Call Her Savage (1932)

Comments Off on Call Her Savage (1932) 01 May 2015

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Studio:  20th Century Fox
Distributed By:  20th Century Fox Cinema Archives
Director:  John Francis Dillon
Rating:  Not Rated
Reviewed By James M. Dubs

I’ll watch anything…including Call Her Savage.

In 2014, the motion picture Boyhood won critical acclaim for the filmmaker’s ability to patiently capture the growth and aging process of its cast over a 12-year period. Fans have showered it with accolades and awards. Non-fans have criticized it for being hollow and gimmick filmmaking. Regardless of which side you stand, Boyhood offered an intimate look at a family as it explored the good/bad of the human condition.

In 1932, the motion picture Call Her Savage dared to explore characters who were neither good nor bad but found themselves drawn to morally corrupt decisions and actions through their own motivations and desires. Much of the tension arises from how these characters collide and the drama that comes from a single bad decision. There are multiple times during the film in which tragedy could be avoided if only our protagonist chose option “A” instead of option “B” and it makes for a very human experience and compelling narrative.

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

Savage_1Call Her Savage, based on Tiffany Thayer’s 1931 novel by the same name, begins well before our title character is born. A wagon train moves through the old west and a mother watches over her daughter, Ruth, playing with an older boy, Pete. We learn that Ruth’s “Pa” is in the rear wagon, cheating on his wife. Of course, everyone in the camp knows this is happening and as a bit of foreshadowing, one of the men comments that Pa’s actions will bring trouble. After a vicious Indian attack leaves a handful dead, the general consensus among the men is that Pa’s indiscretions have brought forth the bloodshed, and sets up the film’s main theme uttered by one of the men, “A man passes his nature to his children.”

Flash forward several years to Rollins, TX and a grown Pete (Willard Robertson) and Ruth (Estelle Taylor) have married. Their marriage is strained, but despite this they have a single daughter named Nasa. The first time we meet Nasa (Clara Bow), she is riding horseback through the family ranch. The horse gets spooked by a rattlesnake, bucking Nasa off and onto the ground. In a fit of rage, Nasa whips the snake until it slithers in retreat. Nasa’s friend, Moonglow (Gilbert Roland), a ranch hand and self described “halfbreed” of white men and Native-Americans, rides up to Nasa’s aid, but Nasa turns her rage toward the man whipping him across the chest. Moonglow takes it is good stride as he’s apparently used to Nasa’s rage, spit, and hell-fire. Only after Nasa inadvertently cuts Moonglow’s face does she come to her senses and she asks, “Why am I like this? I hate to get angry, but I just can’t help it. Why can’t I be like other girls?”

Savage_3Nasa’s impulses aren’t curbed even after her father sends her to Chicago, IL to a private girl’s academy. In fact, her fiery temper seems to get worse as she fights and boozes her way, earning the nickname Nasa “Dynamite” Springer from the Chicago press. Call Her Savage chronicles Nasa’s remaining self-destructive exploits as she goes from one bad choice after another, attempting to manage the many men who want to control or take advantage of her. By the film’s climax, Nasa will learn many lessons the hard way and a final surprising twist will lead to her redemption or downfall.

Savage_5I’ve tried incredibly hard not to spoil the movie, but in doing so I feel that I’m not doing the film proper justice in my synopsis. There are many, many more details that I want to talk about and even more characters worth mentioning but I fear doing so would cause me to slip and say something that would reveal too much. So I’ll say this: Call Her Savage took me completely by surprise and had me enthralled. My notions of 1930s cinema center around movies like King Kong, Dracula, Public Enemy, or Wizard of Oz. Call Her Savage offered me something new and different that I hadn’t seen from films in this time period.

To start, the cast is roundly fantastic, but specifically, Clara Bow is electric as the unbridled Nasa. Most of the weight of the film is on her shoulders and she handles it with an energy and charisma that keeps the viewer engaged. Even more impressive is that her character is deeply flawed and even though she seems to continually make poor decisions or find herself in bad situations, we like watching her and never give up on her, even when everyone else does.

