It’s hard to imagine that 1932’s Call Her Savage was the “comeback” film for Clara Bow. Why on earth does a 26-year-old actress at the top of her game need a comeback? While it’s true that Clara Bow’s spectacular career had reached its zenith during the silent era in such films as Mantrap, It, and Wings (the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar), Bow had survived the transition to talkies much better than most of her contemporaries. Yes, her Brooklyn accent was fairly pronounced, but her public didn’t mind one bit — it seemed perfect for the rough-and-tumble flapper characters she usually portrayed.
But as the years ticked by and Bow’s popularity continued to grow, a perfect storm was brewing that would make her want to chuck it all. Her unbridled fame (at one point she received about 45,000 fan letters a month) was becoming more of a burden to her than a joy, especially as the studio put her in film after film her to try and get the biggest bang for their buck. As someone whose emotional health was often quite fragile, that kind of attention, hysteria, and overwork was not exactly what the doctor ordered. Clara had also spent her most successful years in Hollywood partying hard — really hard. She was as committed to having a good time as many of her hedonistic movie characters and you can only carry on that way for so long. And an exhausting lawsuit against her private secretary whom she accused of embezzlement revealed salacious details of Clara’s social life which the former “It” Girl found quite humiliating. By mid-1931, with a few years left on her Paramount contract, she and her employers agreed to call it quits. Later that year, Clara married actor Rex Bell and moved to his large ranch in Nevada where her husband would eventually enter politics and become that state’s Lieutenant Governor.
But Hollywood couldn’t accept the vivacious Bow’s absence for long. In 1932, Fox Studios lured her back with a two-picture deal in what would turn out to be the final two films of her career. Clara later claimed that she returned to Hollywood “for the sole purpose of making enough money to stay out of it.” Those last two films were Call Her Savage, directed by John Francis Dillon, and Hoop-La, directed by Richard Lloyd. While many critics thought Hoop-La was the better film, I much prefer the tawdry and delicious Call Her Savage, based on the novel by author Tiffany Thayer. While Thayer’s books were quite popular with the public, he was not exactly held in high esteem by the literary elites. In The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker wrote about Thayer’s work, saying that “he is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one is missing.” Yikes. But Call Her Savage, the sensational and lurid story of Nasa “Dynamite” Springer, the “half-breed” daughter of the wealthiest man in Texas, was tailor-made for Clara Bow and she gave it her all.
Although no one in the film industry could have known in 1932 that they were in the middle of a brief period that would later be called Pre-Code Hollywood, a movie like Call Her Savage would have been completely impossible to produce just two years later when the censorship sledgehammer of the Motion Picture Production Code came down with a vengeance. I’m not saying Call Her Savage was single-handedly responsible for this crackdown, but it’s definitely a Pre-Code dream!
Following a long prologue in which we see how the adulterous actions of Nasa’s grandfather and mother would cause their “sins” to be passed down to her, Clara’s entrance in the film is theatrical and utterly fabulous: She is first seen riding her horse with wild and, dare I say, sexual abandon, savagely beating a rattlesnake to death with her riding crop, and then whipping her half-Indian friend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland). The fact that Moonglow doesn’t even flinch as Nasa attacks him seems to be quite a turn-on for the young woman. When her horrified father encounters this episode, he confronts his daughter, shouting, “Why were you whipping him?” Nasa responds provocatively, “I was practicing in case I ever get married!” Oh boy.
Just when we can’t bear another second of shabby Clara, word comes that her grandfather has died and left her a small fortune. Phew! Bring back the stunning gowns (designed by Rita Kaufman who would soon marry screen star Edmund Lowe and leave the business) and the dazzling jewels and let’s hightail it to New York’s highest society! Not that her riches bring happiness to Nasa — what would be the fun of that? When Nasa learns that her beloved mother, Ruth (Estelle Taylor), is dying, she hurries back to Texas. It is only on her mother’s deathbed that the truth comes out about Nasa’s parentage. It seems that Pete Springer (Willard Robertson) was not her birth father after all. She was the result of a brief and illicit affair that her mother had with a kindly Indian named Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn). So THAT explains Nasa’s inability to fit in with normal society (oy) — she was a HALF-BREED! Despite the blatant racism inherent in this plot point, at least this new status allows Nasa to finally be with the only man who has ever really treated her well, her fellow half-breed, Moonglow.
While few actual Native American actors ever portrayed Indians on the screen back then, at least Mexican-born Gilbert Roland didn’t look as ridiculous in the part as the Eastern Europen Jewish actors who often got those roles. Roland and Bow had always had great chemistry. He played opposite Clara in his first big role, the 1925 film The Plastic Age, and the two popular stars were briefly engaged in 1927. I’m surprised to hear Roland referred to as her co-star in this film, however, since his part is relatively small. Roland is one of the few silent screen stars who would actually achieve even greater fame later in life, winning critical claim in the 1940s and 50s for supporting roles in films such as We Were Strangers, The Bad and the Beautiful, Thunder Bay, and Cheyenne Autumn.
I recently had the pleasure of spending the day with the one surviving cast member from Call Her Savage. In the film’s opening prologue that shows the family of Nasa’s mother Ruth heading west in stagecoaches, five-year-old Marilyn Knowlden played the younger version of Ruth (the girl who would grow up to become Estelle Taylor). Marilyn had an incredible career as a child star in Hollywood, appearing in films such as the original Little Women with Katharine Hepburn, the Claudette Colbert version of Imitation of Life, and as Norma Shearer’s daughter in Marie Antoinette. Though she had no scenes with Clara Bow, I asked Marilyn, who recently turned 90, what she remembered about working on Call Her Savage a whopping 84 years ago. “I’m pretty sure I got the part because I had just played a similar role in Fox’s The Cisco Kid with Warner Baxter,” she told me. “It’s hard to remember but I think we shot my scenes on the studio’s backlot, I know it didn’t take a long time to get there so I don’t think it was on location. My main memory of working on Call Her Savage was a scene I did that ended up on the cutting room floor where I got to ride in a real covered wagon. I found it miserably uncomfortable and it gave me a new respect for my ancestors who really did come over that way!” Marilyn also remembered thinking it was hilarious that at the age of five she was playing Clara Bow’s mother. But she did not attend the premiere nor ever see the film until many years later — it wasn’t exactly considered appropriate movie fare for a little girl!
Clara Bow went on to make the final film of her career and then decided to really call it a day. Bow and Rex Bell had two sons, born in 1934 and 1936. In 1937, they opened the “It” Café on Vine Street in Hollywood but it didn’t last very long. Unfortunately, Clara’s mental condition did not improve away from the glare of Hollywood. She became extremely withdrawn and at one point attempted suicide. Later on, she received a diagnosis of schizophrenia and endured several shock therapy treatments that didn’t really help. Bow spent the final years of her life away from her family, living in a Culver City bungalow under the care of a nurse. Shortly before the died, she wrote the following about her years in the movies:
We did as we pleased. We stayed up late. We dressed the way we wanted. Today stars are sensible and end up with better health. But we had more fun.
Clara Bow died of a heart attack on September 27, 1965. She was 60 years old. Just this week it was announced that a new big-screen drama based on the life of Clara Bow was in the works. “The Clara Bow story is one of the most intriguing stories in all of Hollywood,” producer David Silver said. “She was an amazing actress and overcame countless obstacles in her rise to stardom.”