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Monday, April 22, 2019

Early Talking Jungle Jitters

Trader Horn Rocks The Dark Continent --- Part One

Trader Horn was truly a Roman (or better put, African) Circus of silent-to-talkie leaps. It began voiceless on faraway location (darkest Africa), then leapt to sound when Metro realized they had no choice but to amplify it. A silent crew embarking from California in 1929 came back with rawest footage and rough-recorded sound that made thousand-piece jigsaws look like kid play. There might be a book telling travails of Trader Horn but for fact few care anymore about the movie. Director W.S. Van Dyke wrote an account, Horning Through Africa, but it is generations out of print and tough as a tick to find. TCM uses Trader Horn, did an HD transfer, but it remains a primitive sit, as even 1953 audiences found (and complained of) when Metro did a late-in-day reissue. Some oldies, it seemed, were just too old. Miles of film shot on Trader Horn location would dress up Tarzan shows through whole of the thirties. Maybe it was worth MGM's effort just to get that accomplished, but hold on ... Trader Horn was a hit, and a massive one, topped only by The Big Parade and The Broadway Melody from previous Leo seasons.

Like the Stanley expedition to find Livingstone, Trader Horn got enormous publicity, in trades, fan magazines, mainstream publications, from the moment cast/crew set forth for Africa. These were travelers to a heart of darkness that we would see first-hand for a first time on such lavish scale and by a major studio. Previous jungle treks had for most part come courtesy the Selig Zoo, or in-out of lakes at Griffith Park. What footage there was of Africa looked as if unspooled, then dragged from there to here, grime/grain a marker for the real as opposed to staged thing. Trader Horn would be a biggest organized safari yet made, certainly none had gone so well-equipped. Photos were made at the rail departure from California, more of same at shipboard from New York, all steps of the journey noted with renewed promise that we’d thrill to stuff they’d bring back. Publicity on such scale was necessary to show these were real folks headed for an uncharted world. Would all return intact? Metro took a leaf from Henry Stanley’s 1871 quest for Dr. David Livingstone, the beneficiary less Livingstone than the New York Herald, latter sponsoring Stanley’s trip to Africa with spike to circulation more than paying freight and whatever useful purpose the venture served. Maybe this was shining moment W.R. Hearst recalled when MGM tried shutting down Trader, the trip figured for a bust. “No, you will finish it, whatever the cost,” said W.R., willing to co-sign checks because he knew the sock Trader Horn would deliver, and P.R. cost if the Lion chickened out.

All aspects of Trader Horn fascinate me. It is near-knuckle filmmaking shorn of frills and all the more a surprise to have come from MGM, them like others at daily struggle to keep pace with fast changing times. I wonder if Trader Horn would have been dared if not for W.S. Van Dyke, a real-thing adventurer who’d seen and photographed life in the native raw for White Shadows In The South Seas. The director kept a private journal of ordeal the latter was, most vivid of entries published in 1996 by Scarecrow and edited/annotated by Rudy Behlmer. “Never again!,” swears Van on location griddle, then when finally back home, gets the assignment to set up Trader Horn, and oh but first, go back to the South Seas and do The Pagan as follow-up for White Shadows success. Wonder what cajole was applied to keep Van Dyke on a world-wide move … money, flattery? If he bought lifetime placement at Culver, it was with willingness to take missions others shrank from. To meet a challenge and do the impossible was to earn rank among peers, this when film directing was a he-man’s craft. If artistry factored in, even where by chance or coincidence, so much the better.

I like how publicity led Trader Horn charge from early on. Few outside Van Dyke knew what they were getting into, thus Blondes! Blondes! Blondes! stood on temperate Culver lawn to cop a dream role as Africa’s White Goddess. Name actresses wanted the part too … Bessie Love bleached her hair in hope of getting it. Maybe she figured prior residency in The Lost World would grease a jungle path. I’d like to have seen Thelma Todd do it, and evidently she was tested, but woe betide the winner, as look what happened to Edwina Booth (file her name under Utterly Ruined Lives). So let’s think of it in terms of possibly losing Love or Todd had they won, and who’d want that? Booth came close as any actress to forfeiting life in service to a film. Earlier instance was fire fatality Martha Mansfield of silent-era misfortune. What creative staff decided was that the Goddess must be an unknown, exoticism not served by players of past familiarity. Edwina Booth made the devil’s bargain for a ludicrous $75 per week. It should have been three times that per hour. Stateside witch doctors pumped her up with alleged vaccines to ward off tropical germs. When the ship left New York harbor, she had a fever of 104. How many times Booth must have wished she’d caught the pilot boat back. Medicine, like travel, like so much else of 1929 life, was hazard. So how far ahead of the Dark Continent were we, really?

