware of an attitude and expression of ideas quite unlike any that had been put forth in Clara’s previous films. (While 1929’s The Wild Party certainly expressed ideas, in that case the ideas were clearly the director’s and not the star’s.) There are moments throughout Call Her Savage where it seems as though Clara is sifting through the various aspects of her life to that point, presenting them point blank to the audience, and compelling them to look at them differently from how they might have done within the pages of "The Coast Reporter". Was Clara using the film as a vehicle to present her case to the public; perhaps even have them reassess her past behavior and bring them back onto her side two years after they had deserted her en-masse? After years of silence (literally and figuratively), was she finally speaking in her own voice? Examination of the film provides some intriguing evidence.2
Call Her Savage so abounds in lurid details that seem to have been ripped from headlines regarding Clara that one fact must be made clear before one can progress any further: Fox Films bought the Tiffany Thayer novel before Clara came to the studio and was persuaded to make the film. Therefore, an examination of the novel itself is in order to determine what changes where made, and how they effected the resulting film in relation to Clara and her character.3 Thayer’s book is trashy and somewhat racist (accusations that are continually attached to the film as well), but it’s easy to see why Fox was attracted to the novel as a Clara project. Her heroine, Nasa Springer, seems to have been written with a keen eye for exploiting every sensational rumor and innuendo that could be attached to a female celebrity. It’s hard to believe Clara’s Hollywood exploits weren’t used as much of the inspiration for Nasa’s adventures, and as if to make the association even clearer, the film shifts the novel’s main period of action from the 1917-18 period, to the 1931-32 period when the film was made. This change not only broadens the degrees to which its heroine can misbehave, it places her indiscretions within the context of entirely different moral climate. It also helps to underline the Clara/Nasa correlation. Anyone with the price of a newspaper in 1932 must have been able to pick up on the similarities, though film criticism being what is was at the time, no reviewer saw fit to mention it. It appears that Fox was more than willing to let the audience provide the necessary connections, and based on the film’s healthy box-office performance, it would appear that many did. Indeed, many first time viewers are surprised to find that the film dawdles over ten minutes on plot preliminaries before Clara even makes an appearance on screen. One’s initial thought is that it’s a deliberate buildup on the part of the director and the studio; after nearly two years off the screen and the huge publicity buildup, they are delaying Clara’s entrance to make it seem even more spectacular. However, an examination of the novel reveals that what occurs during the first ten minutes of the film takes up nearly 110 pages in the novel – fully one third of the entire book. The real surprise is that the studio even bothered including these indifferent and somewhat tedious scenes.4 They hold very little relation to Clara’s adventures once the plot gets going, except to provide the kind of character background that might have been covered in a few lines of off-hand dialogue somewhere else in the film. It seems as though whatever interest Fox Films had in the Thayer novel wasn’t in straight adaptation, but in how the material might be reshaped to suit the needs of their new star. And as it always goes in the land of Hollywood, they were not above making changes which might help them in their sensationalist goals.
Even given the changes made from the novel, the film manages to cram an incredible amount of narrative incident into its 88 minute running time. If director John Francis Dillon can’t manage anything else, he does give the film a dizzying pace and a glimmer of visual style (helped enormously by Lee Garmes photography). This is the type of film that moves too fast to be boring; even its worst scenes are on and off so quickly that you don’t have the opportunity to comprehend the awfulness, because the film has already moved on to something else before the mind can register it. But no matter how brisk the pace, Dillon can’t make the script anything more than a ten volume melodrama crammed into eight-and-a-half reels. No director could make the overheated mess that passes as the film’s plot believable for an instant, and to his credit or blame, Dillon doesn’t even bother to try. At one moment the film will play like a comedy, and two minutes later it will play like a full fledged tear-jerker. There’s no rhyme or reason anywhere in sight. The film is nothing more than a collection of scenes; a series of outlandish episodes played in the manner to give them the maximum exploitative impact. Clara Bow was exploited endlessly by Paramount, but they always managed to keep the exploitation behind the scenes and out of the public’s view. In Call Her Savage, Fox put all the exploitation in front of the camera, the better to play up to the star’s less than stellar reputation. If an audience wanted to see Clara as a "wild child" unchained, they would happily provide the vehicle.The film’s exploitative goals are clearly illustrated in Clara’s first scene.She rides her horse maniacally across the screen as if she’s