Judge Daryl Loomis was raised to be the best sled-dog he could be.
Our review of Call Of The Wild, published June 11th, 2008, is also available.
"Buck was neither house-dog nor kennel-dog. The whole realm was his."-from The Call of the Wild
If you're one of those people who hates Jack London's celebrated novel The Call of the Wild, then you're in luck, because this 1935 film adaptation of the story has almost nothing to do with it. A movie with the main character as a Saint Bernard probably wouldn't have been feasible; obviously, Buck's no Rin Tin Tin, so the first movie from out of the recent merging of 20th Century and Fox Studios would need a broad rewrite of the story with a couple of major stars. Lo and behold, the movie was a grand success and now we get to appreciate the glory of Call of the Wild on Fox's new Blu-ray release.
Facts of the Case
Jack Thornton (Clark Gable, Gone with the Wind) is up in the Canadian Yukon, ready to head out prospecting with his partner in gold, Shorty (Jack Oakie, The Great Dictator), when he comes across a man ready to shoot a beautiful Saint Bernard for nothing. Jack buys the dog, whose name is Buck, to save him and puts him into his team of sled-dogs. Buck's wild and tough to break, but finally accepts and grows to love his master. As their bond starts to form, they come across the stranded Claire Blake (Loretta Young, The Stranger), whose husband went off to look for food and is presumed dead. They pick her up, intending to deliver her to the nearest settlement, but love starts to bloom and Jack starts to see himself, Claire, and Buck as a family.
To some extent, the story behind Call of the Wild is more interesting than anything that appears on the screen. Not to gossip, but Gable and Young fell into it during the cold nights shooting in Northern Washington and the very Catholic Young wound up getting pregnant by the very married Gable. Worried for her reputation, she jetted off to England, went to term, and secretly put the baby up for adoption, only to promptly, and very publicly, adopt her.
Oh, those sordid tales of early Hollywood. They're fun, but the movie is pretty good in its own right. Shooting in the frigid mountains gives the movie plenty of realism that working from the sound stage never could. Of course, a good chunk of the movie wound up on the sound stage anyway, and the shift isn't particularly subtle, but the real stuff is so dangerous looking that it more than makes up for what's lacking in the other.
The story is basically a dolled up adaptation of the back third of the original novel. The early years are excised to start with Buck, driven wild from abuse, and how Thornton brings him back to his gentle ways. Loretta Young's part is created from whole cloth and, in this scenario, her presence is incredibly awkward, but I always enjoy watching her and it most definitely isn't the most misplaced romance in early Hollywood, so I can easily give it a pass.
The chemistry between Young and Gable is strong, which given what was going on behind the scenes seems like the natural thing to expect. On the sidelines, both on and off screen, was Jack Oakie, who was the couple's beard during the shoot and is a great hammy presence in the movie. It's a big movie with a tiny cast and the best performance might come Buck. Director William Wellman (The Public Enemy) gets as much emotion out of the dog as he's able to get out of Gable. He makes sense as a rugged gold prospector, but emotional family man isn't his strongest play. Loretta Young is out of place in the movie, but she's her usual lovely self, just all dolled up in furs.
The story isn't anything particularly special and is brought down considerably by the awkward romance, but what will always make Call of the Wild worth watching is the clear and present danger occurring on the location shoot. Wild Bill Wellman, never one to shy away from sending his actors into harm's way, gives the movie its realism by making it real. When Young and Gable are crossing the raging rapids with a team of dogs on a raft, that's basically what's going on. There weren't the safety nets that we have today and it shows. If the acting isn't the greatest of the era, there's no doubt that the actors were troopers in sticking with the long shoot. Part of spectacle is danger and there is plenty of it to go alongside the majestic wilderness.
The Blu-ray for Call of the Wild is technically strong, but short on extras. The 1.33:1/1080p image transfer looks surprisingly strong for its age. There are a mere few bits of dirt and damage on the print and the location footage is clean and bright. Black and white contrast is fantastic and there is plenty of detail throughout the frame. The mono sound isn't quite so strong, but the dialog always sounds nice and clear.
The only extra apart from a trailer is a commentary with celebrity biographer Darwin Porter, who is knowledgeable and interesting, but that's only when he actually talks. There are long stretches of quiet, but it doesn't feel edited; it feels like he forgets he's recording and is just watching the movie. He splits the time between discussion of the onscreen material and behind the scenes stories that mostly sound apocryphal to me, but are still fun to hear. I'd hoped for more, but that's all of it.
I don't know if there's a faithful version of London's novel out there; this is the only version I've ever seen and it isn't even close. If you aren't looking for that, though, and are instead looking for a standard but well-made Hollywood drama, 1935's Call of the Wild will be just the thing. From the big story to the dangerous locale to some serious dog acting, it pretty much hits home on every level.
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