Trader Horn

1931, Movie, NR, 123 mins

Review

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The first time Hollywood brought its cameras to the Dark Continent was for this adventure film that was probably more dangerous for the film crew than it was for the characters in the story. Carey is a trader in Africa, plying the rivers in his canoe and swapping with the natives. Traveling with him is young Renaldo, the son of an old partner. They meet Olive Carey, a missionary who is heading for the dangerous country upriver to look for her long-missing daughter in the area of a waterfall where her husband had been killed 20 years before. Carey and Renaldo try to warn her about the dangers, but she is adamant. A few days later the two men find themselves at the waterfall and there discover the mutilated body of the missionary. Carey decides to go after the girl himself and he and Renaldo set out into the bush. They are quickly captured and taken to a native village where the savages prepare to inflict a horrible death on them. A white woman (Booth) emerges from the crowd and orders that the two men be tied upside down to crosses and set afire. Then she changes her mind and orders them released. Carey realizes that she is the sought-after captive, now a goddess among these people. She decides to escape with the two men and they narrowly elude pursuing natives as well as the hazards of the jungle. Their trusty native guide, Omoolu, lays down his life to help the others escape to safety. Now there is trouble as Carey and Renaldo have both fallen in love with Booth. Carey, though, concedes her to Renaldo, telling the young man, "I'll still be beholdin' the wonders of a jungle that'll never grow old before your eyes, the way a woman does."

Irving Thalberg was the man responsible for this near-disaster, having read the original novel and become convinced it would make a great picture. He got Louis B. Mayer's support and then approached Wallace Beery with the lead. The actor did not relish the opportunity to film in Africa and turned him down. Thalberg then went to Carey, who had once commanded $2,500 a week but was now having trouble finding work at any price, and who needed money badly now after a dam break and flood all but destroyed his ranch. Thalberg offered him $600 a week and the actor took it. Booth got the part of the white goddess after a major talent hunt.

In 1929 the cast and crew set sail for Africa, where they filmed for months. Disasters happened one after another. The truck carrying all the sound equipment fell off the road and into the river. Insects, snakes, and larger animals tormented the crew, and hostile natives threatened them. Director Van Dyke kept comfortably numb the whole time thanks to the cases of gin he had brought along. They sent the footage ahead when they left Africa and Mayer was shocked at the hodgepodge of useless footage that was all he had to show for his huge investment. When the ship docked at New York, telegrams were waiting telling the whole cast and crew that they had been fired and the project scrapped. Some at MGM didn't think the whole thing was a washout and they convinced Thalberg and Mayer to cut together what they could and then shoot some more footage on sets or in Mexico. For another year the crew worked secretly, for fear the public would find out the whole thing hadn't been shot in Africa. The film was a major success when it came out and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (losing to CIMARRON).

Much has been written about the fate of Booth, most of it false. Rumors sprang up that she had contracted a rare disease on location in Africa, either a result of the malarial environment or witchcraft, and had died, either in Africa or in the U.S. after a prolonged illness. Other reports indicated that she went mad in the jungles. The facts are that she did, indeed, contract a disease while filming, but she did not die of it and she later sued the studio and won heavy damages against them. It was many years before the studios would venture into Africa again. TRADER HORN was remade in 1973. leave a comment

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