FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, one of Manhattan’s highest temples of culture pays tribute to the actress once known as the Brooklyn Bonfire. Celebrating its tenth edition, MoMA’s film-preservation series “To Save and Project,” which in 2011 presented Clara Bow’s final movie, Hoop-la (1933), this year screens her penultimate, Call Her Savage (1932), a standout among the seventy-five titles on view.
Racy even by pre-Code standards—and more lurid than anything Lee Daniels could ever dream up—Call Her Savage has whips, booze, dope, v.d., attempted rape and child molestation, intimations of bestiality, girl fights, gay bars, streetwalking, and a dead baby. It was, in short, the perfect comeback vehicle for Bow, who had been dropped by Paramount in 1931 after she suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by a grueling work schedule, a protracted legal battle with her personal secretary, and a three-week libelous assault by a tabloid called the Coast Reporter. (Studio head B. P. Schulberg, according to Bow biographer David Stenn, referred to his cash cow as “Crisis-a-Day Clara.”)
After a yearlong convalescence on a ranch along the California-Nevada border with her husband-to-be, Bow signed a lucrative two-picture deal with Fox, a contract that gave her enormous creative control. It’s a good thing she rested up, for Call Her Savage, based on a 1931 novel by Tiffany Thayer and directed by John Francis Dillon, demanded quite a workout from its star. In her first scene, Bow, playing an unruly Texas heiress named Nasa, repeatedly shouts Yippee! on her galloping horse. Stopping in the woods, Nasa whips a rattlesnake and then her “half-breed” friend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland), who doesn’t seem to mind the lashing one bit. “Why I am I like this? I hate to get angry but I just can’t help it,” Nasa admits, though it’s hard to concentrate on what Bow says when her nipples are noticeably at attention under her thin organdy blouse.
Yet the boobs and flogging are Merchant-Ivory decorous compared with what follows. Dragged back home by her tycoon father, who grows increasingly beleaguered by his only child (“I can run a railroad, but I’ll be danged if I can run a daughter”), Nasa begins to wrestle with her dog as soon as she enters the front door. This lusty interspecies tussle, Stenn suggests, is “a blatant, tasteless reference” to calumny printed earlier in the Coast Reporter about the actress’s relationship with her dog Duke; the rag avowed that Bow was “as well satisfied with the Great Dane, her frequent boudoir companion, as with creatures of her own kind.” Stars: They’re just like us.
Eloping with a cretin she meets at her debutante ball, Nasa will endure a series of degradations followed by revenge schemes, stopping occasionally to wonder, “Why is there always a fight going on inside me?” before socking some dame in the jaw. After one final brawl, in which she chases away a swish millionaire who could have become her second husband (she divorced the first one after he tried to rape her, his mind ravaged by syphilis and drugs), a weary Nasa returns home to Texas to hear her mother gasp the name of her real father on her deathbed. The “reason” for her horrible impulse control now revealed, Nasa presages other bedeviled mestizas, such as Jennifer Jones (slathered in bronzer) in 1946’s Duel in the Sun, and Cher in her 1973 hit “Half-Breed.” But unlike those tragic heroines, Nasa utters, upon learning the truth, what can only be understood—at least in the context of this crazy movie—as a declaration of racial pride: “I’m glad.”