being chased by someone. There’s no one following her. This sequence is immediately suppose to establish her as the "wild child" character she’s suppose to be playing, but with no director control and the film’s fever pitch, the audience can only make the easy assumption that this is the "real" Clara Bow. This is "the Clara Bow" that has bulldozed her way across Hollywood, creating scandal after scandal, for the last seven years.5 After being knocked from her horse by a rattlesnake (in a series of laughably phony and tricked up shots), she does what any wild, uncontrolled "savage" would do: she attacks the snake with her riding crop, eliciting laughter from both Gilbert Roland and the audience.6 Enraged, Clara marches over to Roland, pulls him off his horse, and begins whipping him. Director Dillon holds a tight shot on Clara’s face for several seconds before the lashes start to fly, and the battery of enraged facial expressions that pass across Clara’s face in those few seconds only add to the hilarity when she finally starts the whipping. It’s almost as though Clara doesn’t realize she’s not acting in silent films anymore; she plays the scene exactly the same way she would have played it in 1926. But here, the reaction comes across as more idiotic than intense. This extends to many of Clara’s other scenes as well; she kicks, stomps, waves her hands – all sorts of gestures that were charming in her silent films, but here only appear indulgent. It’s almost as if the director was afraid to tell the star that she was going too far. For the only time in her career, Clara is an actress completely out of control.7 To make matters worse – almost as if to counterbalance Clara’s over-acting -- Roland stands there stoically and takes his beating (as any man would) just long enough for Clara’s father to drive up to the scene with an amazed spectator. It’s ludicrous on top of ludicrous. Still, in spite of the laughter the sequence inspires today, it’s nothing less than shocking. Newcomers to Hollywood’s pre-code films inevitably find it startling that anything so outrageous and kinky could have slipped past the film censors.8 Even more startling is this fact: there’s no such sequence or its equivalent in the Thayer novel. It seems to have been put into the film solely for its "shock" value; Clara was the type of star that always demanded some kind of spectacular entrance, so the scriptwriters provided one. Even today, it manages to drop a few jaws. Clara’s most outlandish opening scene is also one of the most outlandish opening scenes in Hollywood history. No matter how it’s taken – seriously or comically – it is unforgettable. If Call Her Savage can’t come up with any scenes that manage to surpass its opening in shock value, it has several that are at least its equal (Clara’s cat-fight confrontations with Thelma Todd for example)9 , and they clearly stamp it as a work of high intensity exploitation, with one eye glued to the headlines, and the other squarely fixed on the box-office.
Shock value ignored, it’s the film’s quieter portions that provide far more interest for the knowledgeable spectator. For it’s in these sequences where the film seems to take on it’s life as a platform for Clara and a vehicle for her to voice her views and opinions. Just a random sampling of some of the film’s dialogue reveals bits that could have come straight from a Photoplay interview with the star. For instance:
"Nobody is good or bad. People are what they have
to be, that’s all. Something inside makes them. Nobody
ever likes any of the things I do – but I’ve got to do them."
"There’s nothing I want to be – except happy. And I’m
And it extends to more than just the dialogue. Various incidents within the film have Clara acting out bits that bear disturbing similarities to real-life incidents connected with her. The most disturbing of these occur during the film’s New Orleans sequences. Nasa is stranded with her sick newborn child; she is practically penniless and needs money for medicine. Determined to provide for her child, she takes to the streets and sells herself. Was Clara acting out the dire circumstances that were forced upon her own mother? Subconsciously, was she even able to admit that this was the type of action her mother had taken. It’s hard not to believe in the possibility. It’s also during these sequences that the tone of Clara’s performance shifts; all of her earlier histrionics disappear and she’s suddenly performing in an amazingly low-key manner. The surprising thing is how the earlier overheated portions of Clara’s performance actually seem to help these parts be even more moving and gut-wrenching than may have been intended. When Nasa is fondling her child and interacting with him, Clara does some of the most touching work she ever achieved on film. It’s in these sequences that you can see the Clara Bow who was willing to give up everything to have a home and family, and have a better life than she was ever allowed. Likewise, her harrowing screams upon learning about the death of her child should be enough to convince anyone that this was a woman who knew sorrow. When she’s later told that she has inherited her grandfather’s fortune and makes the passionate vow to "get even with life," you can see the Clara who came into the making of the film. She was willing to chuck Hollywood for good and all, but she was going to go out on top. She was going to get even with the system that had caused her so much heartache. Everything had to be done on her own terms.
