Saturday, December 7, 2013

CALL OF THE WILD: Blu-ray (2oth Century Pictures 1935) Fox Home Video

Very loosely based on Jack London’s famed novel, with artistic liberties taken to remake the story over as a vehicle for Clark Gable, William A. Wellman’s Call of the Wild (1935) is a rather fractured and episodic action/melodrama with intermittent nods to comedy ably supplied by one of cinema’s treasured hams, Jack Oakie. Gable was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reigning king at the box office at the time. So it’s perhaps rather jarring to find him in a 20th Century Picture produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Except that Louis B. Mayer, then head of MGM also had an invested interest in the fledgling amalgamation of 2oth Century-Fox and agreed to the loan out of his number one star. It is frankly appalling that Gable’s illustrious tenure at MGM has yet to make its way to home video in any sort of meaningful way. The ‘king’ ought to have been featured on Blu-ray a long time ago – particularly his early MGM flicks opposite Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. But, I digress.
Call of the Wild is, or rather ought to have been, the story of Buck – a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie stolen from his master’s home by a wayward servant with a gambling addiction and sold for profit into the harsh wilderness as a sled dog during the Yukon gold rush days. Too bad for Buck – who does appear, though in minor support – that the last canine to be immortalized as a star was Rin-Tin-Tin at Warner Bros.; ironically a series fostered under Zanuck’s tenure as producer.  As it stands, Wellman’s Call of the Wild is a movie about the competition, as well as the camaraderie, between men. William Wellman, affectionately known to his friends as ‘Wild Bill’ because of his zeal for making movies depicting the unflinching harshness of life, seems to have bitten off a good deal more than either he, Gable or Buck can chew.
The first two thirds of Gene Fowler and Leonard Praskins’ screenplay is a meandering mess through a series of rambling vignettes that periodically fade to black to advance the narrative timeline. We get flashes of London’s Yukon tale, itself semi-autobiographical and based on his own exploits as a young man. But these have been feathered into Fowler and Praskins’ problematic three act revision that aims to make something of a stock romantic melodrama out of the middle, bookended by a buddy-buddy male-bonding drama between stern prospector, Jack Thornton (Gable, and named John Thornton in the book) and the delightfully obtuse, Shorty Hoolihan (Jack Oakie – a scene-stealing and enlivening entity, but a complete fabrication with no counterpart in London’s novel).  
Director Wellman took his cast and crew to various locations in California and Nevada convincingly substituted for the Canadian Yukon. And Wellman manages too to regain control over the meandering plot after Jack, Shorty and the rather dulcet diva, Claire Blake (Loretta Young) discover an abandoned cabin deep in the woods; the ‘promised land’ for a considerable claim first discovered by her husband, John (Frank Conroy); first presumed dead but later miraculously resurfacing to complicate the burgeoning romance between Claire and Jack. Incidentally, Gable – then married to his agent – and Young carried on a notorious love affair during the making of Call of the Wild, resulting in Young secretly giving birth to their daughter.
In their feeble attempt to concoct clear cut villainy to counterbalance this failed on screen romance, Fowler and Praskins have also badly mangled London’s original tale even further with the invention of the downright maniacal, Mr. Smith (Reginald Owen); an imposing, yet somewhat effete, but rather wealthy prospector who is determined to stake his claim on the mysterious gold mine before anyone else does, or murder all those who dare make the attempt along the way.  
There’s really no point using up the rest of this review to do side by side comparisons between London’s novel and the movie. The two are irreconcilable to such an extreme that it would behoove the first time viewer to discard the memory of Jack London’s immortal book altogether and simply run with the premise that Call of the Wild – the movie – is an entirely different prospect. We begin our story with Jack Thornton’s declaration inside a packed saloon that he is off to California. His final act in the bawdy, gaudy, lusty and dusty tundra is to buy everyone a farewell drink. Too bad for Jack, that his thinking, muddled by too much alcohol, leads into a game of poker stacked against him. In short order, Jack’s earnings are whittled down to nothing. But a ray of hope resurfaces after an old friend, Shorty Hoolihan – newly released from prison – informs Jack of a friend of a friend he heard about in San Francisco who just happened to be in possession of a map leading straight to a rich gold prospect somewhere in the Yukon.  Shorty claims to have stolen – and later eaten – the map to keep the location a secret; ‘regurgitating’ it from memory onto a piece of paper he shows Jack with the proposition that they join forces and split the profits from their discovery fifty-fifty.
