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The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild(1935)

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Jack London's 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is about the odyssey of Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard-Scotch Collie, from his San Francisco home to the rigors of the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The 1935 screen adaptation Call of the Wild, the first sound version of the adventure, makes Buck a supporting character in the human story of Jack Thornton, a brash, cheerful miner who begins the film by gambling his entire fortune away in a saloon and sets out with an old buddy to start again, this time with a map to an unclaimed mine that may or may not be reliable.

That's the way Hollywood tends to tackle these kinds of stories, of course, and when you've got Clark Gable and Loretta Young in all their mid-1930s glamor tramping through the wilds of the great white north (Washington State interior standing in for Northern Canada), that's a forgivable compromise. Gable's Jack Thornton and Young's Claire Blake, who Jack finds fending off a ravenous pack of wolves in the middle of the wilderness, spar and spat almost immediately after Jack saves her. She's a married woman who is surely widowed by the time she's rescued (her husband slogged out into the drifts days before to get help) but that doesn't stop the spirited instant antagonism that practically defines screen romance in 1930s Hollywood movies. Jack Oakie is the buddy-turned-third wheel 'Shorty' Hoolihan, providing comic relief as the soon-to-be-lovers tangle on the trail, and Sidney Toler is the film's villain Joe Groggins, an arrogant miner with a crooked streak who wants to shoot Buck dead for daring to growl at him. Outfitted in well-trimmed outdoor gear (in contrast to the more rugged and worn clothes of other miners) and window pane glasses that magnify his eyes into distorted globes, he has an imperious and almost aristocratic manner that instantly makes him untrustworthy. He's hardly recognizable as the man who played Charlie Chan in more than a dozen films.

Gable makes Jack into his kind of adventurer. He's the smiling, exuberant outdoorsman who respects spirit and commitment and loyalty but has no time for those without the strength or smarts to survive in the wild. When he finds Buck--a wild, unbroken Saint Bernard mix with a fierce temperament--for sale in the gateway trading town of Skagway, he immediately senses the dog's potential and, in part to save Buck from the brutal whim of Groggins, he buys the dog for his own sled pack. Before long, Buck takes his place as the alpha and becomes Jack's loyal friend and protector. The film credits Buck as "himself" and he's a majestic animal with personality and strong screen charisma. At least part of the credit for Buck's strength of character even in a supporting role goes to director William Wellman, who gives Buck's scenes the same kind of dramatic tension and impressive action he brings to the human story.

One of the most reliable directors of the thirties, Wellman was a filmmaker who brought out the best in his casts in both comedies and dramas and delivered action cinema with a muscular vitality and an edge of physical danger. The director of first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (Wings, 1927), he made some of the most brisk, dynamic, and gritty pre-code films of the earlier 1930s (from Night Nurse to Wild Boys of the Road) and went on to specialize in westerns and war films and adventures. Call of the Wild combines both of those strengths. He stages impressive sequences on location in both the snowy wilds and the spring thaw in the camp on a raging river. Studio sets stand in for more intimate scenes around the campfire at night or in the cabin of the mine camp, a convention that audiences readily accepted in the day, but Wellman makes a good effort to integrate those scenes with the outdoor footage and makes the most of the location shooting, where he makes a point of showing the characters use their skills to survive the environment.

The script takes major liberties with the novel and not just in shifting the focus from Buck to Jack. A few essential events are preserved, notably the scene where Buck drags 1,000 pounds on a sled from a dead stop to win a bet, and the film observes Buck become increasingly drawn by the howls of wild wolves calling him back to his primitive nature. But the emphasis is on the human drama, which is completely rewritten for the film. Our heroes base their adventure on a purloined map, essentially trying to steal a claim that rightfully (if not quite legally) belongs to the heirs of a dead miner, and the central story shifts to the romantic partnership between Jack and Claire. Wellman surprisingly got away with Jack and Claire slipping into what can be read as a common law marriage after her husband disappears in the wilderness. Though never literally shown, it is suggested in the intimacy of their performance and the ease in which they share an isolated cabin with no chaperone, and in 1935 that kind of frank treatment of adult relationships was a rarity as the production code clamped down on even the hint of immoral behavior from heroic figures. (Their convincing intimacy may be a reflection of their offscreen lives; years later it was confirmed that they had an affair on the set and that Gable with the father of the child she had after the film wrapped.) In fact, some footage were censored in a later re-release (including a scene with Katherine De Mille as a "dance hall girl" and Jack's former lover), which became the standard version for TV and DVD release. This Blu-ray release marks the first time the original 1935 cut has been available in decades. (Thanks to Lou Lumenick and his home video column for The New York Post for bringing this to my attention.)

There is a little offhanded racism, in this case directed toward the native population (in the epilogue, Shorty arrives at the cabin with a native woman in tow to be their cook and housekeeper: "I won it in a crap game," he explains, not even deigning to use the term "her"), but that's not uncommon to films of the era and a minor (if glaring) distraction. The rest of the film is a hearty wilderness adventure with muscular frontier action, snappy character drama, and the stellar star power of Gable and Young at the center. And while Buck's story is shifted to the side, Wellman gives the dog some superb scenes.

Previously released on DVD in the edited re-release cut, the restored 92-minute Call of the Wild debuted on Blu-ray in late 2013 as part of collection of 20th Fox Classics voted on by consumers in a poll conducted by Fox. It is a superb release, well-mastered from a high-quality print (the original negative exists no longer, I'm informed) with strong black-and-white contrast, sharp images, and no print damage. The film grain is more visible than in many classic releases, possibly because of the source print, but it looks like film is supposed to look. The disc carries over the audio commentary by writer Darwin Porter from the earlier DVD release.

By Sean Axmaker