Once one has begun to examine Call Her Savage as Clara’s own personal statement, it’s intriguing to play the inevitable guessing games one can regarding its characters and events. The casting of Gilbert Roland seemed inevitable at the time; Clara had to approve her co-star, the two were close friends, and Clara probably felt the presence of a friend on the set would help her with her constant doubts and panic attacks in front of the camera. On screen, the two have an intimacy and warmth that’s pleasant and affecting. In the film, the character played by Roland – the half-breed Moonglow – ends up being a kind of savior and protector to Nasa. Could this have been the way Clara was envisioning Rex Bell at this point in her life? Remember, it was Bell who had stood by her in the midst of the DeVoe trial and the termination of her Paramount contract. It was Bell who gave her the strength and courage to return to Hollywood after the disgrace of her previous departure. As such, would it be surprising if Clara came to view him as the knight who came riding to her rescue. That’s exactly what the character of Moonglow does in the film; he’s Nasa’s only true friend, and he’s there at every pivotal crisis when she needs support. And by the end of the film, it’s clear after many complications and failed romances, Nasa will ride off into the sunset with Moonglow. It’s a perfect ending; not only is Moonglow another half-breed like herself, he’s also her true soul-mate. Likewise, Nasa’s loving and supportive relationship with her mother (Estelle Taylor) is exactly the type of relationship Clara desired with her own, but was denied due to Sarah Bow’s mental illness. Nasa’s mother is also there for her – scandal regardless – perhaps due to the fact she carries the secret of Nasa’s true heritage, which she doesn’t even reveal to Nasa until the moment of her death.
Moving forward, if the viewer finds these correlation’s with the film’s amiable characters, what can we say in regard to the villains of the piece: Nasa’s father and the syphilis ravaged scoundrel Larry Crosby? Paramount, B.P. Schulberg, and Harry Richman emerge as the most likely candidates, but here, no clear cut delineation can be found to support any of them. Certainly, when Nasa’s father is scolding her, one is inclined to see the figure of Schulberg, imploring his out of control star to "be good." "I’ve tried everything in my power to make you a decent young woman," he chastises. "I seem to have failed." (This last comment receives an enthusiastic nod from Clara.) He’s a man incapable of any emotional attachment, and it’s certainly not hard to believe that’s how Clara came to view her tyrannical employer. When Nasa pleads for her father’s acceptance after marrying Crosby, she’s the one who seems vulnerable and anxious for acceptance. "I want to be good…" she begs. "And I’ll need help. Lot’s of help." But rather than love his daughter for who she is, the father – interested only in outward appearances – walks out on her with a curt: "If you need any money, my lawyers will provide it. I never want to see you again." Likewise, as soon as Clara was no longer a lucrative cash cow for Paramount, Schulberg cut her off and canceled her contract without even a thought for the millions she had brought in for the studio in the past. All it took was one huge scandal (the DeVoe affair) and the poor box office performance of her last Paramount films (No Limit and Kick In, both 1931), and she was tossed out. As for Harry Richman,10 one need only know his boastful and shallow character (he basically went to Hollywood just to bed Clara, by his own admission) to see the many similarities with Larry Crosby, who marries Nasa to make his mistress jealous, leaves her on the wedding night to be with his mistress, and later attempts to rape her. One of the most dissatisfying aspects of the film is that Nasa never exacts any kind of comeuppance from Crosby after the various ways he has mistreated her. In the film, she’s content to bean him over the head in a hotel, or leave him wearing the salad at a swank dinner party. It’s good for a laugh, but it rings awfully hollow.
Nasa is left with nothing but her memories; in effect, so was Clara. Everything she has ever experienced: the joys and the sorrows, is constantly replayed in her mind. When Call Her Savage reaches this point – almost near the end – it suddenly manages to pull an authentically great scene out of its jumbled mass.11 After being labeled a "savage" by her latest love, Nasa is alone in her hotel trapped in a state of drunken self-pity. The camera dwells on Clara almost lovingly as she sits there disheveled; she is in a pitiable way, and still she is beautiful. Her hair is unkempt; her dress strap is continually falling from her shoulder. She staggers over to the picture of her last lover and gleefully tosses it to the side as though it were just so much garbage. Visions and bits of dialogue run through her mind. The music behind her grows more and more intense. Clara stares at her image in the mirror as various images flash in front of her. Finally, she can take the barrage no further, and smashes the mirror (in a strikingly done shot where the mirror has literally become the movie screen). But there is no escape. There’s only further retreat into a solitary world of loneliness and despair. She’s on the verge of giving up, but finds strength in a telegram that arrives. As has been in her life, the news isn’t welcome. But it has come at the right time. Nasa is ready to face the truth about herself. Perhaps, when Clara received the script for Call Her Savage, she was ready to face the truth too. In honesty there is truth, and in truth there is greatness. And it’s that honesty that raises this penultimate scene – and almost the entire film – out of the mire of exploitation, to something approaching true greatness.