With renewed excitement, Jack rushes off to tell his gal, the prostitute Marie (Katherine DeMille) about his plan of action, only to find her in the arms of her pimp (LeRoy Mason). Knocking the man unconscious, Jack demands that Marie furnish him with whatever cash she has saved up, discovering her hiding place behind an embroidered canvas that reads ‘Home Sweet Home’. “You gonna hit me too?” Marie coldly inquires. But Jack just holds up the bag containing Marie’s loot. “This is the best way to hit you, baby,” he tells her, before heading off to rejoin Shorty. Next, the pair engages Joe Groggins (Sidney Toler) to sell them some sled dogs for the arduous journey.  Groggins is in possession of a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie who has yet to be broken in. The massive animal named Buck is intimidating. But Jack recognizes Buck’s extraordinary abilities and offers to buy the animal for his team. In the meantime, the demonic Mr. Smith and his cohorts arrive with a similar prospect for Groggins. That is, until Buck all but terrorizes Smith. Smith still wants to pay Groggins for the animal, only now merely for the satisfaction of shooting him.
Jack steps in and claims Buck for his own, refusing to sell him at any price to Smith, thereby setting up a rivalry that will endure throughout the rest of the movie. Not long after starting out on their journey, Jack and Shorty come across the base camp of John and Claire Blake; the latter left alone to her own defense against a pack of wolves after John set out in search of supplies. But that was two days ago. Jack tells Claire that when a man doesn’t come back after two days in the wilderness he probably isn’t coming back at all. After much consternation, Jack subdues and drags Claire with him and Shorty into a nearby town where he confides in her that he believes she and they are after the same prospector’s claim. Claire reluctantly tells Jack about the map and Jack shares Shorty’s rendition of it with her to clear up the specifics. Meanwhile, Smith arrives in town still intent on killing Buck. After an inebriated Jack brags to an old friend, Sam (Herman Bing) that Buck can pull a thousand pound load by himself for a hundred yards, Smith challenges Jack with a thousand dollar bet – money badly needed by Jack to continue his quest for the gold.
Jack commits Buck to the seemingly impossible task by taking the bet and Buck, having become loyal to Jack, does indeed pull the sled laden down with a thousand pounds of supplies from one end of the street to the other as the whole town turns out to cheer and look on. Smith begrudgingly pays out the bet and Jack, Shorty and Claire depart with all speed for the last length of their journey. They find the abandon cabin and the gold and quickly gather what they can in small satchels. Jack sends Shorty back into town to file their claim before anyone else can. For a while, Jack and Claire enjoy the quiet domesticity of this isolated location. But Jack is perturbed when Buck repeatedly goes off into the woods to follow a lonely wolf’s cry in the night. Regrettably, Smith resurfaces – having been led to the cabin by John Blake, who has miraculously survived his ordeal, only to be beaten unconscious by Smith’s henchmen. Smith takes the satchels of gold dust and shoots Jack’s team of dogs dead so that neither Jack nor Claire will be able to pursue him into town. Smith elects to take the river. But the strong undercurrent and raging rapids prove perilous. Smith’s canoe overturns. 

Laden with their heavy satchels of gold, Smith and his men drown as Claire and Jack look on. Sometime later, Jack finds John lying unconscious on the ground and Claire reveals to Jack that John is her husband. Her emotions are conflicted, but Claire eventually comes to the understanding that her place is at her husband’s side. After John is nursed back to health he agrees to become partners with Jack who will stay on to work the mine. Claire and John depart the cabin and after a snowy few days, Shorty returns to Jack, having registered their claim in town.
