The Call of the Wild (1935)

I’m finally getting on to writing about William A Wellman films made after the Hays code was enforced – although there are still just a few more of his pre-Codes which I hope to track down in the future! His 1935 drama The Call of the Wild, very loosely adapted from Jack London’s classic novel, has been released on DVD, but only as part of a region 1 box set, the Clark Gable Collection Vol 1.  Sadly, it seems that the only surviving print is 14 minutes shorter than the original release, 81 minutes long rather than the original 95  - according to the imdb, the film was reissued during the Second World War, and some scenes were chopped out as they were felt to be too daring.

I did read Jack London’s book while at school, but must admit my memory of it is pretty hazy after all these years. However, I know it is mainly focused on the animal story, told from the viewpoint of an unusual dog, Buck, who is taken to the Klondike gold fields but eventually leaves his owners to become the leader of a wolf pack. Wellman’s film adaptation does feature a dog – a beautiful and talented St Bernard – but the animal story is very much in second place to that of the human characters, with a romance between Clark Gable and Loretta Young dominating the drama. This means some Jack London fans are rather dismayed by this version, but, if you don’t worry about the book, I think the film stands up well on its own.

 

Clark Gable and Buck the St Bernard

 

It’s a powerful blend of melodrama and comedy with some stunning scenery (Charles Rosher’s black and white cinematography is great) – and it has the theme of man battling against the elements which is so central to many of Wellman’s movies. The film was made at a time when Hollywood crews were starting to venture beyond the backlots and filming on location – it was one of the biggest productions to be made in Washington state and I found an essay online which describes the economic impact of the filming and the excitement it caused in the area at the time.

The opening scenes see Gable’s character, Jack Thornton, hanging around in bars in the mining town of Skagway in the Yukon. (I loved the whole way that this ramshackle town looks, and, in particular, the sign advertising a dentist saying ‘bring your own gold for fillings’!) Thornton is a homesick prospector who wants to go home to Seattle, but after a few drinks he ends up gambling away his gold and doesn’t have the fare. However, he meets up with an old pal who has just got out of jail – fellow-gambler Shorty Hoolihan (Jack Oakie), who has illegally come by a map showing the way to an unclaimed gold mine. The pair decide to set out on the trail, but first need to buy some sled dogs. Thornton impulsively pays over the odds for a fierce, caged dog, Buck, in order to save the animal from being shot by a vindictive rival prospector, Mr Smith (Reginald Owen).

 

A still from the deleted scenes with Katherine DeMille's character

 

It seems as if Gable’s character in these opening scenes was originally somewhat wilder than he is in the surviving version of the film – a helpful user review at the imdb says that a character called Marie, played by Katherine DeMille, originally appeared in the opening saloon sequence but her scenes were cut due to her “questionable character”. I did find a still of one of these deleted scenes apparently showing Marie in a bedroom with Thornton, which looks as if there might have been some quite suggestive material included in these sequences, despite the Code. Anyway, Gable does still give an impression of wildness, smouldering darkly in the way that only he can – and this is underlined by his instinctive understanding and taming of the wild, violent dog. Wellman and Gable fell out during the making of this film, with Wellman feeling that Gable was messing him around and turning up late on set in the extreme weather conditions. But you would never know this to see his performance in the film.

 

Jack Oakie and Clark Gable

 

Jack Oakie’s role here is very similar to his turn as sidekick to Spencer Tracy in Wellman’s Looking For Trouble the previous year. Once again he has a lot of comic moments but always with a  strong buddy relationship underlying the humour – and you feel that he is always looking out for his more volatile friend and checking he is all right. According to the same review at the imdb that I’ve already referred to, the original intention was for Oakie’s character to be shot dead by the villainous Smith, but it was felt audiences wouldn’t put up with the comic actor being killed and so this scene was cut before release – however, this deleted scene apparently survives. It would be fascinating to see it.

As they try to find their way to the mine, Jack and Shorty come across the unconscious Claire Blake (Loretta Young), who was also trying to find the mine. She and her husband, John, got into trouble when their dogs died, and she says he has been gone for two days looking for food. Believing her husband must be dead, Jack and Shorty take her with them, and the three form a partnership looking for the gold. Before long, Jack and Claire are falling in love – while, in the background, the animal story is also unfolding, as Buck is torn between his relationship with the humans and his temptation to run away and join the wolves in the mountains.

Young gives a fine performance here, blending idealism with humour and determination, as in the other 1930s movies I’ve seen her in, including Midnight Mary (1933) and several other Wellman films. She does look rather improbably glamorous amid the wind and snow – but then, so does Gable. The couple’s romance famously carried on behind the scenes and led to the birth of a secret daughter, so it isn’t surprising that there is loads of chemistry between them on camera. Scenes where the two of them sit with the dog between them, both touching the animal and casting wistful looks at one another, work well in building up the unspoken emotion. In the end they admit their feelings – but then, in a twist which every fan of romantic dramas will have seen coming, Claire’s husband, John (Frank Conroy), turns up alive but injured and vulnerable, and she has to make a choice. It’s striking that, even in the first years of the Code, Wellman is sympathetic here to a woman torn between feelings for two men, as he was in pre-Codes like Other Men’s Women.

I enjoyed this movie a lot, both for the sweeping landscapes and for the powerful performances by the leads, especially Gable – this is one of the best roles of his I’ve seen and gives him far more scope than his earlier turn as a villainous chauffeur in Wellman’s Night Nurse. I didn’t really mind that the animal story is relegated to the background, but obviously anyone wanting a faithful adaptation of the Jack London story will probably want to go for another version – and there are several to choose from.

