Damn The Crocodiles—Keep The Cameras Rolling!

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Of all the places the unit visited, the most memorable was the “Mountains of the Moon,” on the boundary between the Congo and Uganda. “Everything there is out of proportion,” Renaldo said. “A fruit tree is not ten feet high but fifty. The leaf of a sunflower is six feet in diameter. You can smell the frangipani three or four miles away, and if you are near it, the aroma is so powerful that you get drowsy.”

But what the actors remember most vividly about Africa is “that clear light, that intense peace, that stillness of countryside, of flat-topped trees so delicate, with the mountains in the background shimmering in the heat haze.”

But for all that, things were not going well with the movie makers. Olive had to be taken to Nairobi for an emergency operation, and the script girl came down with a serious case of malaria. Van Dyke himself was not well. He had suffered attacks of malaria and had developed a severe hacking cough that went on for minutes at a time each morning. As for Edwina, she was hardly seen at the end of the day; looking ever weaker, she would disappear into her tent.

A few personal relationships were beginning to fray; tempers were getting shorter, and there was too much drinking. When Van Dyke went out for a day’s shooting, his water bottle was often filled with gin. Word must have reached the home office, because an order (of questionable enforceability) came through that if anyone were seen with liquor he would be fired.

It was becoming difficult to start the day. Van Dyke later wrote: “You’d crawl out of your tent every morning and say ‘Oh, God, do I have to look at that face again and listen to its chatter again?’ ”

One day, after hours of shooting in the broiling sun, Van Dyke ordered Edwina to climb into a tree— the scene called for lions to prowl around the trunk as she cringed among the branches. While in the tree, she fainted and fell to the ground. Luckily, there were no lions nearby, but Renaldo lost control of himself and ran up to Van Dyke shouting, “You son of a bitch, I’m going to kill you.” Members of the company intervened, but the incident was like the tolling of a bell, and they all knew it was time for them to get out.

 

Then came a cable from Metro that said, in effect: come home now or don’t bother to come at all. Van Dyke had shot almost five million feet of film, had been in Africa almost a year, covering forty thousand square miles of bush and jungle, and had exceeded his budget by almost a million dollars.

The unit broke up at Thika Falls, near Nairobi. The actors and most of the crew headed for Mombasa and home, while Van Dyke remained a few weeks to get still more scenic shots. There was a farewell party that lasted all night. Everyone wept, swore eternal friendship, and agreed that no other group could have done what they had done.

Back in Hollywood, they found themselves in a new jungle, this one of problems. First, all production stopped for six months while editors tried to cut five million feet of film to fit the story line. There were gaps where the sound was insufficient, and M.G.M., nervous about the strange new medium of talking pictures, decided that these scenes had to be reshot under the guidance of a dialogue coach and a stage director imported from New York.

To redo some of Olive’s scenes, M.G.M. hired the famous Marjorie Rambeau at a thousand dollars a day. After several days someone realized that the public knew Miss Rambeau had not been on the trip to Africa. There was much consternation and confusion; finally Irving Thalberg asked Olive if she would redo her own scenes. She said she would be glad to—for a thousand dollars a day. The studio reluctantly agreed.

The new director from New York decided to take the actors to Tecate, Mexico, where he constructed an enormous animal compound and stocked it with wildlife: monkeys, panthers, leopards, lions, and elephants. Then he dug a ditch around the compound so the cameras could peer discreetly in at the animals.

When all was ready, Renaldo entered the compound to do a scene wherein he was to fondle the head of an ostrich. The bird didn’t like it and ran away. This startled a leopard, which leapt onto an elephant. “All hell broke loose,” said Renaldo. “It was the most bloody massacre I’ve ever seen. Those animals ate each other up or clawed each other to death. And not a single foot of film was any good. They had buried the cameras too low and all we saw at the rushes was a dust cloud and now and then a leg kicking. There went the animals—and some three hundred thousand dollars.”

Then came a disconcerting discovery: because of chemical differences in the water used in developing, all the reshot film was unusable because it did not match the film shot in Africa.

By this time M.G.M. officials were getting quite ugly, and it was rumored that they were going to abandon the picture entirely. “You see,” Olive said, “they still didn’t realize what they had in that movie.”

William Randolph Hearst had invested in the picture. One night Renaldo dined with Hearst at San Simeon; the actor spoke so enthusiastically about their adventures and about his faith in the picture that Hearst put in a call to someone—he didn’t say who—in New York. “The picture must go on as intended, financed as intended. That is all,” said Hearst.