Wednesday, October 10, 2012
To Save and Project: MOMA Screens Wild Girl (1932) and Call Her Savage (1932)
On Thursday, Oct. 11 (that's tomorrow) the Museum of Modern Art in New York kicks off its 10th edition of To Save and Project, their annual series of screenings dedicated to film preservation. The Siren need hardly tell her patient readers how this very notion makes her eyes light up. The series runs until Nov. 12, with multiple screenings of most films. It includes such rarities as the silent Dumb Girl of Portici, starring Anna Pavlova in her one film role; Jacques Demy's Lola, starring Anouk Aimee; and George Cukor's seldom-seen Justine, a film that (correct me if I'm wrong, David) David Ehrenstein has mentioned favorably around here. The latter two will be introduced by the grandly beautiful Ms Aimee herself.
And, to top it all off, the vast majority of the films will be screened in glorious 35-millimeter, the way God and Orson Welles (a tautology?) intended. (You can read more about that topic in Dave Kehr's excellent full roundup at the New York Times.)
Opening day brings two restored pre-Codes: Call Her Savage from 1932, and from the same year, the out-of-sight-for-eons Wild Girl, directed by Raoul Walsh. The Siren got a chance to see both when they were screened for the press.
Wild Girl, starring Joan Bennett in her lissome blonde phase, is based on "Salomy Jane's Kiss," a story by Bret Harte. Salomy Jane (Bennett) isn't really wild, she's just in tune with nature, a girl-woman roaming the forest and playing with the local children.
Walsh has the magnificent ability to mash up genres and keep control of the tone and pacing. Here we have a Western, complete with a stagecoach, a corrupt and lascivious businessman with designs on Salomy Jane, and a handsome stranger (Charles Farrell) who rides into town on a mission of revenge. Except, it's also something of a fairy tale. The movie was filmed in the Sequoia National Forest, and the enormous trees give Walsh ample opportunity to film Bennett among the enormous roots and trunks like a tiny woodland sprite. Even Eugene Pallette, as a lovably cowardly stagecoach driver, looks like a doll in such a setting.
And it's also a comedy, with Pallette showing how many ways he can imitate a horse's whinny. It's a pre-Code, with Bennett bathing naked in a pond, only to be surprised by a man in mid-splash. (Where there's a woman bathing naked outdoors, there is always a man; this is an immutable Hollywood law of any era.) It's a romance, as of course Salomy and the stranger will find each other and fall in love. It's a social drama--a lynching scene mid-movie includes a haunting, blurry camera effect and is genuinely harrowing. Pierre Rissient, who knew Walsh, was in attendance, and told some writers gathered afterward that the movie drew on a lynching that Walsh himself witnessed as a boy.
The characters are introduced as though leafing through the pages of a book, and the fadeout between scenes is made to resemble a page turning, both emphasizing the literary origin. Except that the volume's cover, shown at the beginning and end of the movie, is labeled "Album," causing the Siren's pal Glenn Kenny to guffaw, "Wanna see some pictures from that summer the stagecoach got robbed and there was a lynching? Fun times!"
As for Call Her Savage, for years the Siren had been told that the film was a lulu, even by the freewheeling standards of the early 1930s. Not only is the film as gratifyingly insane as its reputation, its craziness looks wonderful thanks to the restoration.
It was Clara Bow's comeback vehicle, tailored by Fox to reassert her stardom after a bad period that included sex-tinged scandals as well a lawsuit brought by a former employee named Daisy DeVoe. On top of that, the insecure and emotionally fragile Bow had a bad case of what they called mike fright.
Well, you won't see it in this movie (and like John Gilbert, Bow sounds fine). What you will see is Bow engaging in scenes so pointedly lurid that even the jaded folks in the MOMA screening room were agog. Bow first appears riding a horse--bareback, what else. A snake causes her horse to throw her, she whips the snake (uh-huh) and her temper fit gets her laughed at by childhood pal Moonglow (Gilbert Roland, so sexily male that silly name doesn't matter). So naturally, she beats him around the head and shoulders with her riding crop.
But even that can't prepare you for the sight of Clara Bow, nipples erect under the sheer blouse that's already torn from the earlier scene, rolling around on the floor with an enormous and clearly un-neutered Great Dane. It was a vulgar reference to an old rumor about Bow's supposedly insatiable appetites, but now it just plays as...show-stopping. Let the Siren put it this way--in 2012, which big-time actress would play a lewd scene opposite a dog?
