1931 was a bad year for Jazz Age “It” girl Clara Bow. Her friend and assistant Daisy DeVoe embezzled from her and tried to blackmail her, lurid details of Bow’s private life leaking out during the sensational trial that followed. Paramount Pictures, the studio that made her a star, declined to renew her contract. If that wasn’t enough, a scandal sheet, the Pacific Coast Reporter, ran a dubious expose that purported to lift the lid off a va-va-voom sex life that the tabloid claimed was rife with multiple affairs, orgies, incest, even a tryst with her pet Great Dane. 1932′s Call Her Savage, screening Wednesday, March 7 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater as part of Elliot Lavine’s latest program, “Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for a Nasty-Ass World,” plays like a sardonic commentary on the flame-haired actress’ very bad year. Her career was nearly over. She was about to fade into obscurity and a lifetime plagued by mental health issues, but for her penultimate moment in the spotlight, Bow remained unbowed.
In some ways, Call Her Savage comes across like a direct taunt at Bow’s detractors. Her character, Nasa Springer, even romps suggestively with a large dog, and Gilbert Roland, a former lover of Bow’s, shows up as one of the men in Nasa’s life. The Brooklyn-born Bow plays Nasa as a Texas wild child, a spoiled, impetuous heiress whose frustrated father ships her off to school in Chicago where her carousing and brawling earn her gossip column inches and the nickname “Dynamite.” She even manages to get into a fist fight at her debutante party.
Nasa’s lack of decorum is the least of it. What’s worse is her terrible judgment when it comes to men. With the exception of Moonglow (Roland), the boy she leaves back home, her taste runs to creeps with money. One, Lawrence Crosby (Monroe Owsley) marries her just to make another woman jealous. Another, Jay Randall (Anthony Jowitt), says he’s in love with her – until he realizes that she’ll never fit into his high society world. Most of the men in her life treat her badly, including her railroad baron father Pete Spring (Willard Robertson), who disowns her. Nasa teeters often on the brink of disgrace and disaster, but she is a survivor.
There are lots of goodies in the Roxie’s Pre-Code program, among them the original Scarface, the eerie Island of Lost Souls, the breezy musical Murder at the Vanities, and the melodramatic Ladies of the Big House, but Call Her Savage is in a class by itself. It hits many of the Pre-Code highlights, those elements that the Production Code would soon banish from Hollywood movies for decades to come. There is adultery, unmarried cohabitation, miscegenation, prostitution, and rape. But what makes the film stand out is Bow, blurring the line between fact and fiction, a scandalized girl playing a scandalized girl, a woman unafraid of making the most of a bad reputation. – Pam Grady
Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for a Nasty-Ass World, March 2-8, Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street, San Francisco. For tickets and further information, visit roxie.com.