One of my favorite screenings at last year’s TCM Classic Film Festival was Clara Bow in Hoop-La (1933), restored by MOMA at the urging of Bow biographer David Stenn. Stenn was on hand again this year to present Bow in Call Her Savage (1932), and to explain a bit about its background. The irrepressible Bow had fled Hollywood in disgrace a year before; the year before that she had been the No.1 box office star. She still had some clout, and decided she’d show ’em, with the sort of antics that had luminaries calling for a Production Code. Apparently her vigorous wrestling with a Great Dane (taller than she is) was a direct thumb of the nose to a published rumor that she’d enjoyed carnal relations with her own beloved dog.
That’s not all…It opens directly with adultery on the wagon train, an Indian attack, and a dying old man blathering on about the sins of the father etc. The object of this scorn finishes him off by stamping on his neck before a crowd of onlookers. His daughter grows up willful, and over-friendly with a shirtless Indian. The grand-daughter grows up to be untamable Clara Bow.
Bow bursts onto the screen cackling her head off, galloping at top speed on her horse. It rears at a rattlesnake and throws her. She viciously horsewhips the snake. Her laughing, handsome half-breed friend turns up (Gilbert Roland). She viciously horsewhips him. All vigorously braless beneath a flimsy white blouse; when she gets home and wrestles the dog, this becomes pointedly more apparent.
The film pretty much continues in this vein, as Bow’s Nasa goes from being the terror of Chicago high society (nicknamed “Dynamite”) to destitution, via jewels, gowns and lingerie, syphilis, childbirth, prostitution, divorce, pedophilia and a tenement fire. Still to come are an incognito millionaire gigolo, an outrageous gay double act in a bohemian Village dive (the first such depiction on screen, they say) and the depths of despair in dishabille so low you can see her beauty spot, complete with whiskey and reefer.
Tonal consistency is sacrificed, everyone talks with careful early sound avoidance of overlapping dialogue, and the ending is no surprise. But it rattles along at a good clip and Bow has a whale of a time. It was her favorite of all her films, and the only one she showed her sons. Nasa is proud and willful, but regretful of her temper, and the trouble and harm she causes – it’s all put down to her nature, conveniently, and we can guess where that came from (questionable use of “savage” included). Bow conveys the conflict with gusto, indeed gallops through the whole movie with gusto, vivaciousness personified.
Post script: The evening was kicked off with a surprise: Clara Bow in color. It was jaw-dropping: the only color movie footage of her, from 1928, as Bubbles McCoy in the lost feature Red Hair (just this opening would have been color, plus select later sections). We were told we were the first audience to see it since 1928 (er, apart from those watching the TCM channel last year, apparently). After the credits, Bow’s face appears in breathtaking close up. Jocular captions and a wide-shot reveal her feeding a pelican. It’s not very funny, but color Clara is simply luminous.