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 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?


Karen said...

Oh, MAN. Call Her Savage! I saw that with my sister at a Film Forum pre-Code festival probably over a decade ago, but that scene with the Great Dane will never fade from my memory.

I, too, was struck by Bow's vivacity and unchallengeable beauty. It's a horribly racist (and misogynist) film, but Bow makes it more than worth seeing.

Tom Block said...

It ain't a beautiful print but...

mndean said...

I love Call Me Savage, but it being so OTT had a strange effect on me. There were scenes that made me laugh out loud. When she finally is forced to walk the streets and she picks up Bert Roach, a fire engine speeds by with siren blaring. Even though I knew where that engine was going I couldn't stifle my laugh at the signal of Clara's hotness. A lot of the situations in the film were moth-eaten melodrama even at that time, but the resolutions are wild and unexpected.

La Faustin said...

Gilbert Roland! Have you seen him in Cukor's OUR BETTERS with Constance Bennett? Sultry and laugh-out-loud funny.

Vanwall said...

A lot of Bow's films for me are solely for viewing Clara, whether fully clothed, (something that was hard to sell even when she was) or partially clothed, (easier sell, and something you could easily imagine when she WAS fully clothed) just to watch her move - nobody moved through a scene like Clara Bow - she was the motion in motion pictures, even standing still. Her mobile expressions were always there, too, she's just plain fun to watch. She wasn't the most beautiful, or sexiest, for me, but she was more alive onscreen than most whole studios put together.

I'm not a huge fan of "Call Her Savage", not because of anything Bow does, just the rest isn't very appealing for me. Clara and Louise Brooks certainly lead the rest of H'wood in erect nipple shots, though.

Can't speak for "Wild Girl", haven't seen it, but I tramped the Sequoias a few times when I was younger, (my Dad was a Forest Ranger there right after WWII - learned to ride the mule and pack the horse) so I look forward to that aspect of it. "Salomy Jane's Kiss" is a favorite Hart of mine, I hope the story survives the film.

gmoke said...

Gilbert Roland was good all the way through to his last film, "Barbarosa," with Willie Nelson and Gary Busey.

StephenWhitty said...

Lovely, Siren. I first saw "Call Her Savage" at the FF too, a while back, and sat through it open-mouthed. (And yes, the Stenn book is very good.)

Have to say, off the subject, the infamous Great Dane scene reminds me of a photo shoot Debra Winger did for Annie Liebovitz many years ago. She was topless and wrestling her German Shepherd, who was also giving her a big kiss.

A very, deliberately peculiar shot and, I think, part and parcel of that symbolic (and sometimes real) middle finger Winger regularly raised at the Hollywood publicity machine back then. I've missed her in the movies; glad she'll be on Broadway soon.

bitter69uk said...

Wow! Anouk Aimee in the flesh? That would be dazzling. She has such mystique. Lola is probably her greatest performance. I saw Justine many years ago: an interesting failure. I love the stories about how Cukor hated Aimee! Call Her Savage sounds fascinating.

Casey said...

Roland has always been a favorite of mine. I feel like Hollywood type-cast him, rarely letting him show what he was capable of. There's an obscure film called The Torch, directed by Emilio Fernandez, where he really gets the chance to shine. The film is terribly uneven, at times heartbreakingly beautiful, at other times terribly silly. But Roland is great. His portrayal of a priest is imbued with a quiet dignity that you rarely get to see in his Hollywood roles.

La Faustin said...

THE TORCH sounds fantastic (Paulette Goddard!) -- and it can be viewed on Internet Archive. Thank you, Casey.

Yojimboen said...

Hey, a guy can only resist for so long… (I blame VW – all that chat about erect nipples, I had no choice):

Clara Bow by A.C. Johnston.

Never cared much for Call Me Savage (far from her best, but as you say, she was trying for a comeback), I think she was victimized to a large degree by hopeless over-direction.

Apropos Gilbert Roland, I think he was my first favorite movie star as a toddler (it didn’t hurt that he and my father had identical moustaches); he never gave a bad performance IMHO.

The Torch is one of 20 movies Emilio Fernandez shot with Gabriel Figeroa, one of the greatest cameramen who ever lived. (He shot seven films for Bunuel.)

Something a leader of the pack of Mexican artists (Pedro Armendarez; Dolores Del Rio, Gilbert Roland et al), Figeroa shot over 200 features, but, after 1947, none in the US – apparently HUAC didn’t care for his politics. Nonetheless directors like Welles, Ford, Don Siegel, Bunuel, Huston (twice) and others headed over the border for the opportunity to work with Figeroa.

This giant of an artist (he studied under Greg Toland) after shooting Ford’s The Fugitive, was never again permitted to work in the US. Even though Oscar®-nominated for Huston’s Night of the Iguana, the State Department wouldn’t let him in. H’Wood’s loss.
He died at 90 years-old, I like to think with his head held high.

AndrewBW said...

It's times like this that I wish I still lived in New York.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I have indeed spoken of Justine favorably. It was begun by Joseph Strick -- a filmmaker devoted to adapting literary classics. But what he was doing on loaton didn't please te powers that were at Fox at all. So the whole affair was recalled to Hollywood and Cukor was put at the helm. After his My Fair Lady Oscar Cukor had tried to get several projects off the ground (the biggest being The Nine-Tiger Man) with no success, so he jumped at Justine like a starving man. Instead of an on location "realistic" aproach he ade a good old-fashioned Hollywood film -- with modern kink around the edges. He and Dik Bogarde were already good friends so that worked swmmingly. He also struck up a considerable friendship with Anna Karina (to whom I apoke a few years back -- she adored him.) Michael York lived just up the block from Cukor so they already knew each other. The big problem was Anouk Aimee. In Gavin Lambert's On Cukor she was the only actress he had anything bad to say about. As it turns out the problem was she didn't know engish as well as she thought at the time. He'd give her directon and she's stare back at him blankly.

Still it all works.