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.
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).
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’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.