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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Africa Screams For Metro

Trader Horn A Gamble That Paid --- Part Two

Trader Horn’s caravan hauled thirty-five whites, two hundred natives, three sound trucks, and sixteen cameras, a to-then record heft for safaris. Van Dyke was advised not to let a single piece of equipment exceed one-ton weight, so off he went with stock weighing nine. Warned too against trek to Murchison Falls, it being tsetse fly infested, if picturesque and a haven for exotic wildlife, Van Dyke set forth anyway, taking cast/crew. He'd have husk of a story, dialogue mostly winged, eyes alert to sights and spectacle to capture and somehow work into whatever plot they’d develop. Nature plus its denizens did much of writing for Trader Horn. Setbacks were common and daily expected. One night a wall of water swept away the camp. Olive Carey (playing a missionary) lauded Metro for quickness at recovery, as in restocking everyone’s gear. This was no lost colony, but a well-subsidized one, white hunters along the route hired to shoot game and supply meat for those not afraid to eat it. Van Dyke pulled his weight with five million feet of Africa footage, a resource for not only Trader Horn, but every Metro jungle from there on, plus stock to supply renters. There was cost overrun, a given. Van Dyke was finally told to come home now, or not at all, so he sent others back and stayed with a few cameras to get more scenery. Bosses knew Van Dyke would not waste resource, trust earned on White Shadows In The South Seas and The Pagan. Again, who else had his steel? I see maybe King Vidor, Victor Fleming, or Clarence Brown equal to the task, but could these have stood the gaffe like Van Dyke?

Metro’s job was just beginning as the expedition returned home. Word was, everyone got the gate when they landed in New York. Van Dyke knew there was a quilt to patch, and so brought two native giants to do matching scenes at Culver. Panicked execs meanwhile hired a dialogue director from back east to augment whatever could be used from the trip, an effort lasting through 1930 and never sure to end up coherent. There was a snoopy press to contend with, so MGM dribbled out work in progress yarns w/o letting on the jumble from jungles they had. The expedition back by November 1929 initiated months to make Trader Horn a hot-anticipated event, publicity kept boiling for a corker show to come. Early as July ’29 saw Clyde De Vinna filing his on-location report for readers of American Cinematographer, the camera genius chased up a tree by wild buffalo, plus other close calls he told of. Press agent for the trip John W. McClain kept a diary for the New York Times, was employed too by the Sun. His bulletins were regular through the shoot. McClain also did a detailed (and pictorial) re-cap of the trip for Screenland’s March 1930 issue. Well-told fans accepted that Trader Horn was too big a venture to be rushed. Whatever we finally got would be worth the wait.

Final negative cost was $1,312,636, a lot on one hand, a bargain on the other. Trader Horn sold itself, the savage beasts and a White Goddess pearls from an African oyster. Grauman’s Chinese had the opener and drew ads of a topless Edwina Booth (see The Art Of Selling Movies). Van Dyke’s natives were pressed into lobby greeting. There is newsreel footage of Van Dyke standing with them. If any circus was this wild, no one had seen it. Trader Horn became a movie to bring people out that didn’t ordinarily care for movies, a best definition of a hit. The million three was got back in a flash and soared from there. Trader Horn did even better foreign than here, a worldwide $3.5 million the happy wrap. A roadshow souvenir book told “How The Picture Was Made” in terms of high-risk and non-stop peril. Some wondered if what they saw was real. Had MGM truly sent all these people to Africa? Photoplay answered (April 1931) in an article surprising for its candor. Moderns are told that fan mags toadied to the studios, more/less true, but every now/then, one would lift a mask and give out facts re dream-weaving, as here. “How “Trader Horn” Was Made,” they called the piece, brief text, but with insider stuff not shared elsewhere or cited since, except by Kevin Brownlow in his epic tome, The War, The West, and The Wilderness. Photoplay’s writer (no byline) spills truth of how Metro had to “improve upon nature in order to make a picture more dramatic and more entertaining to the spectator,” this not a dig, for Trader Horn was “neither an animal picture nor a travelogue, but a dramatization of a human-interest story with a jungle background.” Photoplay in fact praised MGM for having “the good taste not to misrepresent (Trader Horn) to the public like so many others have done.” Faking as practiced by nature-set filmmakers had been an issue (again, see The Art Of Selling Movies chapter, Leave The Children Home).

