Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Snapshot # 8 - The Savage Girl (1932)

What is it about?: An eccentric millionaire hires an intrepid jungle explorer to go to Africa to catch him some wild animals for his new zoo. While there they encounter the legend of the White Goddess – a savage girl who lives wild in the jungle.

The Call Sheet: Rochelle Hudson, Walter Byron, Harry Myers, Adolph Milar, Ted Adams and Floyd Shackleford

Behind the Camera: Directed by Harry L. Fraser, Written by Brewster Morse, Cinematography by Edward A. Kull.

Snapshot Thoughts: I’ve seen plenty Poverty Row movies in my time, and for the most part they pass the time of day and rarely make an impression. Using faded stars and journeymen directors, they are simple tales giving simple thrills, cranked out for an audience that really only came to see the main feature. In this environment it seems that there was little need to stand out from the crowd, but against all odds The Savage Girl does just that. Made by the tiny Monarch Pictures, with a veteran cast and crew, the movie manages to be both funny and entertaining. Unfortunately the print currently circulating derives from the Commonwealth Pictures 1948 reissue and includes a lengthy disclaimer encouraging the audience to see the movie for the childish fantasy that it supposedly is. It’s as if by the late 40s such whimsical jungle adventures were considered a minor embarrassment, despite the fact that much worse examples of the genre were continuing to be churned out by even the major studios. I guess it shows that people have always thought that current movies were the best and that anything old was dated and silly.

Given that the movie is essentially just a standard jungle adventure, all the usual clich├ęs we would come to expect are ready and present – stock footage, pith helmets, ferocious animals, jungle drums and spear wielding natives all make an appearance (not to mention colonialism and casual racism but sadly that’s to be expected). The difference here is that The Savage Girl has a collection of interesting characters, a couple of truly inspired and ridiculous ideas and a script that is at least trying to overachieve. The result is as good example of a fun and entertaining low budget movie this side of the Hal Roach lot. 

The story starts with veteran explorer Jim Franklin (played by Walter Byron) giving a lecture to a bunch of well to do gentlemen about his adventures in the jungle. Franklin confesses that despite his brushes with wild animals (which he proudly boasts, he only kills in self-defence) he feels he is “safer in Darkest Africa than in many a speakeasy or nightclub in this city”. His speech so inspires one of his listeners, a certain Amos P. Stitch (Harry Myers) that he decides there and then that he wants to open his own zoo and needs Franklin to stock it with animals. When asked why he replies “I want to be different!” It should also be noted that Stitch is very, very drunk, to the point that he thinks a stuffed animal head on the wall is talking to him. Franklin, though initially uncomfortable, agrees to his proposal and before you can say “So this is Africa!” they are in the jungle and saying “So this is Africa!”. Along the way Stitch manages to bring a taxi driver and his taxi as well as a collection of mice for his grand experiment – to see if elephants are actually afraid of mice. At this point you realise that the character of Amos Stitch wasn’t just drunk in the opening scene, he’s drunk 24 hours a day (in fact later on when he gets up first thing in the morning from his tent, he’s still drunk – that must be some powerful moonshine!)

Once there, they learn from Dutch explorer Alec Bernouth (Stitch: “Did you say Vermouth?”) the legend of the White Goddess, a figure of mystery worshiped by the native tribes. Before long we meet our Savage Girl, only to discover that she’s actually fairly tame. She’s pretty, very well dressed (by jungle loincloth standards) and kind to animals (she can talk to them too it seems). This proves to be her undoing as she is tricked into falling down a hole while attempting to free some of her captured jungle friends from their safari cages.

Once apprehended, it doesn’t take long for her to catch the eye of the men on the expedition, and she soon finds herself fighting off the unwanted attentions of a drunken and lecherous Bernouth (“She’s white, she’s beautiful, she’s warm, she’s smooth” he intones creepily). Luckily heroic Jim Franklin appears in time to save the day but even he has to muster all the stiff upper lip he can to resist her charms. In the end he sets her free and she runs off, pausing to look back in a sultry manner before climbing a tree and swinging off on a vine (and if you’re going to make a memorable exit, that’s the way to go). Later they meet again and she tries to kiss him, which elicits the classic line (deadpanned perfectly by Walter Byron) “You can’t do this you know - what would Walter Winchell say if he heard about it!” It’s quite interesting watching Byron in his scenes with Rochelle Hudson as he often seems quite flustered and in fact stumbles over his lines on more than one occasion. It’s doubtful that this is a reflection of his acting skills (which are admittedly fairly average) but instead I’d like to think more likely a commentary on how tongue tied one could get doing a love scene with the delectable Miss Hudson!

The rest of the movie is spent dealing with Amos Stitch’s historic mouse and elephant experiment. Once again, the fact that Stich is drunk and staggering around while attempting it just makes an already bizarre scene even stranger. Afterwards, fully vindicated he gleefully declares “Get mousie a steak when we get back to the hotel!” Truly, that mouse deserves to be recognised by science as much as Pavlov’s dog. The whole yarn enters its final reel when Bernouth starts to rabble rouse the natives and our hero is (predictably) tied to a stake awaiting sacrifice while the tribe does its war dance. The end arrives in lightning fast fashion and involves a taxi ride through the jungle, natives frightened by loud noises and a man being suddenly dragged through a window by a gorilla. The Girl finally embraces Jim and is tamed – a savage no more!

