The first in a month long series of pieces on pre-code Hollywood running on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday…
by Allan Fish
(USA 1932 88m) not on DVD
The sins of the fathers
p Sam E.Rork d John Francis Dillon w Edwin J.Burke novel Tiffany Theyer ph Lee Garmes m Peter Brunelli, Arthur Lange art Max Parker
Clara Bow (Nasa ‘Dynamite’ Springer), Gilbert Roland (Moonglow), Thelma Todd (Sunny DeLan), Monroe Owsley (Larry Crosby), Estelle Taylor (Ruth Springer), Fred Kohler (Silas Jennings), Margaret Livingston (Molly), Oscar Apfel, Russell Simpson,
Ask any serious film connoisseur to name the sexual icon of twenties cinema and it’s a reasonably safe bet that Louise Brooks would get more votes than any other. Yet she was off-Hollywood, as it were, her potential – Beggars of Life aside – only realised in the German seediness of G.W.Pabst. Hollywood’s own sex symbol was Clara Bow, and her ultimate fate is as depressing as her personality was anything but. Here’s the girl who so personified Elinor Glyn’s definition of ‘It’ that they made Clara the star of a film of the same title, a star not afraid to tantalise her audience, as in the skinny dip sequence in Hula, and very aware of the effect she had on men. As David Thomson observed, “her fevered agitation – the fluttering eyes, the restless fingering of men, and teasing angled glances – does seem to speak for the liberated lascivious energies of the new American girl of the twenties.” Sadly, Clara went a little too far, her excesses and exhibitionism legendary, with rumours of wild parties that became gang bangs – an entire football team, so they say – so that eventually middle class moral America shunned her and she was washed up and washed out by 30.
Yet don’t let anyone tell you that she didn’t cope with talkies, the truth is very different, as her last two films made at Fox illustrate, with Clara shown in an altogether more intriguing light. The last, Hoop-La, is memorable for her skinny dip, insouciant yet casual stripping into her night clothes, her snake-eyed costume and her general ‘go ahead and look’ attitude to her body which would have made Jean Harlow blush. Unbelievably, it was also the influence for Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds. The penultimate, though crazier and more uncontrolled, now seems even more fascinating…
Nasa Springer is a wild, crazy daughter of a railroad owner who, unbeknownst to her, is actually half breed through her neglected mother’s affair with an Indian, and also contains the bad blood of her grandfather a generation earlier. Sick of her wildness, her dad sends her to Chicago to correctional school, which patently doesn’t work, and her ‘dynamite’ social antics become the source of many gossip headlines.
We first see Clara feverishly whipping her horse to go faster, before he throws her in fright upon seeing a snake. She’s undaunted and proceeds to whip said snake before a half breed ranch hand comes along. Then when he laughs, she pulls him off his horse and gives him a good whipping, too. And if that wasn’t enough, the whole sequence showcases Clara in a silk blouse which not only shows she wasn’t wearing any bra, but which also showed the temperature on set in a way I trust I needn’t explain. Here was a girl with more than a touch of nymphomania and not afraid to show it, and even though the film slowly finds a spine of morality running through it, it’s in such a way as only the pre-Code days could allow, as she finds herself with a baby, living in the slums and forced onto the streets.
By 1932, though only 26, Clara could do blowsy, she could do slutty in her sleep, and yet the vulnerability behind it is startling. Even in such sensational scenes as her strutting round in the flimsiest negligee or enjoying a fierce catfight with Thelma Todd, she’s raw, real, and captivating. It’s amazing in retrospect that she didn’t take, but then again, the Code was round the corner, and a Clara post-code was unthinkable. Call Her Savage, if ultimately junk, finds her at her best, both in performance, humour, sass and downright salaciousness, and epitomises why David Thomson further added that “it was people like Clara Bow who taught the cameras how lucky they were.” When she asks “why can’t I be like other girls?”, you can only murmur, paraphrasing a famous Cole Porter song, she was “too darn hot!”