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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
After that—and possibly because of it—Van Dyke was reinstated as director. The original sound was doctored up so that what the audience eventually saw was the movie with both the original film and sound, except for a few closeups between Edwina and Renaldo.
In the long run most of that extraordinary five million feet of film was used in one way or another. For years afterward, Trader Horn footage showed up as intercuts in Tarzan movies. Renaldo laughed about it: “How often I’ve been watching Johnny Weissmuller and Red Corrigan—who was always in the gorilla suit—when suddenly there would be an intercut and there I’d be or Edwina or Olive way off in the distance, walking through the jungle.” Olive added, “M.G.M. made as much money selling surplus film of Trader Horn as they did from the movie itself.” Reportedly, the price was ten dollars a foot.
Trader Horn not only made money; the landscape was so beautifully portrayed that it also made people want to see Africa for themselves. About a year after the movie opened, one of Renaldo’s white-hunter friends wrote to him: “Business generally jumped 100% since you were here and the safari business has leaped about i,ooo%.”
Trader Horn was followed by a spate of jungle films. More important, the movie had an influence on Ernest Hemingway. “When I saw Trader Horn with all that magnificent paysage which the camera caught, I really got interested in Africa,” he once told Renaldo.
Back in the United States, Edwina was genuinely ill, with a disease that defied diagnosis, and after a few years she sued the studio for millions. She lost the suit, but according to rumor the studio gave her about twenty thousand dollars. After the lawsuit, Van Dyke, Carey, and Renaldo collected money for Edwina—she was swamped with lawyers’ and doctors’ bills—and sent it to her anonymously. “Even when she was working, she was shamefully underpaid,” Renaldo commented. “Harry Carey and I were getting about six hundred dollars a week. Edwina was hired at seventyfive dollars a week.”
Van Dyke lived for another ten years and directed some excellent motion pictures (among them Naughty Marietta ). But the hazards of filming Trader Horn may well have shortened his life.
Renaldo made few pictures during the thirties and forties, but later he did play the title role in The Cisco Kid; from this and television serials, he made a comfortable living.
“I don’t know why we didn’t keep in touch with Edwina,” Olive said to me. “When I knew you were coming I rummaged around and found a phone number someone gave me about a year ago.” She went into another roqm and came back with a scrap of paper. “It’s supposed to be Edwina’s,” she said, handing it to me. It was a number in a large western city.
I was about to put in the call when I said to Renaldo: “Here. You do it.” We were all suddenly uneasy. It didn’t seem possible that after all these years she could be found just by picking up the phone.
Renaldo dialed the number, and we waited. Someone answered, and, after thirty-four years, he smiled in instant recognition. “Edwina,” he said, “this is Duncan.” There was a little gasp at the other end. “Duncan,” said a light, charming voice. “How are you?”
“Where have you been?” he asked. “We thought you were dead.”
“I know,” she replied rather sadly. “I know people think that, but that’s all right with me. Let them keep thinking it.”
She explained that she had married and that her husband had several children by a previous marriage. Like her, he was a Mormon. They lived quietly, she said, and their lives revolved around church work. Few of her friends knew who she really was and she wanted to keep her past life a secret, even now.
A few minutes later, Renaldo said good-bye and hung up. “I don’t altogether understand Edwina,” he said. “Although she was a very determined young woman, she was naïve. She thought that good work and honest effort are always justly rewarded. She had worked so hard, under such difficult conditions, she felt she deserved better treatment than she got. We all think so, too. But instead of accepting it gracefully, Edwina, I think, has just tried to blank out her whole life during those years.”
But surely neither she nor any of them can ever forget. Certainly not Olive, whose grandchildren love to hear about the time Granny went into the jungles of Africa. And it is probable that even Edwina must occasionally take pride in recalling how she attacked lions with a stick, how she fought a raging crocodile, and how, surrounded by a thousand awestruck subjects, she was for a time a beautiful fair-haired goddess.