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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Princess Of Passion ... Slave Of Sin!

Backlot Slaves Of Passion for MGM's White Cargo (1942)

A rubber plantation in Africa, Hedy Lamarr the temptress "Tondelayo." White Cargo was more revisit to Red Dust than adapt of a hoary melodrama staged first in 1923, revived less successfully since. This was sex property known, if not still notorious, certainly so in context of Code-shackled 1942. Issue was less steamy clinching than a miscegenation theme the PCA would not now permit, White Cargo being raw-bone account of a right white Englishman debased by lust and ultimate marriage to a black African siren, her near-naked much of time, a sole reason anyone recalled off-Broadway sensation White Cargo began as. Greenwich Village was the launch, 702 performances the reward, plus road companies spread across a country like locusts. Word was that Earl Carroll, of Vanities fame, mounted White Cargo for all of a hundred dollars, nickels to a hungry cast, pennies for tacky setting where they’d emote. The play got busted in the hinters for both content and over-exposure of respective Tondelayos, latter the dusky threat whose name was 20’s shortcut to ruin of men-kind. Among many who played rubber ram-rodding “Witzel” was Spencer Tracy, then Clark Gable, White Cargo under heading of work for starter-outs who took what they could get. Gable had to recall Witzel when he was “Dennis Carson” in Red Dust, latter a retread of spent rubber, but what better yarn to exploit gifts of precode? To ship Cargo again was chancy by 1942, but MGM could not thrive on Andy Hardy alone, and why keep Hedy Lamarr around if not for stuff like this? A breath of fetid air was bulwark against a Leo thought too tamed by a Code that kept him caged. White Cargo was opportunity for the Lion to show some claws.

A 1929 British Part-Talkie Version

1923 On-Stage Cargo Clinch
Red Dust made much of the rubber theme, Tully Marshall seeing reward of growing it “every time a baby sucks on a rubber nipple.” Clark Gable calls raw output, drawn from trees in Indo-China, an “indignant mass” that can be tamed only by man’s intervention. He hands dripping spew to timid Mary Astor as prelude to seduction. Concept of rubber and its manufacture was sexualized to spoof point, Gable, Astor, especially Jean Harlow, in on the dirty joke. Meaningful was White Cargo barely mentioning rubber, only once in passing as I remember. Not because it was irrelevant by 1942, but because it was too much so, as ask any boy fresh to armed services who carried handy packs in his rear pocket. The race grenade was tamed early and easy. Rather than be black, Lamarr’s "Tondelayo" would be revealed as part Egyptian, the rest Arab, still forbidden fruit, but less so than depicted in the play. Dialogue stressed the switch within minutes of her screen arrival so there would be no misunderstanding. Once over that hurdle, the PCA had no quarrel, as denuding the rest was simple work. Main object was making a public think Metro had jumped a censor fence, with Lamarr for bait. They’d be successful at that, White Cargo done cheap ($570K negative cost), and seeing profit of $1.2 million, lots considering what jungle rot this was.

Hedy's Hairdresser Gets a Trim From Director Richard Thorpe

Foundation for selling was key art to define appeal inside. In this instance, it was Lamarr in her “Lurong,” which we were told was a “sarong with allure,” proof again that sometimes it was fun having your intelligence insulted. Just Hedy dancing a sort of hula with bumps was pitch plenty, and never mind much else. When not in sway, Tondelayo laid across settees in erotic surrender. Was this promising more than White Cargo could deliver? Certainly, and every hep patron knew it, but wasn’t that joy too of carnivals and hootch shows? Sometimes just the promise of unalloyed sex was enough to get a job done, Lamarr in less clothes than customary, close-ups intense as to make one think von Sternberg was consulting. No surprise either to see Lamarr tanned deep, an angle flogged before in Lady Of The Tropics, where she’d seduce and ruin Robert Taylor. MGM made cottage industry of men felled by tropical disease that was women not of their caste. Leslie Howard was spent in Never The Twain Shall Meet on dark temptation that was Conchita Montenegro, her very name a warning, even if Montenegro herself was Spanish, not black. You needed a scorecard to know romance disqualifications as listed by Hollywood and censors that watched. White Cargo was adroit as any for dampening fuse that was race-mixing.

From a Vintage Fan-Kept Scrapbook. "Dorothy Lee and I" Went To See White Cargo

Hedy Lamarr Off-Set with Richard Carlson
Shot altogether on Metro’s backlot Tarzanville, White Cargo never looks so cheap as it actually was. Richard Thorpe of past jungle droving was hurried enough not to need breathing down his damp collar, having begun on silent serials that verily defined rush work. This director knew the drill and kept ahead of it, which did nothing for posterity’s back view, but what was that against reliable employment plus status being a Leo helmsman? Less noted amidst swarm of sex was White Cargo being all talk, and indoor talk at that, nary a native to uprise or tiger to breach the compound. White Cargo was Hedy Lamarr’s to salvage, her an only thing in final analysis to sell, others miscast or annoying. Post-Miniver Walter Pidgeon jars in one-note shout mode, White Cargo touted to his certain embarrassment as worthy follow-up to historic hit he had just had with Greer Garson. Frank Morgan shades his dipso doctor nicely, him popular enough for MGM to float a few starring vehicles around this period. Morgan had goods along with a public’s loyal following. Not a few would attend a Lion show just for knowing Frank Morgan was somewhere in it.

Broadway's Capital Theatre Packs For White Cargo. Note War Bond Appeals.