Star Performances: The cast across the board give energetic performances and all look like they are enjoying themselves and making the most of the action. Rochelle Hudson naturally gets most of the attention as she is suitably alluring and mysterious in a way that belies her young age (it’s quite incredible to think she’s only 16 in the movie as her looks and screen presence tell an entirely different story). She manages to convey the innocent and feral nature of her character quite well and uses her body language (I’m guessing she had a background in dance given the graceful and fluid way she moves) to suggest a life spent with the jungle animals. She doesn’t have many lines but her hesitant understanding of English is quite endearing, showing her naivety having lived apart from other humans. Far from being a mere Tarzan knock off (which unashamedly the movie attempts to be), Rochelle Hudson has a charm and poise that gives the movie another reason to shine brighter than the average Poverty Row filler.

Rochelle Hudson may be the most attractive element of the movie but mention needs to be made of the comical performance of Harry Myers as Amos P. Stitch. Myers made the movie relatively fresh from his memorable appearance in 1931 as the eccentric millionaire in Chaplin’s City Lights (though he filmed his part in 1929) and here riffs on that role. Sadly, in 1932 Myers' career was beginning to slow down and he was generally finding only smaller, often uncredited parts (despite a respectable career as a star comedian and director in the early silent era) In The Savage Girl he clearly relishes the chance to have a starring role and makes the most of it. It’s one of those performances that is so assured and so full of great comic timing that it makes you wonder why he never got more work. I suppose his plight is similar to that of any number of veteran comic players from the silent era who never got to fully show what they could do on a big stage (for example most of the Hal Roach stock company or perennial comic foils such as Vernon Dent or Stanley Blystone). Here he plays the sort of role that a man of his experience could do in his sleep, and like a true pro makes it hilarious and appealing, milking the full comic potential out of every situation.

Technical Excellences: As would be expected, there’s not a lot of 'High Art' going on in The Savage Girl but what does make the screen is filmed competently and edited to make the 60 minute duration fly swiftly. The director Harry L. Fraser was a veteran of many westerns but had tried his hand at most genres. He would go on to direct and write a number of movie serials and seemed to have a talent for scripting them, since a lot of the better ones are from his pen. A great advantage of The Savage Girl is its use of primarily real location rather than being studio bound like many low budget jungle capers. Obviously the African jungle looks more like a park somewhere in New York but the locations are chosen well enough not to completely lose credibility. Even the use of stock footage works pretty well and integrates into the action better than most.

The Sublime: The best thing about the movie is its silly ideas. It’s as if the writer said to himself “What would happen if one of our central characters was drunk…all the time?”. From that revolutionary brainwave sprung the peculiar sort of madness and whimsy that the movie exudes in which every basic action can be rewritten with the question “Now what would that be like if our hero was drunk?”. It could be quite a fun game – take the plot of any well known film and rewrite the script following the logic of a pie-eyed protagonist. Some movies would actually benefit from this approach! Everything that Amos P. Stich does is off the cuff and a result of his constant inebriation. He hears a lecture about African safaris, and immediately leaves on the next boat to Africa. His taxi driver says he wants to go to Africa, and so he takes the driver and his taxi on the boat with him. Best of all he suddenly decides that he needs to discover if elephants are afraid of mice, and goes about it like it is going to be the scientific discovery of the century (“The National Geographic will hear from you!” he triumphantly tells one of his mice). The inclusion of the character and his silly schemes is what lifts the movie from the less than ordinary to the slightly above ordinary, and the fact that the cast and director manage to deal with such preposterous material in a relatively straight faced (or sober, if you will) manner just adds to the overall fun of the movie.

The Ridiculous: The whole film is ridiculous, but in a good way that adds to the enjoyment. However, from a logic point of view (and with a movie like The Savage Girl, logic very rarely enters into the equation so I don’t know why I even bring it up) some things are more ridiculous than others. First and foremost is the titular ‘Savage Girl’. Now, sadly I was not raised in the jungle Tarzan style but I know that even in a movie jungle I wouldn’t last long. Quite how Rochelle Hudson made it five minutes in the green hell is a mystery. When we first see her, she is cuddling some leopard cubs and seems to understand monkey language, which are both great jungle goddess skills to have (she also seems to have great jungle goddess skills in makeup and hair considering she is immaculately turned out despite probably living full time in a tree). However, some of her other survival abilities are a bit lacking. She screams at a leopard as if she has never seen one before (maybe it wanted its cubs back?) and thus gives herself away to the party of explorers. What’s more she is eventually trapped by being attracted to a shiny thing (aka a mirror) attached to a branch, which causes her to fall into a freshly dug hole. One would think that she would be fully acquainted with shiny things given the obvious amount of time she spends applying her foundation every morning in the mirror, but perhaps her jungle compact had become worn and dull from so much use. Anyway, as ridiculous as the movie is, the idea that somehow she is the mythical White Goddess that inspires awe and fear in the local tribesmen is a bit farfetched since she seems scared of the (fully grown ) animals and can’t see a large trap staring her in the face. In fact, her character brings up more questions than answers. Sadly, and not unexpectedly the movie spends absolutely no effort in answering any of them.

Is it worth watching?: If you like low budget jungle adventures (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then this is a superior example of the genre and about as good as you are going to get until the advent Monogram a decade later, The Savage Girl has a rather charming touch of whimsy that is highly unusual for a Poverty Row picture and this combined with a frisson of Pre Code raunch, a solid cast of character actors and the delectable Rochelle Hudson in a leopard skin, the whole affair is an overachieving delight. There are certainly worse ways involving gorillas to spend 60 minutes of your time.

Random Quote: “Keep away from men. We’ve all got a little of the tramp in us”