Edwina Booth Was Trade-Credited For Bringing Down a Hippo, But It Was Harry Carey That Did The Deed

What Photoplay revealed was “many instances” where “jungle scenes, natives, animal shots, and growls” were “doctored,” assuring us, however, that “most of the background scenes were taken in Africa.” These were “one hundred percent true and accurate,” though to tell Trader Horn’s story properly, MGM had to “supplement” footage brought from the location. “Accordingly, they did most of the sound over,” the result “so well pieced together that it’s impossible to tell where the genuine and the false begin and leave off.” Animation, “after the manner of … cartoons,” was used for a scene where a rhino tosses a native; “the studio work cannot be detected,” said the article. Most notorious, to current sensibilities if not 1931 readers, was reveal of footage shot in Mexico (to avoid ASPCA notice, says Brownlow) where animals were herded into a corral, lions starved over days so they would attack anything that moved. The resulting bloodbath proved useless to the final film, much resource and wildlife wasted, according to Duncan Renaldo. Here was outlaw filmmaking by a highest profile company for which ends justified means. What with cash already poured into Trader Horn, desperate time called for desperate measure. As to “native shots,” in addition to the specimen brought from Africa by Van Dyke, there would be “Negroes … recruited from the colored section of Los Angeles, playing the parts of natives.” The Dunning process, later called rear projection or process shots, enabled players to emote against background footage from the location. “All of those labors were expertly and effectively done … Trader Horn is a splendid example of the mechanics of making an effective, dramatic picture,” concluded Photoplay.

Ad For The Summer 1953 Reissue of Trader Horn with Sequoia
What lent Trader Horn much verisimilitude was stills taken on the Africa trip and used later for publicity. These were vistas and scenes that could not have been captured elsewhere, with cast members foregrounded in each. They were assurance to a paying public that Trader Horn was the real stuff, whatever measures necessarily taken to sweeten a final product, and had much to do with joyous reception the picture got. For Edwina Booth, the venture ended less happily. Her health was ruined, with one jungle-bred malady after another. She sued MGM, they’d not budge, finish to the sorry chapter squibbed by Variety (5/1/35) under the headline, “Metro Settles Edwina Booth’s $1,000,000 Suit.” Amounts weren’t indicated, though sources indicate it was a frugal pay-off, not near enough to meet her needs. The Edwina Booth saga, start to end, was told by historian D. Robert Carver, a terrific job of research published in 2008 by the Provo (Utah) Daily Herald. This is a harrowing, multi-part story, well worth the read. More fine investigation was done by Byron Riggan for June 1968's issue of American Heritage. He dug deep into Trader Horn fact and lore, interviewed Duncan Renaldo and Olive Carey, then found Edwina Booth, whom many (including her cast-mates) thought long dead. Renaldo getting Booth on the telephone after all those years is a dramatic highlight of Riggan’s definitive Trader Horn history.

Our Liberty Theatre Gets Trader Horn for a 1953 Date
Trader Horn was cutting-edge for early 1931, but mighty primitive to viewers afterward. Still, it acquired legend many would fondly recall, and secure placement in MGM’s Hall Of Fame. That standing brought audiences back in 1937 for a reissue that earned $188K in domestic rentals. Profit after prints and advertising was $123K. A 1953 revival surpassed that, thanks to radio and TV saturation modeled on King Kong’s revival of the previous year. A brand-new, and really persuasive trailer, was more sugar for lure (see that at TCM's site). Domestic rentals this time were $350K, with foreign an additional $63K. Overall profit was $248K. Variety’s verdict: “While hardly … sensational, Metro had a degree of success with Trader Horn,” while exhibitor comment was mixed: “It is an old picture and the print shows up poorly, but there’s plenty of Africa, natives, (and) animals. We were pleased with it” (James Wiggs, Jr., Tar Theatre, Tarboro, NC). Summer 1953 may have been the last viable opportunity to loose Trader Horn on theatres, as MGM’s “Mighty” Mogambo was just around a corner for Fall ’53 release, doing Africa to a Technicolor turn, all else hopeless by comparison. Trader Horn went to television among “Pre-48 Greats” from MGM in 1956. Charm lies yet in its antiquity, and TCM has upgraded Trader Horn to HD for broadcast. The DVD from Warner Archive is happily a re-master. Of classics from Leo, Trader Horn needs patience, a little charity perhaps, but values are plenty for the watching, history it represents topped by precious few.


Blogger John McElwee said...

From Griff via e-mail:

Dear John:

"Domestic rentals this time were $350K, with foreign an additional $63K. Overall profit was $248K."

Incredible. Presumably the profit included the cost of new (safety) prints? Unbelievable. With added judicious quoting from now obscure sources cited, this could be an entire chapter in a future McElwee book!

How much was $248K back in the day? I'm guessing it was worth the company's while. I wonder whether it wildly hoped for more, dreaming of a windfall like the smash RKO reissue of KING KONG.