Fun and surprises award attention. White Cargo on stage came to shock conclusion of Witzel forcing a would-be murderous Tondelayo to drink poison with which she means to kill her gone-to-seed husband. The stagger and die finish was final admonition that ones of a Tondelayo sort were best viewed from mid-rows distance, to be not and never touched. I wondered at first if Pidgeon’s Witzel would apply the lethal dose, or merely have Tondelayo/Lamarr led off in cuffs, which of course, would take the sting off White Cargo's tail. Metro makes surprising stand for artistic integrity by letting Pidgeon kill off Lamarr as he might a rabid dog, his murder a hot-blooded one for her trying, if unsuccessfully, to off a fellow Empire representative. White Cargo, I’d add, takes place in 1910, drama related in flashbacks from 1942. Pidgeon as Witzel is established as law and punisher unto himself, hint given in a first-reel kangaroo trial for how he will deal with Tondelayo. Still it’s a shock to see her executed so summarily. I can imagine this as reward the Code gave MGM for ceding to directives otherwise. Bargaining with the PCA was complex procedure, one where a clever enough studio negotiator could score victories, if small ones.

Hedy Lamarr was said to prefer White Cargo over staid job of H.M. Pulham, Esq. I suspect opposite was the case, for many more like Tondelayo could amount to a Maria Montez dead end. But then DeMille surely saw White Cargo and said, yes, my Delilah. Lamarr told Films In Review years later that the best MGM money she got was $5K a week. For White Cargo, Lamarr wore “five successive layers of a fluid foundation,” a two-hour daily ordeal. There was also gold dust gunk sprayed on her, remnants of which got on furniture and other actor’s clothes, all this to make Lamarr properly “oily” in accordance with expectation of natives. One could speculate on how it all smelled. Fan press said Hedy was on a mend from her broken engagement to George Montgomery. Should I have asked George about this the time we rode down an elevator at a Knoxville western show? By the time White Cargo was out, they were selling war bonds in lobbies, so one could purchase without springing also for admission. Some houses, however, let you in free with a bond buy. Thus did theatres have a greatest-ever value to the government, another reason for temporary hands-off re oligopoly the picture industry thrived on. Lamarr’s entrance line, “I am Tondelayo,” was common coin for comics and youth. It was also all over ads. Conrad Lane told me of classmates, boys and girls, age 12 like him, going about school saying “I am Tondelayo,” White Cargo regarded pretty much a joke by all of them (to Conrad, the movie was “a bit shallow”). An “Exciting Love Song” was composed by MGM staffers Howard Dietz and Vernon Duke. I tried to locate it online, but no soap (not even sheet music on Ebay). Has anyone done a survey of songs that drop off a face of the earth? White Cargo is available from Warner Archive.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I remember Lucille Ball doing a side splitting turn as Tondelayo.

9:10 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Never heard of this one, but my preadolescent mind went immediately to "I am Funtolay-oh!" Some kid back in the day MUST have thought of that. Myself, I was perpetually frustrated by Technicolor "sex comedies" of the 60s where the whole joke was people thinking -- mistakenly -- that sex was happening somewhere. And among those mistaken were the audience who saw the ads.

Suddenly wondering if Universal had any trouble with Jon Hall marrying native girl Maria Montez in "Cobra Woman". Yes, she was from a lost kingdom full of caucasian character actors and sort-of ethnic extras, but technically speaking she was still a native.

I'm guessing the reverse -- a white girl and an "exotic" boy -- was off the table entirely, except as a peril for the girl to be rescued from. Both the book and the movie "The Sheik" took pains to explain the maiden-abducting hero was in fact a European orphan raised by an Arab chieftain. And Tarzan was of course a British aristocrat -- if nothing else, Jane was sharing a tree with an eminently respectable bachelor who presumably Did The Proper Thing (Jane would introduce him as her husband).

4:22 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

MAD did a spoof, TVARZAN, in the 60s with Princess Tondelayercake.... only a year or so later, WHITE CARGO was on the local Detroit BILL KENNEDY SHOW, which specialised in older film... when Hedy did her opening line, my, how we laughed!....

4:40 AM  
Blogger Boppa said...

An early George Carlin routine had him, in a commercial, asking a “typical housewife” named Tondelayo (“It’s a colorful name”) Breckenridge which pile of laundry was whiter. “The blue one,” she responds.

In later versions, she became Congolia Breckenridge.

9:17 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

In an episode of radio's "Great Gildersleeve" (written by John Whedon, Joss' grandpa), where Gildy is visited by his old friends Fibber and Molly McGee, his nephew Leroy, having just seen "White Cargo," proceeds to tell Fibber all about it, especially about "Tonnnndelayyyyo." If this was a sneaky plug arranged by someone at MGM, I don't know.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Well, $5000 a week in 1942 would be nearly $83,000 a week today. I could live on that.

10:15 AM  
Blogger MikeB said...

I do wonder what a woman as smart as Hedy was, really thought of the sort of roles she had to play in order to make a living as an actress.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Probably not much. That woman's eyebrow was higher than the intelligence of most of the people she worked with in the movies.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Never noticed the clock machine in that UFA PALAST "METROPOLIS" photo before this morning. They should have had a giant bust of the robot.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I think Carol Burnett did a White Cargo/Tondelayo spoof in the'70s. Amazing how long people remembered the original.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

SCTV had Andrea Martin as Tondelayo in a skit called South See Sinner in a 1981 episode-here it is: ttps://

7:09 PM  

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