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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 ship reached Le Havre, the film unit disembarked early in the morning and was ushered into a nearby shed for some publicity shots. In those days magnesium flares were used for taking pictures. The shed had recently been used to store some kind of volatile material, and when the hung-over, bleary, jittery members of the company bared their teeth for pictures, the magnesium went off and the resultant explosion blew out the sides of the shed and blackened the faces and clothes of the stunned movie makers. In a daxe, they were assisted from the building just before the roof collapsed. Unaccountably, no one was hurt.
In Paris, Van Dyke and Renaldo went to sec the sights. At Napoleon’s tomb, Van Dyke stood for a long time looking down on the emperor. “When we went out,” Renaldo remembered, “I noticed that Van Dyke had tucked his right hand into his coat and over his heart. At that moment, I think, he changed into a general. From then on the members of the unit began receiving morning notices like ‘Henceforward the troupe will move en masse’ and ‘Exactly at such and such a time we rendezvous.’ ”
The troupe moved en masse by train to Genoa, where it embarked on the freighter Usaramo bound for Mombasa, Kenya.
A few days south of Arabia, Van Dyke instructed Edwina to go on the sun deck to accustom herself to tropical sunlight. She did this for several days, but one afternoon she suddenly went white and fainted. The next morning she was up and in good spirits, so no one thought any more about it. The voyage continued down a serene Indian Ocean toward Mombasa.
But the world they had left behind was anything but serene: Van Dyke found frantic cables awaiting him when the Usaramo docked at Mombasa in March of 1929. Because Al Jolson had been heard as well as seen in The Jazz Singer , M.G.M. now wanted Trader Horn to be done with sound.
The first sound truck to arrive fell from a broken crane into Mombasa Harbor. There were more cables and more worry, but at last the company had three sound trucks. Meanwhile, the main group climbed aboard a narrow-gauge railway train and set off foiNairobi, where the production’s safari was to be formed.
The Trader Horn expedition was one of the largest safaris ever mounted, surpassing even that of Edward, Prince of Wales, a few years before. There were thirtyfive white people, two hundred natives, ten Buick and Chevrolet pickup trucks, the three sound trucks, sixteen cameras with their replacement parts, and all the laboratory equipment for developing and printing film. There were also toiletries, clothes, medical supplies, liquor, canned foods, reflectors, generators for refrigeration (to keep the film—not the food—cool). Each white person was assigned a bearer who did everything from making the bed to giving a bath. Food was mainly canned; meat was shot on the hoof as the party went along.
In late April all was ready, and the party took off into the bush. On the first night everyone went to bed early, but as deep night fell and the bush came alive with mysterious growls and shrieks, Edwina, Harry and Olive, Renaldo, and Van Dyke crept from their tents and gathered about the large campfire. All but the tectotalling leading lady drank Johnny Walker Scotch or Old Pensioner gin, listening to the wail of the hyenas and the occasional blare of an elephant. In Horning Into Africa , Van Dyke remembered that first night and wondered if the others had shared with him the deep and atavistic fear: “Will I be eaten by wild animals?”
But they grew accustomed to the jungle, and camp life quickly became routine. The day began at six, when one’s “boy” entered, carrying a cup of coffee or tea. The group ate breakfast together in the mess tent, where the orders of the day were handed out.
There was no detailed script. Everyone knew the story: Peru and Trader Horn, travelling through the jungle, meet the mother (Olive) of the kidnapped girl. She tells them she is going to a native village where she believes her daughter is being held prisoner. Later the two men discover that the mother has been murdered by natives, and they decide to take up the search. They are captured and prepared for ceremonial killing. But the Goddess appears, falls in love with Peru, and ultimately helps them escape. There is a long sequence as they flee, carrying the girl with them. This skeletal story was fleshed out with dialogue made up by the actors and Van Dyke as they went along, depending on what befell them. Sometimes it was encounters with crocodiles and lions, other times with elephants and snakes.
Of Van Dyke’s direction, Renaldo recalled: “He was brusque, but he was marvelous with the natives. At times we would have scenes with a thousand of them that he had rounded up from the bush. Wc never did our scenes more than twice. He thought this gave the best feeling of naturalness, which was, after all, what we wanted to convey. Most of us were not acting, but just reacting to actual happenings. After all, when a herd of elephants charged us we didn’t have a chance for retakes.”
As the days wore on, Van Dyke’s direction became more imperious and the morning notices more peremptory: “Natives at night must be dressed in white and carry lanterns.” “When attacked by a native, don’t hit him on the head, kick him in the shins. Hc is more sensitive there.”