Ever see the '73 remake, apparently very cheaply made with stock footage from KING SOLOMON'S MINES and MOGAMBO? I'm curious about what it might have been like -- and why the studio came to make it.

-- Griff

John responds:

I never saw the 1973 remake after hearing mostly bad things about it. I will try to catch the next TCM run, to ponder all the stock footage if nothing else.

I'd guess most summer 1953 reissue peddlers had stars in their eyes after what KING KONG did the year before. RKO, by most accounts, scored pretty well with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, even as it went head-to-head with Warner sensation THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS:

10:20 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff again, addressing the Liberty's ad:

Dear John:

With TRADER, CAVE MAN (a retitled ONE MILLION B.C.), BLONDE SAVAGE and MEET JOHN DOE, the Liberty sounds like a reissue magnet at this point in time...

-- Griff

John responds:

The Liberty used reissues constantly. They even had the deluxe 20X60 door panel set that MGM sent out with TRADER HORN for 1953. This was a VERY well marketed revival.

The Liberty was also playing Laurel and Hardy/Hal Roach shorts and features during this period, which an exhibitor in West Jefferson told me were mostly NITRATE prints. It was for this reason that he would not play them.

One group the Liberty did not play were the Realart/Universal horrors, probably due to a product split between that theatre and the Allen down the street. It was the Allen, by the way, that got KING KONG in 1952, thanks to their exclusive access to RKO product.

10:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From Richard M. Roberts re various fallout from TRADER HORN:


TRADER HORN turned out to be a nightmare for all of it's stars, Harry Carey sued MGM for more money in wake of it's blockbuster success (all three of HORN's stars were paid a pittance to work on the film) and found himself basically blacklisted for the next few years, relegated to working in Mascot serials and Weiss Brother westerns until he was able to rebuild his career as a character actor. The film's various revivals had to revive painful memories for Carey, Renaldo and Booth, especially as they received not a penny more in royalties for a film that messed up all three of their lives.


5:39 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

And what about Renaldo and Booth's "sweetheart" relationship? Inquiring minds want to know.

6:58 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

It was amazing that Edwina Booth lived to be 86! But what puzzles me is that she made four films AFTER Trader Horn! How did she manage that?

9:00 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

She hung on briefly, because she was an M-G-M name dressing up a low-budget production. (Like Mary Nolan, Dorothy Sebastian, Marceline Day, and other silent-era M-G-M ingenues.) But Edwina Booth's days were numbered in talkies because she couldn't adapt well to them. Exhibit A is THE VANISHING LEGION, the Mascot serial teaming Harry Carey and Edwina Booth. She gives an expressive SILENT-film performance, clutching at her throat in dismay or reacting with sweeping arms and defiant stances. But that sort of emoting was fading fast as silent films died off, and she didn't have enough dialogue skills to see her through. (In the serial she tends to recite her lines, and while the camera was rolling there was no silent-movie director telling her what to do.)

8:27 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

So the illness didn't really kick in until a year or two? Wonder what else she was doing all those years after her illness?

10:08 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I'm just guessing, but it sounds like this is unwatchable because of its animal cruelty.

9:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers the afterlife of TRADER HORN:

Those miles of film footage brought back for “Trader Horn” came at great price, in terms of difficulty and human suffering, but they formed a style template for the Tarzan films that would be made by M-G-M in coming years. In order to use it, the studio could not be content with Griffith Park or the typically moist, rubbery jungles of backlots or hothouse conservatories, but had to match those vast, arid savannas with their grasslands and acacia and baobab tress. Even the extras hired off the streets of Los Angeles to play “natives” had to be of a physical type, tall and lean and sinewy. In “Tarzan and His Mate,” Cedric Gibbons did this most effectively, with long tracking shots through a backlot village that was almost indistinguishable from what the Van Dyke team had taken, save that the finer quality of the photography betrayed the studio conditions under which it was made.

A stone tossed into a pond makes a splash, from which concentric circles radiate outwards, though ever diminishing, until at last they disappear. As the Tarzans wore on, there was less need for the increasingly dated “Trader Horn” footage or the authenticity that they implicitly required. By the end of the M-G-M series, a sleek and well-fed Tarzan resided in a multi-level tree house with a properly married Jane, and no long treks across savanna plains or harrowing climbs up an escarpment was required to reach them. The lush backlot jungle merged imperceptibly with that of the indoor stage where the series would resume under the auspices of another studio, and the images of an Africa already vanishing when they were taken would likewise disappear.

9:28 AM  

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