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Few were surprised that the 20th Century-Fox film The Call of the Wild (1935) strays as far as it does from its source, Jack London's celebrated novel. The book, published in 1903, has as its lead character a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog named Buck; humans, most of whom are cruel to the dog, are supporting characters. The Fox film, directed by William Wellman, features a traditionally structured Hollywood screenplay that pushes Buck to a role in support of stars Clark Gable, Loretta Young and Jack Oakie. Fortunately, Gene Fowler's script is solid and the result is a gripping adventure yarn, benefiting from likable characters, plenty of outdoor location photography and a real chemistry between the two leads. That chemistry resulted in one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood history; had it not been well kept at the time, two famous careers could have been essentially destroyed.
Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck borrowed Clark Gable from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the lead part in The Call of the Wild after Fredric March was first considered. Gable had recently been loaned out to Columbia Pictures for the lead role in the Frank Capra screwball comedy hit It Happened One Night (1934) and was well on his way to establishing his reputation as a rugged outdoorsman in his personal life, often pictured hunting and fishing in the fan magazines. Wellman was a like-minded sportsman and adventurer, and had his friend Fowler fill the script with he-man-styled humor and episodes. Set in the turn-of-the-century Gold Rush era, prospector Jack Thornton (Clark Gable) is seen gambling his money away in a game of cards. He decides not to give up on prospecting when he runs into an old friend, Shorty Hoolihan (Jack Oakie). Shorty has done time for mail tampering, but in doing so he found out about an unclaimed gold mine; he has a map copied from a letter to John Blake (Frank Conroy) of San Francisco. Blake and his wife Claire (Loretta Young) have also come to the Yukon to find the location and claim the mine. When Jack and Shorty put together their supplies, they attempt to buy a dog team, including an irascible St. Bernard named Buck. A sadistic English prospector named Smith (Reginald Owen) has it out for the dog; he wants to buy him just to shoot him. Jack buys Buck instead and later wins a bet with Smith that Buck can pull a sled with a thousand-pound load. John Blake becomes lost and presumed dead while looking for food so Claire joins forces with Jack and Shorty. Smith, meanwhile, learns of the Blake mine and has plans for it himself.
Wellman wanted to escape the standard studio-bound look for The Call of the Wild and had planned to shoot nearly the entire picture on location in the Pacific Northwest, with the base of Mount Baker, Washington substituting for the Yukon Territory. A large contingent of eighty members of the cast and crew spent nearly a month on the site. Blizzards prevented Wellman from getting the percentage of footage he wanted, although the final film contains many striking shots with the Mt. Baker background. Shooting was completed on soundstages, with additional outdoor shots taken at Feather River, California and on the "Western Street" of Universal Studio's backlot.
The Call of the Wild ran into some censorship troubles at the script stage. Production Code Administration (PCA) director Joseph Breen warned that Jack and Claire should "...not indulge in a sex affair as is suggested in the present script." Zanuck defended the love affair, writing that it "...is a deep, real, profound love. There is nothing of a sexual nature about it. Certainly there is no law against her falling in love with another man after she believes her husband is dead...it was never our suggestion or implication...that she intended to deceive her husband, get him back to civilization and divorce him or kick him off and go back to the new man." The scenes remain in the final film, as do shots of Buck and a female wolf raising their pups, which, incredibly, Breen also objected to!
Perhaps recognizing that the drastic changes to London's book left the film open to criticism no matter how agreeable the result was, the Fox publicity department released a message from Zanuck, in which he said, "I saw the man answering a call just as inexorable as that symbolized by the wolf-call which drew Buck in pursuit, back to the wilderness from whence he came. I suspect that Jack London wrote his simple, but lovable story with something of this hidden meaning behind his words. In his mind's eye were additional chapters, additional settings, characters and incidents. These we have developed with London's theme and plot structure as guide."