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15 thoughts on “The Call of the Wild (1935)

  1. Samuel Wilson

    Judy, I didn’t know about the censorship, but what survives still impressed me as fairly mature and clearly a transitional film as far as the Code is concerned. It has a charismatic cast all around, with Oakie and Owen especially impressing me. There’s a naturalism about Oakie that often seems ahead of his time for a comic and is totally missing from his most famous performance, in The Great Dictator. Owen is just sinister, but in nicely understated fashion. Wellman still has a lot of great films to go, and I’m looking forward to your reviews of them.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Many thanks, Samuel – I agree it is a charismatic cast and am glad to hear you like Oakie too. Must agree with you on his naturalism here – I have yet to see him in ‘The Great Dictator’. Sadly it seems as if several of Owen’s scenes were among those hacked out by the censor for the 1940s reissue of the film, so we don’t have his complete performance, but I agree with you that what remains is suitably sinister!

  2. Jason Marshall

    Judy, this movie sounds well worth watching, though it wasn’t on my radar. I love Jack London, though “Call of the Wild” was never one of my favorites, (I always preferred “White Fang”) so I won’t be offended by Wellman’s lack of fidelity to the book. I am looking forward to seeing what he did with the story and watching the performances you highlight.

    Your essay is top notch Judy. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Jason, every time I visit your blog I come away with even more films I need to see, so it’s only fair for me to do the same to you occasionally! I think you will enjoy this one – must admit I remember the book only hazily so was not too bothered by the fact that novel and movie bear very little resemblance to one another. Many thanks for your kind comments.

  3. Colin

    I’m not quite sure why but this film has been sitting on my shelf, unwatched, in the Gable set. I have been watching a few Gable movies recently though (The Misfits and Lone Star, and I’m trying to put some thoughts together on the latter as it happens) so I’ll try to get around to this one asap.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it, Colin – I’ve got ‘The Misfits’ waiting to watch soon (I saw it years ago but my memories of it are pretty hazy!) and really need to see more Gable in general. Will look forward to reading your thoughts on ‘Lone Star’, another one I hope to see.

  4. Sam Juliano

    “I enjoyed this movie a lot, both for the sweeping landscapes and for the powerful performances by the leads, especially Gable – this is one of the best roles of his I’ve seen and gives him far more scope than his earlier turn as a villainous chauffeur in Wellman’s Night Nurse.”

    Indeed Judy. Gable was at the peak of his powers and the material here brought out his (macho) talent compellingly. CALL OF THE WILD is not an easy book to film, as it’s thematic (greed, survival, man vs. nature) and episodic, even with the unforgettable characters and setting. In this sense it poses some comparisons with Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH for obvious reasons. But there is really little to compare with Wellman’s film and London’s novel as as the former makes only partial use of the incidents. Yet, under Wellman’s guidance it’s an entertaining film, and one that in large measure captures the spirit of London.

    Although it’s been years since I saw this film, (and have refrained from using it in any classes) I loved Reginald Owen and that adorable St. Bernard, but there’s no denying the star here is cinematographer extraordinaire Charles Rosher, who uses locations to superlative effect. As we all know, Rosher’s work on SUNRISE is often regarded as the greatest of all-time.

    Judy, I just received my Warner Archives DVD of Wellman’s THE HAPPY YEARS (1950) this week.

    Again you have enriched the Wellman landscape here immeasurably!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I definitely agree that Rosher’s cinematography here is wonderful. It’s interesting to hear your view as someone who knows the book so well, Sam, – I can well understand that you wouldn’t want to use this version in classes as the actual story of the novel takes a back seat, but glad to hear that you like it anyway as a film. I must agree that Gable’s character is quite macho in this, although he is also allowed to be vulnerable at times.

      Good to hear that you have got ‘The Happy Years’. Warner Archive is doing Wellman proud at the moment by releasing quite a lot of his titles – we just need the other studios to catch up! Many thanks for your support, as ever, Sam.

  5. John Greco

    Judy, This is anothor one I have got to check out. Your review makes it sound enticing. My list of must sees just keeps getting longer no matter how many films I watch.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I know the feeling, John – if I could just spend all day watching movies then maybe I’d get somewhere with that ever-growing list!

  6. ellenandjim

    I’ve seen this film — or another with Gable and Young. I didn’t know they had a daughter. Young used to be on US TV in reruns of movies in the 1950s. I particularly like the last still of Gable. My hunch from your stills is he in reality has a boyish appeal.

    Ellen

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I like that last still best too, Ellen. I do love collecting these movie stills – they are really an art form in their own right apart from the movies. It would be interesting to find out more about the photographers. I have probably seen more films featuring Young than Gable, but hope to see more of both of them and get more feeling for their range of roles. Thank you very much for commenting.

  7. Pingback: Danny Boyle’s ’127 Hours,’ Mario Bava’s ‘Black Sabbath,’ Carvival of Souls and Ozu on Monday Morning Diary (November 8) « Wonders in the Dark

  8. Adam Zanzie

    How does the movie end, Judy? I read London’s novel a couple of years ago and although I don’t remember the whole thing, I distinctly remember that it concludes with Thornton being slaughtered by a tribe of Native Americans–provoking Buck to devour all of them and then discover his inner carniverous wolf-self awakening. Does Wellman’s film end in a similar way?

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Nothing like that in this version, Adam!! At the end Thornton is alone in the cabin, prospecting and looking a bit sad, when Hoolihan bursts in to rejoin him, accompanied by a cook who he claims he “won” in a game of cards! So it is a sort of joke happy ending after the romantic anguish earlier. There are glimpses of Buck with the wild wolves, but nothing more than that.

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