Cast & Crew
John Francis Dillon
After an Indian attack on a wagon train, Mort, one of the dying white men, blames his leader Silas Jennings for bringing down the wrath of God in response to Silas' adultery. When Mort calls Silas' lover a harlot, Silas puts his foot on Mort's throat and pushes him to the ground until he is dead. An old man, quoting the Bible, warns Silas that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children even unto the third and fourth generation. Eighteen years later, in Rollins, Texas, Silas' daughter Ruth falls in love with Ronasa, an Indian, while her husband, Pete Springer, spends much time away on business. After Ronasa, obeying his father, leaves to marry the daughter of another chief, Ruth has a baby, Nasa. She grows up to be a rambunctious woman, who is troubled by her changing, extreme moods. After seeing Nasa whip her gentle, half-breed friend Moonglow, Pete, now one of the richest men in Texas, sends her to a private academy for girls in Chicago. Nasa quickly acquires a reputation in Chicago for her wild behavior. As her coming-out party approaches, Pete gives a story to the newspaper that Nasa's engagement to a man of his choice, Charlie Moffett, will be announced at the party. Nasa explodes with anger and invites man-about-town Larry Crosby. At the party, Larry's mistress, Sunny De Lane, arrives with another man and gets in a hair-pulling fight with Nasa. Larry then proposes to Nasa, who accepts, thinking that it will be a joke on her father. They marry the next afternoon, and Nasa tries to reconcile with her father, but he tells her that he never wants to see her again. Larry comes in drunk late that night, and after they spend a few hours in bed, he dresses to rejoin a poker game. When Nasa, upset, questions the reason he married her, he confesses he did it to get even with Sunny. Nasa goes on a spree, gambling and buying clothes, furs and jewelry with Larry's credit, until Larry's lawyer tells her that he is dangerously ill in New Orleans and advises her to visit him. During the visit, Larry tries to rape her. She hits him over the head with a stool, knocking him out, and when she learns from a doctor that "his mind is affected," she worries for the child with which she is pregnant. One month later, Nasa gives birth to a "seven-month" baby, but she is relieved when the doctor tells her that the baby is healthy. Nasa moves to a cheap boardinghouse. When she needs money for a prescription for the baby, she asks a neighbor's girl to look after the child and picks up a man on the street. She purchases the prescription, but returns to find that her baby has died of smoke suffocation in a fire that started when a lecherous drunk followed the babysitter and dropped a lighted match. Moonglow, who has come with news that Nasa's grandfather has died and left her $100,000, tries to console her, but she vows to get even with life. Nasa divorces Larry and one month later arrives in New York, where she advertises for a male escort. Attracted to her, Jay Randall, the jaded son of a millionaire mine owner, applies, not telling her his real identity. When a brawl erupts in a Greenwich Village restaurant, after a man identifies Jay as a millionaire's son, Nasa enjoys the excitement and confesses that she knew his identity the second day they met. Jay tells his father that he wants to marry Nasa, but his father warns him of her almost uncontrollable temper and challenges Jay to bring Nasa to a dinner party. To Jay's and Nasa's surprise, Jay's father has invited Larry and Sunny. The dinner turns into a brawl after Larry speaks disrespectfully about Nasa's dead child. Jay rebukes Nasa and calls her "savage." Alone and drunk, Nasa gets violently angry at the men who have made her life miserable. When she learns that her mother is ill, she returns to Texas. Ruth dies after calling Ronasa's name. After Moonglow tells Nasa that Ronasa was the son of an Indian chief who killed himself because he was in love with a beautiful white woman, Nasa realizes that the woman was her mother. She tells Moonglow that she is glad to be a half-breed and takes his hand.
John Francis Dillon
Call Her Savage
Bow would make only one more film after Call Her Savage before retiring to her marriage with cowboy actor Rex Bell. Throughout the rest of her life, she suffered with mental illness, at times checking herself into various facilities. She attempted suicide in 1944 when Bell decided to run for the Senate in Nevada. Five years later, she entered yet another institution where she endured electric shock treatment. While her experiences in Hollywood likely did not cause her mental health issues, the exploitive nature of publicity and promotion undoubtedly exacerbated it. Call Her Savage was released at a key juncture in her life and career, and it is important to understand the film in that context.