As a vehicle for Clark Gable, Call of the Wild is an ill fit. It affords Gable only a minor opportunity to play off of his trademarked roguish masculinity. Jack Thornton isn’t a very likeable character. He’s rather cold-hearted, drinks to excess and treats women and most of his male associates with a generalized contempt as inferiors, masking his ego with a half-crooked smile to get what he wants. Moreover, Gable doesn’t get the girl in the final reel, something the actor usually insisted upon. It’s a tough sell – Gable as reprobate – and at intervals it really doesn’t work.
Jack Oakie does his best to steal Gable’s thunder; his Shorty Hoolihan a delightful presence that really enlivens the program. Reportedly, Oakie lost forty pounds to play opposite Gable, determined to look slimmer to ‘compete’ with Gable – albeit not in the realm of Gable’s raw animal magnetism, but rather to appear at least a worthy sidekick who could physically hold his own. The camaraderie between Gable and Oakie clicks – a definite asset since Gable and Loretta Young never seem to make it to first base – at least, within the context of the fictional story. In reality they were fairly hot and heavy throughout the making of Call of the Wild, Young’s pregnancy and subsequent birth of Gable’s love child – a daughter named Judy – leading to a delay in Young’s own advancing movie career.
Viewed today, Call of the Wild isn’t altogether satisfying, and not just because it has practically nothing to do with Jack London’s immortalized novel. Director William Wellman seems to have considerable difficulty getting his movie off the ground. The structure of the first act is painfully episodic, Wellman repeatedly fading to black after mere snippets and sound bytes from his stars to advance the story along. It’s difficult to invest ourselves in these characters because the Fowler/Praskins’ screenplay really doesn’t give any of its formidable stock players all that much to do except utter a few throw-away lines of dialogue before being excised from the rest of the story.
The one reoccurring character apart from our stars is Reginald Owen’s vial Mr. Smith – a nemesis without a motive, as it were. Apart from his rather bloodless quest to possess the gold there really isn’t any legitimate reason for him to take an instant dislike to either Buck or Jack. As a result, his character rather quickly degenerates into the stock and clichéd evil doer. The greatest villains are always those who harbor a darker motive beneath their actions. Smith is just a very wicked sort. Superficially, it works because Reginald Owen is a superb actor. But he is neither memorable nor frightening: just sad and very creepy. Call of the Wild is a claptrap at best .It doesn’t hold up nearly as well as many of Gable’s best recalled adventure yarns from the 1930’s. But these all belong to the king’s MGM canon, currently under license to Warner Home Video; the powers that be there having been remiss in their duties to give us Clark Gable’s legacy in hi-def for future generations to admire and enjoy. Will it ever happen? At this point I’d have to say highly unlikely.
So, for now we will have to content our adoration of Gable’s man’s man with Fox Home Video’s Call of the Wild. The B&W transfer plainly illustrates the ravages of time. While most of the movie looks quite solid, there are scenes that exhibit a heavy patina of grain and sudden loss of fine detail. Presumably, these portions of the movie were not derived from first, or perhaps even second generation elements but whatever surviving film stock exists. Fox has done its best to clean up this hi-def presentation. But age-related artifacts do intrude from time to time.  The image is inconsistent at best. Add to this, overall contrast just a tad too dark and what we have is a visual presentation a hair above middle of the mark in all aspects. The DVD of Call of the Wild was brighter on the whole and, as a result, during the sequences photographed at night there was more visible fine detail.
The Blu-ray does look superior in its tonal blacks during scenes photographed during the day. But the darker sequences suffer from an enveloping layer of crushed blacks. During the sequences taking place at night around the campfire, as example, we lose all but the flickering tonality of flesh, Jack Oakie and Gable’s disembodied heads appearing to float through a veil of dense grain and darkened murkiness. The DTS original mono and stereo remixes are adequate for this presentation. We also get an audio commentary by noted historian Darwin Porter – a holdover from Fox’s aforementioned DVD. Bottom line: passable entertainment with a middle grade transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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