Departure was March 1929, first of camps pitched in April, then seven months on location. Return home meant further work to virtually remake a mess so profound that it took another year for sense to be made from it. What did get used of Africa was great by anyone’s reckoning, an anchor around which California (and Mexico) re-shoots could pivot. The Africa trip became folklore, hardship the stuff of commissary recall from there on. It would be interesting to know when the last Trader Horn survivor passed, because he/she took a lot of history with them. Van Dyke and Edwina Booth were the most noted malaria cases, but there were others. Many believed Trader Horn shortened Van’s life. Booth ended up with sleeping sickness, a life sentence by most accounts. Bug bites were a given. It got to where much crew opted for liquid meals, not necessarily soft or water, for to drink from native source was quickest route to the sick tent. Van Dyke saw an Africa not so wild and wooly as he hoped. To goose thrills, he put a cast in close quarters with animals better seen from distance. One time he treed Edwina Booth while hungry lions waited below for her to fall, which finally she did, fortunately no cats around by that time. Co-star Duncan Renaldo as result did his own fall upon the director, shrieking, “I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch,” this incident not reported by Metro publicity.

A couple of “native boys” were killed on Trader Horn. One was eaten by a croc, another gored by a rhino, dead before he hit the ground. Was human life so cheap in daring days of film? Personnel was lost on Ben-Hur, The Trail Of ’98, and Noah’s Ark, so I hear. Could be myth, but likelier it’s true. Hollywood had us believe safety came first, but thrill-seek has ways of switching priority. Van Dyke understood such laws of the jungle and directed accordingly. Damage in the getting was expected and part of show-must-go-on ethos. What happened in Africa, or was buried there, could stay in Africa. More precious commodity was exposed film. This was kept refrigerated in lieu of foodstuffs, possibly on the theory that without usable footage, no one would eat, hot or cold. Cast and crew were isolated, but there was contact with home base at Culver City, plus hobbyists with home wireless got through now and then to the travelers. MGM decided post-departure to make Trader Horn talk and so shipped a sound truck that dropped into Africa water and sank. Wonder who walked the plank for that boner. With talkies so balky in the U.S., imagine havoc raised in the wilds. Wiser heads knew sound would have to be done over on arrival home.

Part Two of Trader Horn is HERE.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- Looking forward to more about TRADER HORN. Do you know how much was cut for the reissue? I understand that it played theaters in 1938, and patrons who had seen the original were disappointed that it wasn't quite the same experience.

8:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I assume there were Code-cuts, but have not come across any particulars as to these. Does anyone know specifically what is missing from latter-day prints of TRADER HORN?

10:20 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Great stuff on a legendary movie. Can't wait for Part II.

3:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts considers the proper running time for TRADER HORN:


The original running time of TRADER HORN was 123 minutes, and apparently most of what was cut in the 1936 reissue was an introduction where the real Trader Horn was interviewed by Cecil B Demille, and since the current running time of circulating prints is two hours and two minutes, it doesn't look like too much is missing. There's still plenty of footage of Edwina Booth running around in her white goddess togs in suitable pre-code fashion, so one must have to say that some original viewer's memories simply added some improvements that were never really there.


6:47 AM  
Blogger Lee1001 said...

Time Magazine review,
Cinema: The New Pictures: Feb. 2, 1931
3-4 minutes

Trader Horn (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). The longest, bitterest journey of Trader Horn ended last week at Hollywood's Chinese Theatre. In 1928, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sent two actresses, two actors, Director W. S. Van Dyke and some technicians on an eight-month junket into Africa to shoot the most capricious game of all—an idea. Alfred Aloysius Horn, 75, all-talking hero of Ethelreda Lewis' book, was their theme. Jungle hardships were ameliorated by an ice plant, good food-&-drink, comfortable housing. The real difficulties developed when the film arrived back in California. It would not jell; the script was rewritten endlessly. But last week MGM had its reward.

Incomparably the best jungle picture made so far, Trader Horn will stand, where censors do not gut it, high among the pictures of this or any year. It contains a great deal of savagery, with a love story for sweetening. Trader Horn (oldtime Wild West Cinemactor Harry Carey) and his friend Little Peru find a white native goddess (Edwina Booth), daughter of a deceased missionary. She saves them from being roasted upside down. They flee. Eventually Mr. Carey prudently wraps a blanket around naively nude Miss Booth, sends her on to civilization with Peru, then heads off again into the wilderness.

The producers have given Trader Horn a rather terrifying flavor of reality. Lions kill before your eyes. A man is gored by a rhinoceros. Best performance is given by one Mutia Omoolu, a black gunbearer who returned with the troupe from Africa, lived in a hut on the Metro lot, hated Hollywood.

Mr. Omoolu's compatriots in Africa, according to John McClain, the New York Sun's shipnews reporter who press-agented the picture while it was being made, were of a much happier disposition. When rushes of the film were shown on safari, the natives rolled on the ground with laughter, regardless of the nature of the sequence. At Rhino Town, on the White Nile, Pressagent McClain came upon a tribe of natives all naked save that one of them sported a neat, snap-brim brown hat. Removing the hat, Mr. McClain was surprised to find the label: Brooks Bros.,— Madison Ave., New York. And although the film shows many a fierce jungle beast, the troupe spent six weeks at $2,000 a day trying to persuade some crocodiles to snap.*

6:59 AM  

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