Call Her Savage was developed especially for Bow by her friend, producer Sam Rork. Both Rork and Bow needed a successful film to overcome recent difficulties. The producer was experiencing a slump, while the star was recuperating from a nervous breakdown. In 1931, Bow's secretary and close friend, Daisy De Voe, revealed her employer's sexual exploits during a court case brought against De Voe by Bow and Bell. The press, who had begun to depict the poorly educated Bow as an inarticulate low-life, sensationalized De Voe's claims and half-truths, which affected the star's mental health as well as her standing in the Hollywood community. After she was able to return to work, Bow signed a two-film deal with Fox Film, and Rork persuaded Fox executive Sidney Kent to produce Call Her Savage. Bow had story approval and signed off on the first draft of the screenplay in September 1932.
Call Her Savage to the point of distraction. However, Nasa's horrific experiences with spoiled, selfish Larry Crosby changes her nature. She hardens and learns to internalize her feelings. Bow gradually changes her approach to the character, toning down her performance as Nasa experiences betrayal, bitterness, destitution, and depression.
Call Her Savage was released in 1932 before the Motion Picture Production Code was mandatory. Though the script and rough cut were submitted to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for an opinion, Sam Rork and Fox Film were not obliged to follow their suggestions. The Code office was not in favor of turning the notorious novel Call Her Savage into a film, because the storyline featured incest, masturbation, lesbianism, and sadism. However, the screenwriters did not seek to include those controversial subjects, because such scenes would not pass the state and local censorship boards in certain states. The narrative was toned down considerably for the film version. Still, the PCA suggested that the love scene between Nasa's mother and her Native American lover be more romantic and less sexual. Also, Nasa's husband, Larry Crosby, contracts syphilis, which results in madness. The PCA wanted the references to venereal disease to be vague. When shown the rough cut, the PCA suggested that Larry's attempted rape of Nasa seem more like a violent outburst than a sexual assault. Also, when Nasa becomes destitute, she turns to prostitution to support herself and her child. The PCA office suggested that the street walking sequence be reduced in length so that her fallen circumstances were subtly implied, not explicit.
Call Her Savage would not have passed the Code after 1934, when it became mandatory. Even a hint that a character has contracted venereal disease was forbidden under the enforced Code, so the vague dialogue referencing Larry's condition would not have been permitted. One of the primary mandates of the Code is laid out on the first page: "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." Nasa's decision to prostitute herself is depicted as her only alternative at that moment in her life. The audience is very sympathetic to her plight and forgives her for making this choice. In addition, showing "the method and techniques of prostitution" was forbidden under the Code, so Nasa's attempts to attract customers as she strolls along the streets of New Orleans would have been cut. Sexual perversion was also prohibited under the Code, and homosexuality was considered in that category by the PCA. In a scene in which Nasa and her love interest decide to enjoy a wild night in New York City, they end up in a cabaret in Greenwich Village. The entertainment consists of two waiters in frilly aprons singing a bawdy song. The two are clearly gay as they prance and skip to the music--something viewers would not see after 1934. Even a line of dialogue between Larry and his mistress, Sunny De Lane, would have likely been cut if the film had been released two years later. When Larry leaves Sunny, played by an icy Thelma Todd, to marry Nasa, she tosses a cutting barb that hints at the nature of their attraction, "You'll be back. I understand your peculiarities." Finally, some of Nasa's costumes would be too risqué for the Code office of 1934. Bow's opening scene in which she wears a silky blouse with no undergarments not only emphasizes the movement of her breasts but also her nipples, and a few of the low-cut gowns in a shopping montage were too revealing.
Hoop-la, was released in 1933, which was also during the pre-Code era. If the actress had continued to appear in films after that, an image makeover would have necessary.
Associate Producer: Sam E. Rork for Fox Film
Director: John Francis Dillon
Screenplay: Edwin Burke from a novel by Tiffany Thayer
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Editor: Harold D. Schuster
Art Director: Max Parker
Costumes: Rita Kaufman
Music: Peter Brunelli, Arthur Lange
Cast: Nasa Springer (Clara Bow), Moonglow (Gilbert Roland), Sunny De Lane (Thelma Todd), Lawrence "Larry" Crosby (Monroe Owsley), Ruth Springer (Estelle Taylor), Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn), Pete Springer (Willard Robertson), Jay Randall (Anthony Jowitt) Silas Jennings (Fred Kohler), Old man on wagon train (Russell Simpson), Silas's wife (Dorothy Peterson), Anarchist in cabaret (Mischa Auer)
Call Her Savage
Co-stars Clara Bow and Thelma Todd were both born on 29 July, 1905.
