Friday, January 09, 2015

Trader Horn (1931)

Who's In It: Harry Carey (Angel and the Badman, Red River), Edwina Booth (1932's The Last of the Mohicans), and Duncan Renaldo (The Cisco Kid)

What It's About: A seasoned jungle trader (Carey) teaches a young hunter (Renaldo) about the beauties and dangers of Africa as they search for the missing daughter (Booth) of missionaries.

How It Is: Impressive, but tough to watch for several reasons. It's a Product of Its Time not only in the way the white leads treat and talk about indigenous Africans, but also in the way the filmmakers actually shot the movie. There are at least a couple of animal deaths that were filmed and rumor has it that an actual human death made it into the final cut, though I couldn't pick it out.

Trader Horn was the first non-documentary Hollywood film to be shot on location in Africa and it's infamous for the harsh conditions of its shoot. Crewmembers contracted malaria and sunstroke and everyone battled flash floods, locusts, tse-tse flies, ants, and crocodiles. The filming inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs to write Tarzan and the Lion Man, about a similarly troubled movie production in Africa.

For all the behind-the-scenes notoriety though, the filmmakers did get some spectacular shots and Trader Horn was a huge success. Audiences saw images of landscapes, wildlife, and people that they'd never seen before. The film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and was financially successful enough to directly lead to MGM's pursuing the rights for a Tarzan series.

But while racism and animal cruelty are the most serious offenses of Trader Horn, they're not the only ones. The movie is heavy on filming its unique subjects, but light on story. I'm reminded of movies like Thunderball and Star Trek: The Motion Picture that include long sequences of underwater photography and special effects shots that excited their original audiences, but slow down those movies when watched today. The main characters' expedition to find a missing woman in Trader Horn is just an excuse; a flimsy hanger on which to drape all the location footage.

That becomes especially obvious when the movie tries to shoehorn in some drama by having the two men fight over the young woman when they find her. There's never an indication that she's interested in the older man, but he seems to think he's got some kind of equal shot at her.

Except for that though, I do like the characters quite a bit. Carey's Aloysius Horn is a brave and affable veteran of the country and I like his relationship with Renaldo's naively eager Peru. And Booth does a great job as Nina, one of the first jungle women to appear on film. She plays brave and frightened with equal conviction and she's especially convincing with the language she speaks. I don't know if it's a real language or not, but she makes me believe that it could be and that she's fluent with it.

Finally, Mutia Omoolu plays Rencharo, Horn's gun bearer and closest friend. Omoolu wasn't a professional actor, but I not only bought Rencharo's friendship with Horn, I was also touched by it. Horn has some unflattering things to say about Rencharo during the early parts of the film, but hindsight reveals it to be nothing more than affectionate teasing, especially as the dangers increase and we learn how much the two men mean to each other.

Rating: Three out of five jungle girls.

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