Call Her Savage is also notable as it is one of a number of early Hollywood films that is described as “pre-code” meaning that the film was produced before any ratings board or censorship pressure was being levied against the studios. What this means is that filmmakers felt they had much more artistic license to do and say what they needed. In the case of Call Her Savage, this helped produce a much darker and bleak film than one might be accustomed to seeing from 1932 cinema. Adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, violence, greed, rape are just a handful of the character sins displayed throughout the film. Additionally, Nasa may represent one of Hollywood’s earliest “anti-heros”.


By today’s standards, it is quite common place to have a protagonist with a moral compass dialed off-center (Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is my current favorite). Just look at almost any popular TV show today and 9 times out of 10 the main character is flawed or corrupt in some significant way, but in 1932 it was much less common. Even films from the same decade, like Scarface and Public Enemy, may have had title character’s who were not “good guys” but these characters were almost always gangsters or criminals. Nasa is different in that she is not a gangster or criminal (at least not a professional one). She is a girl from a affluent family, making morally objectionable choices that would make any parent cringe. And unlike Oz’s Dorothy, Nasa is most certainly not the film’s moral compass. That honor is bequeathed to Moonglow.

In fact, the only characters in Call Her Savage who are not “savage” (clearly an intentional play on the word) and do not engage in regular depravity are the few Indian/Native-American characters. Granted, the “Indians” are all played by white men (which would be considered racist by today’s standards), but the larger point is that if anyone can be considered the “good guys” it is Moonglow and others from his ilk. Without Moonglow, Nasa has no moral compass or standard by which to aspire.

Call Her Savage resonates with me because I find the film to translate incredibly well to 2015’s culture despite the 83 year gap! Many of Nasa’s struggles are no different than your mother’s, sister’s, or daughter’s. and whether she succeeds or fails makes for very compelling drama. Between the social commentary of the treatment of Native American’s, treatment of women, or the themes revolving around the sins of the father, there is a fascinating character study of a single woman driven or even cursed by her own nature.

Video & Audio Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Savage_6In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art restored Call Her Savage for the third annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. MoMA is one of a handful of institutions dedicated to the preservation of classic and important films. Unfortunately, Call Her Savage has been assigned to the Cinema Archives division of 20th Century Fox’s distribution pipeline. This typically means a bare-bones, DVD-R copy of catalog titles. From a financial standpoint, I understand this move as most have not heard of this 1932 film. After all, we’re not talking about Star Wars here, and there is little financial justification for 20th Century Fox to invest money into a sure loser for them. However, it sounds like MoMA did most of the heavy lifting and if a restored print exists it begs the question, why didn’t it find it’s way onto a digital medium?

So set your expectations appropriately. Call Her Savage should probably feel blessed to even get enough attention to have a DVD-R dump so modern audiences can gain a copy if one so desires. Unfortunately, “dump” is all the studio has done to get this film into the general public. The film print is worn and used. There are several vertical scratches in the image throughout the feature. Additionally sound is “muddy”, impacting dialogue most of all, presenting a slightly distorted and poorly defined audio experience overall. Neither one of these necessarily detract from the movie experience because it is persistent throughout, but I’m obligated to rank the DVD with a low score only by comparison to “remastered” titles from the same decade. Despite all of this, I would much rather watch a scratched film print of Call Her Savage than a poorly photographed digital HD movie.

Extras Rating: N/A

Savage_4Not even a trailer. Boo!

Overall Rating: ★★½☆☆

Savage_8It’s a disappointing release from an otherwise phenomenal film. Despite poor audio/video and zero extras, I would still recommend Call Her Savage wholeheartedly. Audiences looking for good cinema don’t necessarily need to look forward for great storytelling. In the case of Call Her Savage, the filmmaker’s were exploring themes central to the human condition 83 years ago. As a point of comparison, Boyhood currently holds a “fresh” score of 98% per Rotten Tomatoes. I would venture that Call Her Savage is just as good, if not better, and achieves many of the same narrative points without the gimmicks.


- who has written 68 posts on UnRated Film Review Magazine | Movie Reviews, Interviews.

James Dubs is a father and husband who loves his family first and movies a close second. He believes every movie is worth watching once and, as a film fan and critic, believes that even the worst movies offer something in return. His mission is to watch anything and report without pretension. Follow James Dubs on Twitter and send him suggestions on movies you would like reviewed - popular, obscure, independent, etc. He'll watch anything for you.

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