Nasa returns to her dying mother’s bedside, and learns the reason for her "savage" nature. She – like Moonglow – is half-breed. That explains Nasa, but what does Call Her Savage tell us about Clara? Did she see herself as a misunderstood "wild child" who only needed love and a good man to make everything in her life right? Hopelessly naive maybe, but much of the film causes one to think that’s what Clara believed.12 She never excused herself for past indiscretions, but she did believe it was unfair to be judged by them. And she also believed in the possibility of redemption. She believed there would come a time when the past would finally be forgotten, and she would be judged as a human being and not as a "Star." Sadly, for Clara, it never really happened. Yes, she did finally leave Hollywood on her own terms; yes, she finally had the home and family that she always desired. But true happiness was always to remain stubbornly out of her reach. People would never forget the "wild child" and the exuberant years of the 1920’s that she had so come to symbolize. And in truth, maybe there was a good reason for it. Look at any still or frame from Clara’s 1920’s films and then compare them to any still or frame from Call Her Savage. You see the same Clara Bow, but something isn’t quite right. To see Clara in the 1920’s was to see Clara as she was meant to be: free, uninhibited, and yes, wild. She was beautiful, natural, and happy. But it was all a beautiful dream that had to end, and it ended with the stock market crash and the 1930’s. When Clara enters a swank dinner party in Call Her Savage, she’s dressed in a formal gown with her hair pulled back… She looks stunning, and yet she doesn’t look natural. The scene causes one to think of Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933); that’s someone you would expect to see in this setting. All the ingredients are there: the social upstart, the snobbery, the wisecracks, the sexy and revealing clothes, the art deco settings… It’s just Clara who’s out of place. She couldn’t be anyone but herself. That’s why Clara could never escape her past; she was bound by it. And that’s why the audience would always remember the Clara of Mantrap (1926), and forget the Clara of Call Her Savage. Box office gross does not insure immortality. Nor can it obliterate an icon. Clara knew the truth, whether she admitted it to herself or not. Perhaps that’s why after a film so top-heavy with passion and feeling on her part, she would end her career with the perfunctory Hoopla (1933), as impersonal a film as Clara ever made. As good as she was, she couldn’t fight the changing times. Perhaps it was better for her that she decided to throw in the towel when she did; at least it spared her future fans the painful sight of a great star fighting off the inevitable.
Clara herself always numbered Call Her Savage among her favorite films (along with Mantrap and 1927’s It). Was this because the film acted as some kind of purging experience for her, or was it simply because the film gave her more to play with in terms of acting than most of her Paramount films had done? It’s something that will never be known for sure. Likewise, there’s no magic crystal ball that will allow us to see if the fascinating correlation’s between the reality of Clara’s life and her fictional adventures in Call Her Savage were anything more than accidental. What can’t be denied is that there is enough evidence in the film to make the case that they weren’t. What one has in the sum total of Call Her Savage is a flamboyant and extremely entertaining movie, but one surrounded by a plethora of unanswered questions regarding what was intended and who was responsible. In short, it’s a starring showcase for one of the screen’s great enigmas. If the audience today can’t come to grasp with its psychological overtones, it may not be completely because they are distracted by the Camp humor and the histrionic tone; it may have everything to do with the fact that the star at the center, after all these years, remains a blur. She exists only on the screen. In his Bow biography, David Stenn wrote that Clara was a girl runnin’ wild because she was continually in the process of running from the demons that haunted her. It may well be true, but Call Her Savage presents us with the possibility that for once, Clara had stopped running and was willing to confront her demons head-on. And given the type of treatment that Clara had endured in the past from the public and press, it was an action that required great courage. Thus, regardless of whether the exorcism that is Call Her Savage was a willing exposure, or one that was forced upon the star, it still qualifies as an act of bravery unlike any other Hollywood film of its period. If the film could not relieve Clara of her haunted days and sleepless nights, it at least proves that – for a brief period – she was able to face them.