It's all supposed to be part of her nature, you see, as the title signals. Nasa thinks she's the daughter of an unscrupulous tycoon, but in fact she's the daughter of an Indian chief who impregnated her mother while Father Was Away on Business. And when you mix Noble Savage with Sexually Frustrated White Woman, according to this movie what you get is bipolar behavior that would flummox Freud. One minute, she's taking a ranch worker's guitar and smashing it over his head when he won't stop crooning (which is drastic, but it does earn her the audience's gratitude). And the poor slob hasn't even had time to pick the splinters out of his eyebrows before Nasa turns to Moonglow and gurgles "Oh Moonglow, I'm going to love Chicago." The idea that anything can explain Nasa, let alone an accident of birth, is ludicrous on its face, but she's one of the most enthralling women in all of pre-Code cinema--hell, cinema period.
The breakneck plot defies summary, logic and medical probability, and it's every bit as fun as that sounds. Via director John Francis Dillon, it looks good, too, from the nightclubs and dives of Chicago, New York and New Orleans, to the the Indian attack on a covered wagon that opens the film. (The Siren walked in a minute after the movie started and had to whisper "what is this?" to a fellow critic to make sure she hadn't accidentally stumbled into a Tom Mix screening.) There's a wonderfully done montage of Nasa's free-spending ways, showing clubs and shopping and bills; you find out that an Elizabeth Arden facial set you back $25 in 1932. In this film at least, Dillon had a fascination for mirrors to rival Douglas Sirk; they're a recurring motif, the camera often observing Bow's reflection, emphasizing her dual nature. Toward the end, there's a terrific montage of all the many ways that men have screwed Nasa, ending with Bow shrieking "MEN!" and shattering a mirror with one blow. If there's a merciful deity up there, somebody will one day put that bit on Youtube--maybe for Valentine's Day.
The cast includes Monroe Owsley, lip curled and cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger, as the dirty cad who marries Nasa, only to desert her for former love Thelma Todd. The Siren hadn't seen Todd outside of her sidekick work for the Marx Brothers, and it was sad to discover that had she not been murdered at age 29, she could have done well in bitchy other-woman roles, too. Roland's part is absolutely nothing--a loyal, supportive "half-breed" (this movie's flagrant racism is a given, alas). But he gives Moonglow warmth and gentleness; combined with his stellar work in the 1950s, including The Bad and the Beautiful, The Furies and The Bullfighter and the Lady, the Siren has become a big Roland fan.
The main attraction, no question, is Bow. She spends a lot of time in barely-there costumes, she looks ravishing, and Dillon's camera ogles her breasts so often--the cleavage when she's bending over, the profile, the view from below, the 45-degree side angle--that after seeing Call Her Savage you can piece it together and truthfully say you've seen Clara Bow topless. Her dress strap slips and the Siren thinks, "Eat your heart out, Marilyn." Despite that rather degrading scene with the Great Dane this is, in many ways, an ideal vehicle for Bow because it requires simmering physicality and the nerve to go all-out in nearly every scene. When Owsley rises from the bed where he's been confined by a slight case of tertiary syphilis and tries to rape Bow, she really fights, like a cornered animal fights. A brawl in a Greenwich Village dive shows that she could really throw a punch. And a mid-movie tragedy, and her scenes with Roland, also show that grief and tenderness were very much part of Bow's range.
Bow's comeback, for the record, worked; Call Her Savage was a hit. She wouldn't make many more movies, however. She married cowboy star Rex Bell and retired in 1933 to become a wife and mother. Biographer David Stenn (whose Runnin' Wild the Siren recommends) concludes that Bow was schizophrenic, and that, ironically, retiring was the worst thing she could have done. Without the outlet and identity that film work provided, there was no place to escape the demons.
As entertaining as Call Her Savage is, it takes on a sad tinge for those who remember that one of Clara Bow's first great loves was Gilbert Roland. Toward the end of her life, after she'd spent years in and out of institutions, Stenn says Roland was one of the few people Clara Bow still wanted to see: "Still handsome, and still my favorite actor," she would say after his visits.
If you are in New York, go see these movies, OK?