The critic for Variety noted that "changes have made the canine classic hardly recognizable, but they have not done any damage. The big and exceptionally wild St. Bernard, known as Buck, is not entirely submerged, since such of his feats as the haul of a 1,000-pound load over the snow and his mating with a femme wolf are included, but he has been decidedly picture-house broken. Clark Gable strong-and-silents himself expertly and Loretta Young, in the opposite corner of the revised love affair, is lovely and competent. But Jack Oakie has the laughs, and they land him on top." The reviewer for Time also praised the film, writing, "The familiar story has been changed in spots, but the revisions make for stronger screen fare. And all the humanness, the drama, of the novel have been retained. ...Gable is no stranger to the rugged life that Jack London depicted in his work. His characterization in this picture is appropriate and all that we have learned to expect from him."
Clark Gable felt at home during the location shooting that took place for The Call of the Wild; he had spent time working the logging camps nearby when he was younger. The blustery weather was a challenge for the entire cast and crew, however. As reported by author Chrystopher J. Spicer in his biography of Gable, "Blizzard after blizzard repeatedly snowed them in, cutting them off for days at a time until plows could clear the road. It was so cold that the oil in the cameras froze. Food and tempers ran short. Clark became uncharacteristically careless about his punctuality on the set and about his lines." Gable and Wellman nearly came to blows during one on-set argument. Apparently, the married Gable found solace on location with his divorced and now single co-star, Loretta Young. While the other cast and crew noticed a budding relationship, Young later told her biographer Joan Wester Anderson that "...the tryst happened on the train returning home." When Young discovered that she was pregnant, Gable was discreetly told, and then Young's mother Gladys went into full cover-up mode. Young worked on the film The Crusades (1935) before her pregnancy showed, but after it wrapped shooting Gladys took her on a "vacation" to Europe. Returning to America, Loretta was secluded in a small house in Venice, California, while the family doctor gave notice to the studio that she was too ill to work.
The subterfuge was necessary because of the "morality clauses" that all stars had to sign with Hollywood studios in the era following the scandals of the 1920s that brought down such actors as Fatty Arbuckle. Moreover, Loretta Young was known as one of the leading Catholics in Hollywood; if the fans discovered that she was pregnant by a married man her career would be finished. Loretta's daughter, named Mary Judith Clark, was born on November 6th, 1935 and transferred to an orphanage; more than a year and a half later, Young "adopted" the nineteen month old baby girl. Judy was not told by her mother who her real father was until 1966, and Loretta never publicly admitted the truth during her lifetime. After her death in 2000, Young told her story posthumously, through the authorized biography Forever Young: The Life, Loves, and Enduring Faith of a Hollywood Legend; The Authorized Biography of Loretta Young, by Joan Wester Anderson. There, Loretta was quoted on the affair: "In those days, unmarried pregnant women were sometimes thrown out of their homes in disgrace, but Momma was not angry... She comforted me, and talked to Clark about it." Judy died in 2011 at the age of 76; she only saw her father on two brief occasions.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: William Wellman
Screenplay: Gene Fowler, Leonard Praskins (screenplay); Jack London (story)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Richard Day, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Hugo Friedhofer, Alfred Newman (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Hanson Fritch
Cast: Clark Gable (Jack Thornton), Loretta Young (Claire Blake), Jack Oakie ('Shorty' Hoolihan), Reginald Owen (Mr. Smith), Frank Conroy (John Blake), Katherine DeMille (Marie), Sidney Toler (Joe Groggins), James Burke (Ole), Charles Stevens (Francois), Lalo Encinas (Kali)
by John M. Miller
Forever Young: The Life, Loves, and Enduring Faith of a Hollywood Legend; The Authorized Biography of Loretta Young, Joan Wester Anderson, 2000, Thomas More Publishing.
Hollywood Madonna, Bernard F. Dick, 2011, University Press of Mississippi.
The Complete Films of Clark Gable, Gabe Essoe, 1984, Citadel.
Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography, Christopher J. Spicer, 2002, McFarland.
William A. Wellman, Frank T. Thompson, 1983, Scarecrow Press.
AFI Notes on The Call of the Wild.