Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Echoes Of Trader Horn!

Trader Horn is a movie which I've been wanting to see for quite a few years now, ever since I learned of its importance in MGM deciding to initiate that studios Tarzan series featuring Johnny Weissmuller. The movie has never been released on DVD, so it was a real treat to catch it at least on Turner Classic Movies yesterday.

The 1931 classic is based on a novel of the same name and is a blend of some few real events and lots of fiction set on the vast continent of Africa. "Trader Horn" was a real person named Alfred Aloysius Horn, known as "Trader" for his work in and among the tribes of Africa.

The movie stars Harry Carey as Trader Horn and Duncan Renaldo as a green explorer named Peru. These two men are traveling the river trading ivory when "Juju" erupts among the tribes and sensing danger they withdraw. Soon the encounter another traveler, a widow and missionary seeking her daughter lost many years before. Trader promises to help if something bad should happen. It does and they find her dead at the foot of a tremendous falls. Trader and Peru head into hostile country, get captured and sure enough discover the lost girl, now grown and having become something of a white witch among the tribes. She at first seems hostile to them, but then is attracted to the handsome Peru and helps Trader, Peru and Trader's main gun bearer and friend Rencharo escape. (In classic jungle movie tradition all the non-speaking porters have been killed.) The rest of the movie involves the quartet and their flight across the African veldt seeking safety.

This movie was shot on location in Africa and there's an absolute ton of footage of animals and natives and such. A lot of this material found its way into the later Tarzan movie as well, thanks no doubt to the fact that W.S. Van Dyke directed both films. The theme music is the same, the look of the titles is the same. There's a lot here which is used later in the first few Tarzan movies. In fact the actor who plays the faithful (and very well realized character) Rencharo is a native African named Mutia Omoloo and his first name was the source of the infamous "Mutia Escarpment" where Tarzan lives.

The movie is most notorious for what happened to Edwina Booth, who played Nina the White Goddess that Trader and Peru rescue. Unfortunately many of the cast and crew contracted malaria and in Booth's case the disease continued to afflict her off and on for over five years effectively ending her acting career. She famously sued the studio but most likely had to settle for far less than she was seeking.

Her near-naked performance is one of the clear attractions of the movie, as can be seen from the poster. It's truly sad that her exposure in all probability is what resulted in her ailments.

The movie clocks in at two hours or more, and is very very leisurely paced. The first hour is mostly Trader and Peru traveling around seeing various animals. The plot picks up in the second half, but still there is a lot of wildlife to be encountered.

One thing that stood out for me unfortunately was the enormous hat that Renaldo wears as Peru. It's the biggest pith helmet I've ever seen, and maybe the biggest hat I've seen on a character in a movie since Rick Moranis played "Dark Helmet" in Spaceballs.

If you get the chance to see Trader Horn by all means do so. Harry Carey gives a fine performance, as does Renaldo. Edwina Booth's a gorgeous lady and dominates when she's on the screen for sure. The standout actor though for me was the somber Omoloo who is allowed to present a black character with depth and sympathy. Trader Horn is not a movie without error in the area of race,but it clearly shows off the African natives to much better effect than almost all other films of the time or anytime soon after.

Any fan of Tarzan needs to see this movie, for the echoes from its production sounded for a decade or more in those Johnny Weissmuller classics.

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