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
The film’s initial hoop-la faded predictably; perhaps just as inevitably, in those subsequent years, several members of the expedition died, including director Van Dyke, who had written a book about the making of the picture entitled Horning Into Africa . The only survivors, as far as I could learn from M.G.M., were Duncan Renaldo and Harry Carey’s widow, Olive, who unknowingly lived within a few miles of each other in southern California, and both agreed to interviews.
Renaldo met me at the Santa Barbara airport. Now in his middle sixties, he still shows, in his aquiline features and piercing eyes, traces of the matinee idol. Hc drove me out to his ranch house, where my attention was at once attracted by two large oils of a Masai chief and his wife, painted by the actor himself. An African spirit drum and a dozen other mementos of the expedition were crowded into the living room and dining room. “As you see,” he said, “that movie was one of the great experiences of my life.”
Later we went to see Olive Carey, who greeted us cheerily, embracing Renaldo with cries of delight. Talk soon turned to the film.
Horn’s book had been bought by M.G.M.’s Irving Thalberg, who thought it would make a spectacular movie. But how could a mobile village of film makers sustain life in a little-known and dangerous part of the world? And what about casting? Obviously, to live in close association for a long period in rough country would require of all hands courage, character, intelligence, and tact.
The choice of romantic lead was easy. Renaldo was an outdoor man with spirit, virile looks, and acting experience. Carcy was the studio’s first choice to play the role of Horn, but he did not fancy such a long trip away from his family. He took the part only after Thalberg agreed to give his wife a small role and to permit him to take their two children as far as Nairobi; there they could attend school and their parents could visit them.
The difficult role to fill was that of the White Goddess. She had to be blonde and beautiful. She had to be fiery and imperious, yet capable of projecting an innocent wood-sprite quality when confronted by the sophisticated white men. “In other words,” said Renaldo, “she had to be the most exotic personality possible.”
Thalberg considered the entire crop of M.G.M. female stars. Bessie Love, hoping to be chosen, dyed her hair ash-blonde. Thelma Todd was tested, and Thalberg even thought of Jeanette MacDonald. After all, a blonde fetish might be even more irresistible if she could sing.
Then one day a young starlet marched into the administrative offices of M.G.M. and demanded to be paid for posing for stills—a job that starlets, and even stars, traditionally did for nothing. “I won’t do it for nothing,” declared Edwina Booth. “It took up my time and I want to be paid.” Thalberg liked her spirit and energy, and Miss Booth was scheduled for a test.
Renaldo recalled that during the run-through for the test “the change that came over this rather demure little girl was extraordinary. She displayed a highly volatile temperament that was perfect for the role of the Goddess. The crew burst into applause and she was hired on the spot. The test was never filmed.”
For director, Thalberg picked W. S. Van Dyke, who had already shown a great talent for nature Rims. Van Dyke was entranced with the job; “It was the most exciting project of my life,” he told friends afterward. For many in the troupe, it was nearly the last project of their lives.
It all began luxuriously enough on the Ile de France in New York Harbor. “We sailed around ten at night,” Renaldo related, “and as soon as we were in the open sea, they opened the bar. From that moment on, the ship was a floating cabaret.” Those ladies and gentlemen of the Prohibition era bellied up to the bar with enthusiasms that often exceeded their capacities. “I have never seen so many drunk people in my IiIe,” said Olive Carey.
Edwina Booth, with her strong religious principles, stayed aloof from all that. But, Renaldo remembered, “Everyone had eyes for her—including me. Her features were almost perfect, and she had a very ingratiating voice. She was one of the most levelheaded women I’ve ever known. Her morals and standards of conduct were very strict.”
To Olive, “Edwina was a very high-minded and intelligent young woman. She was interested in life and took it very seriously.”
The late John McClain, then a press agent with the expedition and subsequently a syndicated columnist, had told me on the telephone: “She was a pleasant enough woman, pretty, but frankly I thought she was a bit of a bore. She was such a proper do-gooder. I don’t think she had much sense of humor.”
In any case, movie stars in those clays had an aura of glamour that surpasses anything seen today. Renaldo fought off women who tried to get into his stateroom, while Edwina had to fight off the men, particularly a fellow passenger named Jean Borotra, a French tennis ace. “He kept kissing her hand,” Renaldo recalled, “and the kisses kept getting longer and more frequent. Finally, one night Harry Carey came to Edwina’s rescue and kicked him in the backside. This provoked a challenge for a duel and the captain had to intervene.”