Reviews

John Francis Dillon

USA, 1932

Credits

Review by Josh Bell

Posted on 23 April 2012

Source 35mm print

Categories TCM Classic Film Festival 2012

Clara Bow worked in silent films for the majority of her brief Hollywood career, and in Call Her Savage, Bow’s second-to-last onscreen role and tenth sound film, she still exhibits vestiges of the broad, demonstrative style of silent-movie acting. Bow’s character, who carries the unlikely name of Nasa Springer, spends a good portion of her first scene lying on the ground stomping her feet and pounding her fists like a child having a tantrum. It’s a rather silly, undignified way to introduce the star of the movie, but it goes along with the somewhat silly, haphazard nature of the film as a whole, which coasts on Bow’s considerable charms but lurches awkwardly from comedy to melodrama, from the country to the city and even, in the drawn-out prologue, across decades.

Bow’s Nasa is the savage of the title, and the movie starts with a series of flashbacks which purport to account for her willful, headstrong ways. The first of these begins with a wagon train and Nasa’s grandfather, a philanderer who’s warned that his sins will be passed down to his children; sure enough, his daughter, Nasa’s mother, turns out to be a hell-raiser with a thing for Native Americans, which provides a simplistic and fairly racist explanation for Nasa’s untamable nature. But that revelation, telegraphed as it is, simmers in the background as we watch Nasa leave her family’s ranch for the big city, take up with a lecherous playboy, and go from rags to riches and back again multiple times.

Bow’s performance is a masterpiece of sass, and the movie’s comedic segments, especially any time Nasa is gleefully telling off some snoot or another, are a lot of fun to watch. But then there’s the melodrama, including an absurdly overwrought sequence that finds Nasa in abject poverty, caring for an illegitimate child who’s clearly doomed to an unspeakable fate. That the movie can bounce back from that to a comedic cat fight in the span of fifteen minutes or so is a testament either to its bold insanity or to its sheer ineptitude.

Thanks to Bow, it’s often hard to care which one it is, since she uses every bit of her silent-movie expressiveness to charm the audience. Even though she explicitly made her last few movies just to have enough money to never have to act again, Bow is never less than committed or sparkling in Call Her Savage. Her career as a silent star is justifiably praised, but she was pretty impressive when she got to have her voice heard as well.

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