Anyone who has ever had to spend an extended amount of time with me will know that I like to ramble. I will start with one point and along the meandering road it takes to get to it, I will explode in an on-going trail of additional information. I like context. More often than I like to admit though, I’ll get too excited about with what I’ve veered off to and forget the initial point of the story…but this usually only lasts a moment. There’s just so much information, AH. So think of me as a wondering grandma you found in a park who wants to tell you all about the “good old days” but can’t quite recall the current year. She knows it, at least she knows she knew it, but everything else she has to tell you just seems so much more pertinent to her being that she must let you know too.
And that’s what happened when I decided I wanted to write a little paragraph about my favourite Clara Bow movie, Call Her Savage (1932). Now. For those of you who don’t know who Clara Bow is, she was cinema’s original “IT” girl. A legacy of hers you may not know you’re already acquainted with is Betty Boop. Boop was the fictional creation based off of two very real women Annette Hanshaw (Voice!) and Clara Bow (Sex! Flapper hair bob!). Bow was once Hollywood royalty during the silent era of cinema, and fell victim to the “talkies” that proved to destroy the careers of so many silent stars and actors. Bow made her last film in 1933 (Hoop-la) and after years of fighting what has been described as a “mental imbalance” that caused her to be confined to a sanatorium on different occasions, Bow died in obscurity in 1965 at age 60.
You with me? Good. Abrupt change. People know Marilyn Monroe. At this point it’s difficult not to. Even if someone has never seen one of her films, they at least know her image and iconography. During her lifetime, and years past her death, Monroe has proven to be a sex symbol who may never lose her appeal. However before Marilyn there was another blonde bombshell who rocked the cinematic screen. One who Monroe in fact saw as a role model and fashioned herself off of, and her name was Jean Harlow.
Harlow too was once Hollywood royalty. She starred along some of film’s greatest actors during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood – a time when living in Hollywood meant you could order a full glass of cream to wash down your meaty, meaty death burger, instead of closing your eyes as you will your body to gulp down yet another shot of wheatgrass. Harlow was known to be a spitfire of the screen. She made her first big mark in film starring in Howard Hughes costly production Hell’s Angels (1930). Additionally, Hughes insisted that a handful of reels of the film be made in colour – not a common or economical practise at the time – to this day one of these rare reels which was found in John Wayne’s personal belongings, is the only known colour film of Harlow in existence. Harlow was the type of woman who could hold her own with Clark Gable, or James Cagney and play both vulnerable and dramatic, or hilarious and effervescent. My favourite films of hers are when she is paired with the talented and hysterically funny Una Merkel, those two were just comedic GOLD together. Sadly Harlow died in 1937 at age 26.
So why am I telling you this? Okay. Sex symbol time line: Marilyn Monroe based herself off of Jean Harlow, Jean Harlow based herself off of Clara Bow, Clara Bow was the first American “sex symbol” of the screen.
To be clear, saying Bow was the first “sex symbol” could cause a ruckus for film geeks. But think of it this way. Before the 1930’s there were no real genres. Sure you had German Expressionism and American melodrama just to name a couple, but there were no set categories of film types that had “formulas” – that came later, and really was more to do with film being an economic machine rather than a form of art, and let’s not even go into the mess that the Haye’s Code made in cinematic freedom… … …GAH.
So when I say Clara Bow was cinema’s first sex symbol I’m not saying there weren’t sexy women onscreen fulfilling the role of the “bombshell” before her. What I’m saying is that what Bow did for film sex symbols is what the Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man films did for the horror genre – they set a standard and made a categorization that was clear and thus could be continued and copied rather easily. Does that make sense? Alrighty.
So some of you may be confused, but me thinks that just means a need for more context! As I mentioned above, Bow was Harlow’s inspiration and much like how Monroe based herself off of Harlow, Harlow fashioned herself off of Bow. Harlow and Bow met on the set of The Saturday Night Kid (1929) and as legend has it Bow took a liking to Harlow. It is arguable that the original blonde bombshell may not have risen to stardom at all if not for Bow’s disposition towards her. In 1930’s Hollywood being a “discovered” bit player (like Harlow) was something only half-conceived dreams were made of, and more often than not these stories would end in tragedy, such as with the “Hollywood Sign Girl” Peg Entwistle.
