5:12 PM EST, January 31, 2013
In the early sound era, especially between 1930 and mid-1934, Hollywood movies enjoyed a freedom of expression — salacious, violent, often outrageous expression — we know today as the pre-Code era. The film industry's self-appointed watchdog agency, the Production Code Administration, looked the other way for a while, until the Catholic Legion of Decency and other forces leveraged a cleanup. Before that, however, the studios managed to sneak some hints, at least, of the roughed-up desperation of the Depression onto the nation's screens.
It's a swell era to explore, even if your interests lie somewhere beyond seeing Claudette Colbert bathe in donkey's milk in "The Sign of the Cross."
Like that Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, "Wild Girl" came out in 1932. It was one of a flurry of pictures directed by Raoul Walsh for Fox Film Corp. It's a lovely, dreamy artifact, recently restored by the Museum of Modern Art. True to Northwestern University Block Cinema series name, "Revivals & Rediscoveries," this is one revival — playing once only, 7 p.m. Friday — that feels like a genuine discovery.
"Wild Girl" reminds us just how malleable and expansive (despite thrifty running times) the liveliest pre-Code movies were, careening from mood to mood, genre to genre, often before the reels changed. In Walsh's romance, a virginal yet dishy Joan Bennett stars as the tomboy folks know as "Salomy Jane," raised as a free spirit among the redwoods in the post-Civil War years. Walsh photographed his film on location in Sequoia National Forest, and to the extent this is a Western (froggy-voiced Eugene Pallette plays the stagecoach driver, Yuba Bill), it's a Western with a uniquely imposing setting. Half the time, "Wild Girl" evokes a magical Shakespearean forest where anything can happen; the other half, it's like watching a stage melodrama from the 1890s.
In fact the story dates to 1898, when author Bret Harte's story "Salomy Jane's Kiss" was first published, then turned into a play, then made into a silent film, all before Walsh got to it. Stressing, wittily, its antiquated aura, the director opens "Wild Girl" with a shot of a leather-bound photo album, whose pages turn and on each page, the leading actors introduce themselves in character. Bennett's Salomy has this to say about herself: "I like trees better'n men. They're straight."
Walsh maintains the visual conceit throughout the story, which concerns the various men (Ralph Bellamy plays a cardsharp) who would happily kill for Salomy. Various forms of vigilante justice snake their way through "Wild Girl," and I still don't know precisely how Walsh and company pulled off the movie's signature image. With each new chapter of the story, the screen turns into a storybook page and flips over, right to left, ushering in another chapter. It's beautiful.
Bennett worked with Walsh on another 1932 pre-Code, "Me and My Gal," where she played a wisecracking hash-slinger trading bons mots with Spencer Tracy's mug of a policeman. It's one of Walsh's peak achievements, as pungent and urban as "Wild Girl" is outdoorsy. The latter may not be a classic. But when you see a scene such as the sun-dappled lynching, delivered by Walsh as a handful of quick shots of bloodhounds looking on, and then the shadow of the swinging dead man, you know you're in the hands of a no-nonsense master.
Also, at one point Bennett skinny-dips in a swimming hole. This being a pre-Code title, odds were always good of that happening.
'Wild Girl' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:20
Playing: 7 p.m. Friday, Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. Projected in 35 mm. For more information, go to blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/view/cinema.
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