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By Phil Hall | June 8, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 431: “Call Her Savage” (1932 melodrama starring Clara Bow).

LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been made available by companies claiming it is a public domain title.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There has never been a commercial home entertainment release.


One of the enduring myths of film history is the belief that scores of silent movie stars saw their careers abruptly ended once sound was added to filmmaking. In reality, few silent movie stars immediately lost their livelihoods solely because of vocal problems. The real culprits were beyond control of these once-silent performers: most of the early talkies were burdened with verbose scripts and helmed by directors who were not comfortable with sound recording technology.

The case of Clara Bow is typical of the problem faced by many silent stars. Known as the “It Girl” for her sense of humor and sexy persona, Bow was the reigning box office star of the late 1920s. Bow was able to make the transition to the sound medium, but she rued the restrictions that sound recording placed on film production. “I hate talkies”, she complained. “They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me”

Bow’s fans did not abandon her, and her initial sound films (while not very good) were very popular. But Bow’s life became increasingly uncomfortable due to malicious media coverage that placed her in imaginary scandals and her own lack of confidence in her talents. By 1931, her health had deteriorated and she was let go by her longtime studio, Paramount Pictures. She left Hollywood to stay at the Nevada ranch of actor Rex Bell, where she regained her health and discovered – much to her surprise – that Hollywood still wanted her for its major productions.

Bow returned with a vengeance in 1932, signing a $250,000 contract for two movies with Fox Film Corporation, which included creative control over her films. For her first Fox film, she sought an adaptation of Tiffany Thayer’s scandalous novel “Call Her Savage.”

“Call Her Savage” would later become grouped into what film scholars dubbed “Pre-Code” productions – melodramas that presented an uncommonly mature and frank exploration of subjects that were subsequently banned by the 1934 Production Code. In the case of “Call Her Savage,” plot lines relating to adultery, sexual assault, prostitution, illegitimacy, interracial romance and homosexuality created a salacious smorgasbord of taboo-busting subjects. Even by the standards of the Pre-Code era, this was one damn racy film.

“Call Her Savage” plays on the rigid Biblical consideration of the sins of the father being passed down to future generations. In this case, one of the leaders of an Old West wagon train openly humiliates his family by carrying on with another woman who is charitably described as a “harlot.”  The wagon train leader settles in Texas and his daughter grows up to marry a railroad industry executive, but he is a cold man who is more interested in his work. Instead, she spends her free time with a hunky American Indian named Ronasa – and their relationship is several levels above the platonic stage.

Clara Bow shows up as Nasa, the daughter of the railroad executive and his none-too-faithful wife. Nasa is a wild spirit – perhaps too wild for comfort, because her behavior is constantly over-the-top. For example, when a rattlesnake causes her horse to throw her from the saddle, she grabs a whip and thrashes the creature. And when her half-Indian friend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland) laughs at that scene, she turns around and whips him. When Nasa’s father asks why she is whipping Moonglow, she laughs, “I was practicing in case I ever got married.”

Nasa’s father is desperate to make a lady out of her, so she is sent to a girl’s school in Chicago. Needless to say, that only makes a bad situation worse. Loose in a big city, Nasa gets a reputation for being “dynamite.” Her coming-out party ends in a brawl, with Nasa giving a black eye to the mistress of a wanton playboy she decides to marry.

From there, “Call Her Savage” spins into so many different convoluted situations that I could easily crash the Film Threat server by trying to list them all. I would also wind up spoiling the surprise from the screenplay’s many unexpected twists and turns.

However, there are some moments in this film that have become mini-legends in their own right. In an early scene, Nasa enjoys a spell of rough play with her pet Great Dane. Some film critics view this scene as the closest that Hollywood came to b********y – Bow wound up horizontal beneath the canine – and it seemed rather odd to have this on film, considering that Bow was previously libeled by an entertainment rag for engaging in sex with dogs.

There is another moment where Bow visits an “anarchist” bar in lower Manhattan. The bar’s entertainment includes two men dressed like French maids who mince about with feather dusters and sing a salacious ditty about sleeping sailors. Yes, the love that dare not speak its name wound up in “Call Her Savage,” if only for less than a minute.

Some contemporary critics have faulted “Call Her Savage” for a perceived insensitivity towards American Indians. While the film’s denouement is cited as a problem (I cannot explain this at length without a spoiler), “Call Her Savage” is nonetheless unusually progressive in its racial attitudes. The relationship between Nasa’s mother and Rosana is presented as a union of equals, while the Moonglow character views his mixed-race heritage within the social context of the era. “I’m a half-breed,” he says to Nasa, “but you never make me feel any different from you.”

Moonglow later admits envy at Nasa’s freedom. “I’m half-caste, you’re white,” he says. “There’s nothing you can’t be.”

As for Bow, her performance is nothing short of astonishing. Her sex appeal is undeniable, but her ability to plumb the character’s highs and lows offers evidence of a greater talent. The most remarkable moment comes after an unspeakable tragedy, when Nasa coldly remarks, “I’ll get even with life.” Bow captures the moment with an emotional and intellectual subtlety that few performers could ever dream of achieving.

“Call Her Savage” was well received by the critics, who were glad to have Bow back on screen. Whether the film was a box office success is hard to say – different reference sources give contradictory accounts of its commercial appeal. Bow’s second film for Fox, “Hoop-La” (1933) was not well received, although Bow was still in demand in Hollywood. (Fox would try to re-release “Call Her Savage” in 1937, but it was denied approval by the censors at the Breen Office.) Despite contract offers from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Howard Hughes’ film operation and a proposed contract renewal by Fox, Bow opted to marry Rex Bell and retire from acting.

Sadly, many of Bow’s films are not easily available for viewing – and a large slice of her silent film output is considered lost – yet “Call Her Savage” has been circulating for years via labels specializing in public domain titles. It has also been posted in its entirety on YouTube by a Clara Bow fan site. However, the film is not in the public domain – 20th Century Fox controls the rights, but to date it has not made “Call Her Savage” available for commercial home entertainment release.

In April, “Call Her Savage” was screened in Los Angeles as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival. The festival exhibited a striking 35mm print that was restored by the Museum of Modern Art. Hopefully, this restored version will someday find its place in DVD and Blu-ray release and help to introduce a new generation of movie lovers to the glories of Clara Bow.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Phil Hall says:

    @Vidor – because not everyone knows this film and I would like to encourage people to check it out for themselves without giving everything away.

  2. Vidor says:

    “(I cannot explain this at length without a spoiler)”

    Ugh. I hate it when writers do things like this. This movie is 80 years old. You are writing a review. Why will you not talk about it? Why do you leave a big gap in your review that leaves the reader unable to understand your point?

    Eh, I’ll do it for you.

    “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.”

    Is that it?

  3. Casey Scott says:

    I saw the restored version at MoMA this fall as part of their To Save and Project Festival, and firmly agree that the film goes in far too many directions, ultimately unsuccessfully. HOOP-LA is a far better film, and was also recently restored by MoMA. Please let’s get these Clara Bow soundies on DVD soon! She clearly deserves a Louise Brooks-style renaissance.

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