RANDOM STORY. Entwistle was a struggling actress who, after too many rejections and career failures, took her own life by jumping off the H of the iconic landmark (then still “Hollywoodland”, the last four letters were not removed until 1949). Entwistle landed on the hills below at the age of 24 in 1932 and reportedly did not die right away. There are now tales that Entwistle’s perfume can be smelt around the same area and even reports of visitors seeing a woman fitting her physical description with appropriate dress, wondering around the sign. What makes Entwistle’s story all the more tragic is that allegedly a day or two after her suicide, her household received a letter letting Peg know that she had been chosen for a lead role. Even so, Entwistle was able to be immortalized in one film before she died, Thirteen Women (1932). The film was produced by David O. Selznick and was released just weeks after Entwistle’s body was found in the famous hills. And just for an extra dash of information, in a 1976 interview Bette Davis once attributed Peg Entwistle as the reason she wanted to go into the theatre. In Davis’ 1962 memoir “A Lonely Life” she even talks about how captivating it was for her to watch Entwistle onstage portraying Hedvig in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck back in 1926. If you are wondering who Bette Davis is… *sheering glare*
But back to Bow. The entire reason why I wanted to write this was initially to point out how I thought it was humorous that my favourite movie Bow ever made was in fact a “talkie”, rather than a silent. Call Her Savage is my favourite Bow film for a few reasons. Firstly, though the film is deeply flawed it also manages to have some pretty interesting and unexpected framing, angling and editing. And like any “good ol’ American” film of the 1930’s it’s chalked full of sexism, racism and even an insertion of night club homophobia. But hold that thought…
When Bow revealed her Brooklyn accent to the world, there was HUGE backlash. Like many silent stars, her real life self did not measure up to the conception of her silent screen persona. People thought her voice was harsh and unappealing. However. That is my next reason, I LOVE hearing Bow speak. Ironically enough Harlow had a rather similar sounding voice to Bow, sadly the studio just didn’t know how to market the seemingly “lower class”, brassy, sassy, assertive, sex bomb type at that time. Also, the quality of the mics after they were first introduced left a lot to be desired – the harsh quality in turn amplified the harshness of Bow’s New York accent which then served to amplify her insecurities. There is also an interesting cross-over happening in the film where parallels of the conception of who Bow was, who Bow really was, and the character she was playing in the movie all seem to mirror each other and overlap. Geek pleasure abounds!
One other aspect of the film that makes it oh so very excellent is the inclusion of Thelma Todd. Todd was a comedic actress who did her most well known work in the 1930’s. Her most notable works were probably her films with the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. I have to say right now, I find Todd hilarious. I’ve hunted down everything I could of her work and even when the films are falling apart at the seams, Todd is rarely ever a let down. Weirdly enough, before Harlow, Todd was also often coupled with Una Merkel – seriously Merkel and her timing, DAMN. Ahem.
However, another less enjoyable aspect of viewing Todd’s work is knowing about her death. Even today there is debate on the “accident” that took Todd’s life. What is known is that in the 1930’s Todd fulfilled her dream of running and owning her own cafe (named “Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe”), and during this time she was also dating a well-known gangster, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Apparently “Lucky” had been pushing Todd to launder money for him through her cafe, but she out-rightly refused, saying “over my dead body”. Not long after Todd’s body was found in her car, parked in a closed garage. The death was ruled as an “accident” despite the visual indicators that Todd had been beaten before she succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. There was also evidence that Todd was not the one who had driven the car, as her body was found slumped over the drivers side, almost as if someone had dragged her, but from the position she was in it was clear she had been sitting on the passenger side. Moreover, the closed garage was all but a highlighted sign blazing MURDER. Due to the connections of Luciano however, the truth of Todd’s death has never been fully revealed and still to this day the facts are rather confused. Todd died in 1935, at age 29.
Even so. When I see Todd onscreen it is always a pleasure. I’ll watch HBO’s Carnivale and just by hearing Libby (Carla Gallo) talk about how she wants to run away and go to Thelma Todd’s café, a certain kind of joy is sent through me. But I digress, so so much. Back to Bow.
Clara Bow was known to have a fear of the microphone – due to the backlash of the public hearing her voice, as well as the new-ness of the technology that caused it not to be trusted. This fear could very well of also been due to the lack of movement allowed to the actors of early “talkies”. The mic would usually be placed in a prop, like a vase of flowers, and the actors would then have to deliver their lines while hovering over said prop, talking into it. This caused for a static form of framing and for someone like Bow who was an onscreen totem of freedom and carnality, being limited in movement must have felt like being strapped down to the floor.
It was because of Bow’s fear of the mic that director Dorothy Arzner crafted the very first boom mic system by attaching a microphone to a fishing rod while on the set of The Wild Party (1929). This then allowed Bow to move more freely onset, while Arzner, or another set hand, would follow her around the stage. To deter from the point once more, I need to talk about Arzner.
Arzner is quite a notable woman in her own right. Not only did she create the first boom mic, she was also one of the only, if not the only, female director to successfully work through the silent era and into the “Golden Age” of Hollywood (she made her last film First Comes Courage in 1943), she was also the first woman to direct a “talkie” (Manhattan Cocktail (1928)), and was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America.
But back to the point one last time. Call Her Savage is a film I like to watch and rewatch. Much like Bow herself and the sex symbols who followed her, it is heartbreaking, uplifting and enthralling. It may not be the “best” film Bow ever made, but it is my favourite nonetheless.
Also. The year is 2013.