Prints are rare. A fully restored print does exist, however, and is stored at the Museum of Modern Art.
This was Clara Bow's first film since she experienced a nervous breakdown in May 1931, after which rumors abounded that she might retire from the screen. According to various unidentified news items in Bow's biographical file at the AMPAS Library, before the breakdown, Bow had suffered through publicized attacks on her by her former secretary, Daisy De Voe, in a court case, and in a series of vicious, smutty articles written by Frederic H. Girnau, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for defamation of character. In October 1931, it was announced that Bow would begin a film with her friend, independent producer Sam Rork on 1 Dec. Rork, who had not made a film since 1928, wanted to make his own comeback together with Bow, but he was unable to raise enough money by the time imposed in his contract with Bow. She agreed, however, to wait as he continued to try to raise money. Rork then purchased the motion picture rights to the novel Call Her Savage, which had developed some notoriety because of its salacious subject matter, and convinced Fox president Sidney Kent of the soundness of the project.
According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, Bow's contract with Rork gave her story approval, a condition Kent did not want to incorporate into her contract with Fox, as the studio had never given story approval to an actress before. It was thought that the novel Call Her Savage could be agreed upon before signing, and indeed, by May 7, 1932, Bow agreed to do the film with the provision that she must approve the resultant screenplay in writing before shooting began. (Bow did, in fact, approve Edwin Burke's final screenplay on 14 September 1932.) Bow's contract called for ten weeks work for $75,000, with a bonus of $25,000 if the total gross rentals reached or exceeded $800,000. (As of October 1935, the film had not grossed $800,000.) Bow agreed to reduce her weight to 118 pounds on or before July 1, 1932 and to maintain that weight during the term of the contract, and the studio agreed to furnish a masseuse selected by Bow to help with weight reduction and also a voice culture specialist. (Although Bow's weight was over 118 pounds during a large portion of the time involved, the studio did not cancel the contract.) Bow also exercised an option to have filming of the interior scenes shot at Fox's Western Avenue studio, which had been abandoned for some time. (Subsequently, the Western Avenue studio became Fox's "B" picture lot.)
According to correspondence in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Hays Office was concerned when they learned that Fox was interested in purchasing the novel as a vehicle for Bow. In a letter dated April 19, 1932, after the potential project was reported in Film Daily, an MPPDA official stated that Fox executives "realize the book contains a great deal of unsuitable picture material, but feel that the title and some parts of the basic story are admirably suited for this undertaking." Although MPPDA president Will H. Hays was "not keen about the property," the official noted that "under the Resolution [passed in 1924 by the MPPDA Board of Directors] any company can buy anything it wants to, but does so at its peril."
In correspondence included in legal records, the author of the novel, Tiffany Thayer (whom Ben Hecht, in a modern source, once referred to as "a fellow pornographer"), stated concerning the origins of the novel, "the background and local color, and some of the incidents, were all based on the life of my wife, who was a resident of Texas and is one-half Osage Indian." The novel has a subplot of incestual desire and includes scenes of promiscuity, sadism, masturbation and lesbianism. In the first treatment, Fox writers Doris Malloy and Leonard Spigelgass removed the offensive sexual situations and much of the theme of the book. In a letter dated June 24, 1932, Colonel Jason S. Joy, director of the AMPP Studio Relations Committee, expressed concern that the studio's writers, in this first treatment, had gone too far in expurgating the book. He wrote to Hays, "The book is about as far wrong as it is possible to be. Afraid of this, the studio took most of the real flavor of the story out of the first treatment, with the result that only another stupid picture was in prospect. Somewhere in between there lies a good picture."
Subsequent to this, Joy and his assistant Lamar Trotti, held a number of meetings with Rork, Fox producer Al Rockett, Fox production chief Winfield R. Sheehan and Edwin Burke, who took over as sole screenwriter. Burke retrieved many of the incidents from the novel, and on 22 Aug, his first draft script was sent to the Hays Office for comments. Joy's major objections to this and subsequent drafts were a scene preceding "Nasa's" conception and a scene in a New Orleans hospital between "Nasa" and her husband in which "Crosby," suffering from a venereal disease, physically attacks her. The first scene, which was similar to the portrayal in the book, had the Indian "Ronasa" accidentally come across "Nasa's" mother (who, in this draft, as in the novel, is named "Clara") in her home crying naked on her bed following a bath. The situation awakens a sexual desire in both, which leads to the beginning of a love-making scene. Joy pointed out that the entire scene would probably be cut by state and local censors and commented, "the affair between Clara [the mother of Nasa] and the Indian is not the result of his seeing her, so much as it is the result of a love that has been unrequited for a long time." This scene was omitted in the final script, and their rendezvous occurs fully-clothed by a stream. In the latter scene, a doctor's diagnosis of "Crosby" was changed from insanity in the first draft to delirium tremens in a later one. (In the final film, the doctor only vaguely tells "Nasa" that "his mind's affected.")
