2012 TCM Classic Film Festival: CALL HER SAVAGE
Call Her Savage (1932) release year places it clearly at the advent of the talkies, and into the pre-Code Hollywood filmmaking era. The movie is quite obviously exploitative, even vile, the dialogue often unnatural, the acting theatrical, and yet I would encourage people to see it – if they get a chance, that is. The rare 35mm print is in possession of The Museum of Modern Art, and the opportunities to attend a screening are scattered, the gaps between them spanning decades. MoMA press release from April 1971 (which can be found on their website) boasted the then very first showing of the film since its original release. The curator who accompanied the precious reel, Anne Morra, seems to feel kinship with the film’s star, Clara Bow, as they share a birthplace. Morra retold the entertaining tales from Bow’s life with much gusto. In order to facilitate understanding of the scale that stardom had in those days, the MoMA curator pointed out that in 1928 and 1929, when Bow was the number one box office draw, half of the United States population attended a movie theatre every week. Bow’s career began in New York City in 1922 with a disappointment. All five scenes of her in Beyond the Rainbow were cut. What is worse, she only found out when she ventured to see it – according to Morra. Yet despite her mother’s I told you so, she persisted, and moved to California. Her career pretty much ended with the silent era. Call Her Savage briefly rekindled her popularity, but it ended up being her penultimate film.
The film exemplifies movie production as a commodity. Call Her Savage has a sole purpose, which is to generate profit: audiences are attracted unscrupulously through gratuitous display of violence, prostitution, racism, alcohol abuse, mental illness, sexual assault. The film is a product, and as such brandishes antagonizing subjects – not to comment on them in any way, only to display them and thus appeal to the most base of human sensibilities, to get audiences riled up one way or another, to elicit a reaction that will prompt them later to say: hey, have you seen this? The film is the equivalent of tabloid print and its values (or lack thereof to be precise) on the big screen. While it is quite imperative to judge any type of work (and I am reluctant to preface this word by “art” here) within its historical context, there is nothing naïve about the film that would warrant perceiving it merely as a “product of its time.” (I do detest this particular turn of phrase, hence the quotation marks.) To call this film “feminist,” just because the heroine is as violent as any man she encounters, would be misguided. In fact the exploitation begins with Clara Bow’s wardrobe. Her clothing is indeed sheer at times, and she appears to be wearing no undergarments. Her character (Nasa Springer) is caught in situations like roughhousing with a large canine. It may be indicative of the filmmaker’s intents that the pet sniffing her privates did not end up on the cutting room floor. Further, you can watch Nasa in a catfight, complete with hair pulling, and in a bar-fight that includes throwing dinnerware. She is prostituting herself in the street; her estranged husband assaults her sexually; her child dies in a fire while she’s looking for a john. Shockingly, she whips a man whom she calls a “half-breed.” To boot, she and her victim share a relationship of trust, and the man views her as a warmhearted person, who treats him exceptionally well – compared to other members of the majority.
No, the word “savage” in the title is no accident. And yes, it is used in the most pejorative of its meanings, not that any of its connotations aspire to be construed as kind. Interestingly, “miscegenation” was listed as number six on the list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” the first self-regulating code of the Hollywood studios published in 1927 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, according to The Oxford History of World Cinema (Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 239 and 241). It may be worth noting that this was a time in the United States history when segregation was the law, and lynching a reality. The film reveals some of the climate in which the Code was conceived. The issue of internal censorship within the industry is a complex matter, but it was never a kind-hearted effort with the wellbeing of the masses at heart. Hollywood’s self-imposed regulation can be interpreted as a quality assurance process. The very choice of vocabulary on the list implies a lot about the optics of the list’s creators and the society at large. While some of these considerations do not even enter modern consciousness (or at least I would hope they don’t), they are central to the plot of Call Her Savage where the big revelation in the finale is Nasa’s discovery regarding her heritage. She is an offspring of an adulterous affair her mother had with a Native American (who later committed suicide). The moviemakers made no attempt to reflect on the social circumstance that created obstacles for Nasa’s mother and her biological father to have a meaningful relationship. Rather, the subject matter was selected for the emotions it would stir in a divided society that did not even bother pretend inclusion is an option.
Thus, to focus on Clara Bow’s performance would be a mistake. Sure, she is captivating, regardless of the moral corruption within and around her, on and off screen. More crucially, a viewing of this film can help not only navigate the coordinates of the 1920s society, and understand that all the nostalgia is but hype; it can also illuminate the mechanics of movie production and the industry itself. As a footnote, if you take a date to see the film, it might serve as a fine litmus test. While nervous laughter in the theatre was mostly an expression of embarrassment, shock or incredulity at the display on the screen, there were a couple of notes that rang as genuine amusement. For example, when a male character (Lawrence Crosby) advised his female partner (Sunny De Lane, played by Thelma Todd), that contrary to her, he is well within his right to have some indiscretions, as he brings home the bacon. I am no longer sure if this preceded or followed knocking her off a chair. Hearing sincere laughter at that moment was the more chilling experience derived from the screening’s attendance.