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Damn The Crocodiles—Keep The Cameras Rolling!
Surviving encounters with an awesome variety of enraged wildlife—rhinos, lions, tsetse flies, studio brass—Trader Horn, Hollywood’s first jungle spectacular, became the progenitor of hundreds of white-hunter-meets-white-goddess epics
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
When the movie version of Lord Jim was released a few years ago, it had a special interest for me because a friend of mine, an Englishman, had been a member of the film crew that spent several months on location in Cambodia. After I saw the finished product, with its awe-inspiring scenes of some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, I remembered my friend’s reply when I asked about the hardships he had encountered.
“Hardships!” he laughed. “We lived better down there than we ever did in London. All the luxuries. If we wanted anything, a jet could fetch it from anywhere in the world within hours.”
He explained that location shooting off the beaten track had become a perfected routine, learned from the experience of earlier companies—”from movies like The African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia , and King Solomon’s Mines . And, of course, they owed a great deal to the pioneering expeditions—particularly to the grandcladdy of them all, Trader Horn . Now, making that film was really an undertaking.”
Trader Horn ! Through the fog of memory floated a flickering image of a pale young woman with waistlength ash-blonde hair; scantily clad, she stands in a jungle clearing surrounded by a mob of nearly naked and highly agitated natives. I also recalled a giant billboard advertisment showing the girl flanked by a handsome young man in a pith helmet and an older man in a floppy khaki hat. The jungle looms behind them, and they are frozen in attitudes of acute anxiety as they stare off-camera toward some approaching peril. Then I remembered some of the rumors that have followed Trader Horn down through the years, rumors nearly as weird as anything depicted in the film itself: that the young actress contracted a deadly African disease and slowly expired in a Hollywood nursing home; that the leading man gave up civilization and retired to the jungle; and that some of the natives employed in the film later became organizers of the Man Man. A passion for jungle films and a reawakened curiosity about all those stories needed only my friend’s remarks to set me looking into the history of Trader Horn .
On a January night in 1931, a noisy and titillated throng surged around Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The occasion was the most glittering and glamorous film opening the world had yet seen. Trader Horn was a landmark in movie history: it was not only the first “talkie” made by Metro-GoldwynMaycr, but the first ever made outside the United States by any Hollywood company. It had cost a record §2,900,000 and had been two years in preparation; one of those years had been spent in what the press agents liked to call “the dark heart of Africa.”
Limousines purred up to the theatre entrance and discharged the movie idols of the day. Sleekly tailored actors and actresses in furs and feathers advanced, with alligator smiles for the crowd of screaming fans. Above the pandemonium, searchlights alerted the heavens.
The film’s romantic leads, Edwina Booth and Duncan Renaldo, arrived arm in arm, beaming. Miss Booth was a blonde, twenty-one-year-old Mormon from Provo, Utah. Except for an earlier bit part, this was her first film. Tragically, it was also her last starring role. Duncan Renaldo (real name, Renaldo Duncan) was a handsome half-Spanish, half-Scottish orphan who had been raised in France.
The third and best-known star of the picture was Harry Carey, a former New York law student who, with his characteristic shy grin, had become a talented and respected actor. He and his wife, Olive, were not at Grauman’s that night; they were in New York, where they attended a simultaneous opening with Mayor Jimmy Walker.
The film—shakily based on the 1927 best seller Trader Horn , written by a white hunter named Alfred Aloysius Horn (and edited by Etheheda Lewis, an English novelist)—was a story of heroic quest. A young and wealthy South American named Peru is on safari with Horn. They become involved in a search for a missionary’s daughter kidnapped as a child by a native tribe. Because of her extreme blondeness, she has been kept by the tribe as their fetish and goddess. The story tells of the perils that beset the two men as they search for and finally (of course) rescue the girl.
The picture’s press agents continually insisted that nothing about this movie was fake, that everything in it actually happened. And for once the ballyhoo was not far from the truth. “Sometimes you cannot believe your eyes,” said a review in Theatre Magazine . “You cannot believe that human flesh went through this and came out whole. Well, it has. Thrilling, beautiful, incredibly yet utterly veracious record of a forbidden and inhospitable world.” Commented the Literary Digest: “Director W. S. Van Dyke has brought back from the African jungles a series of audible-film incidents which for sheer thrills and undiluted realism have never been surpassed.”