Both Joy and Trotti left the Hays Office and became employees of Fox before the film was completed. (Joy became a scenario editor in charge of consultation with the Hays Office, and Trotti became a writer.) When the film was submitted to the Hays Office for approval, Joy's replacement, James C. Wingate, who had previously been the head of the New York State censor board, ordered a number of cuts. During the hospital scene, in which "Crosby" attempts to rape "Nasa" when she refuses his attempts to make love, and then tries to choke her, Wingate wanted the scene cut so that the emphasis was on the choking rather than the rape: "Endeavor to trim first (sex) part of struggle as much as possible; eliminating neck kissing, and generally re-editing so as to make distinct transition to choking." In a letter Wingate noted the specific changes that were agreed on by Rockett and Rork: "remove one shot of [Monroe] Owsley backing Miss Bow against the wall and kissing her violently on the neck. Also insert close-up of Owsley which would make it evident that the succeeding action is a murderous attack and not an assault in the sex sense. These changes are aimed at eliminating the suggestion of attempted rape, which we feel certain would bring about serious censorship difficulty." The other deletion involved cutting as much of the streetwalking sequence as possible so that the actual "suggestion of soliciting" would be removed.
To attempt to persuade the various state and local censor boards not to cut the picture, Joy sent a letter to boards in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, Kansas, Manitoba, Halifax, New Brunswick, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal and Saskatchewan, in which he emphasized the importance of the film as Clara Bow's return to the screen. He wrote, "I doubt if there is any personality today in pictures whose return to the screen after a year's absence could have aroused such universal interest. Every effort, of course, was exerted to find just the right vehicle for Miss Bow, and I am confident her re-appearance will be a revelation to the country....Because it is a new Clara Bow that the screen is presenting, and because there is such necessity, not only of presenting her as a beautiful woman but as an actress, we are all very hopeful that the picture will be judged as a whole for the character study that it is, all parts of which inter-link importantly." Most of the censor boards, however, cut the film at various places. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, the British censors refused to pass the film without stating a reason. When Twentieth Century-Fox attempted to obtain a certificate of approval for a re-issue in 1937, PCA director Joseph Breen stated that the film seemed to be "unacceptable," calling it a "sordid story dealing with illegitimacy, attempted rape, prostitution."
According to information in the legal files, David O. Selznick of RKO charged that Rork offered Joel McCrea, on contract to RKO, a bonus to play a role in the film. Modern sources state that McCrea was tested for the role of "Moonglow." In a memo in the legal records, it is noted that "Mr. Selznick is very much aroused over the situation." Gilbert Roland, who played the role in the final film, had had a romance with Bow seven years earlier when they both played in The Plastic Age, according to modern sources. According to information in the legal records, Alexander Kirkland was originally cast for the role of "Jay Randall" and Rita LaRoy for the role of "Molly." As Kirkland is listed in Hollywood Reporter production charts, it is possible that his scenes were shot and then redone with Anthony Jowitt in the role. Reginald Barlow is listed in Fox trade paper billing sheets as appearing in the prologue, while Carl Stockdale is not listed. As Stockdale does play the role of "Mort" in the prologue, it is possible that he replaced Barlow in the role.
Reviews of the film welcomed Bow back to the screen. Los Angeles Times commented, "her fame seems to have been recaptured with remarkable ease....It is generally conceded that her acting has improved, having become more restrained, but she is still sufficiently exuberant in her technique to qualify as a natural actress rather than a cultivated one. Her vitality and sincerity unite [in a] likable personality that disarms criticism and wins for her the whole-hearted approval of the masses....Call Her Savage has been condemned by the more discriminating as a flashy, trashy, tasteless and unpleasant exhibit, but not even the most captious deny its superficial appeal to the larger public." Bow's next film, Hoop-la (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.1986) was her last.