Some movie lovers carry around actual lists of films they haven't yet seen, to remind themselves of what's to come. I don't carry any such list, but if I did, one film on it would be 1927's Children of Divorce. This standard love-triangle weepie was first shot by studio man Frank Lloyd, then shelved by Paramount Pictures for being as bland as its title. Then, a stroke of luck: the studio ordered the film to be half re-shot by its assistant director, none other than 33-year old Josef von Sternberg, who was soon to enter his most creative years. Sternberg is said to have relished the opportunity to experiment, deluging the film with his trademark light-and-shadow-play, tossing out static long-shots in favor of intrusive close-ups, and otherwise taking full advantage of the haunting, teardrop face of 22-year old Clara Bow, who played the film's heroine, Kitty. Sternberg is also said to have supervised a thrilling finale, in which Kitty learns that the plot's romantic knots can only untie with her death.
The actress is supposedly seen scrawling a suicide letter, then sealing it with her own tears, before embarking on a ghostly walk through several open doors, in a sort of expressionist gallows procession. It sends shivers to think how well Sternberg's direction may have lighted on Bow, whose primary gift was to ground the most hopeless melodrama like a lightning rod through the sheer impact of real tears, which she could produce at a finger-snap. Born to a prostitute and a drunk in the slums of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, Bow certainly learned all about weeping before she got into the movie business, and picked up more lessons afterwards. Although she would eventually do her employers proud with a profitable string of near-identical flapper fantasies, including Rough House Rosie, Mantrap, and Fleet's In, she would be forever raked over hot coals by those same employers for her moderately rowdy personal life. It was a life they profited off of greatly, playing up Bow's hot-jazz-baby image to the hilt for the scandal rags of the day.
Bow's second-to-last film, before departing Hollywood for good at age 26, was Call Her Savage, recently screened as part of Film Forum's Before the Code festival. Based on this film, she clearly got out just in time. The picture is either a cruel flagellation or an unsuccessful attempt at self-mockery -- take your pick. Bow plays Nasa 'Dynamite' Springer, a spoiled heiress from an unhappy home who is also 'wild,' meaning she's retained most mental features of childhood into her twenties. She's prone to pounding her fists on the ground and waa-waa'ing like a baby. She's as impulsive as a cartoon character, giving no thought at all to laying something across the skull of anyone who annoys her. At one point, a Mariachi who doesn't heed her warning to silence his guitar is quickly wearing it. She gets giggles out of lashing people with a whip. She's unimpressed by sexual danger: the early scenes have her palling around with a male friend who nearly salivates over her exposed legs and the possibilities of exploiting her tomboy physicality.
Anyone who's seen the film wouldn't need to be told that director John Francis Dillon came of age in the silent era -- Call Her Savage feels like stylistic afterbirth, with the story floating forward aimlessly from one free-standing vignette to the next in a way that's almost needful of intertitles. It's a film where the power of deduction rules -- when Nasa is childless in one scene and holding a baby in the next, we must conclude that we've leaped forward in time. As the story moves along, a surfeit of lovers and husbands bounce in and out of the frame as casually as dance partners, a few of them even managing to leave with their skulls unbroken. Strangely unaffected by them all, Nasa is prone to balling up her private thoughts and then expelling them in the form of unanswerable questions like "Why is there always a fight going on inside me?" Her constant references to an inner motor that propels her actions but of which she has no control makes her sound like a schizophrenic.
As mentioned prior, Nasa does eventually manage to conceive a child with one man or another. There may be a missing scene somewhere of her lashing at the doctors in the delivery room with her whip. Totally unfit for motherhood, she soon ends up leaving the child alone in her apartment to go and galavant around the city. During one of these galavanting sessions, the film produces an unexpected eye-opener for a 1932 film -- a scene at an unmistakably gay bar in Greenwich Village. While Nasa is out, the apartment burns down with the baby inside it, an event which the film treats as just another cloud-nine interlude, free of consequence. It's not a traumatic occurrence in the slightest. It does nothing to slow Nasa down and goes further than any other scene to suggest that Call Her Savage's idea of 'wildness' is based around some recognizable form of psychosis -- anti-social personality disorder? -- in which actions and people leave no real imprint on the psychotic's personality. No matter what, they keep floating onward.
The film wraps where it started, with Nasa happy and 'free' back at her ranch. She has learned, through a series of contrivances, that -- wait for it -- she is actually not white, as she has always thought, but half-white, half-Indian. "I'm glad!" she says with relief. In that revelation lies the dissolution of her societal responsibilities, which is what she has craved. Every destroyed ballroom, every hair-pulling catfight, every suit-jacketed man with a bowl of spaghetti turned upside down on his head that's left in her wake is now excused. Nasa is wild. She's now free to indulge her 'savage' nature. I hope that, having relayed all that, I don't have to point out that the film is defiantly pre-Ethan in its racial assumptions, and cannot survive any analysis whatsoever on that level. Whatever dart you throw will be a direct hit. Call Her Savage is a weirdly personal little hit-job of a film. It asks a talented actress to use those talents to give screaming, crying life to a script seemingly made up of every rumor ever whispered about her, and then some.