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TRADER HORN, the Great White Hunter, treks into Darkest
Africa in search of the long-missing daughter of a lady
MGM produced one of the seminal adventure classics with this film, a benchmark against which all others would be measured for years to come. Although beset with production difficulties & traumas, including the near death of the leading actress, the film was an eventual triumph. Rarely seen today, it still packs a punch, if for no other reason than its splendid performances and the undeniable impact of its on-location filming.
Harry Carey, giving one of the first great performances of the sound era, is perfect in the title role. So well does he inhabit the character like a second skin that it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. Having already starred in innumerable silent Westerns, he brings enormous physicality to a movie which made great demands on its actors. Carey looks & sounds like someone who's spent years in the veldt. The slouch of his hat, the grim set of his eyes, the rough growl of his voice are all just right.
Handsome Duncan Renaldo, as Horn's earnest young Spanish companion, and exquisite Edwina Booth, as a white tribal queen, are both admirably suited to their roles. The sparks of their budding, hesitant romance lightens the end of the film.
Olive Golden Carey, the star's wife, is radiant in her very small role as a tough, determined but saintly missionary; the image of her seated in a sedan chair, being carried through the jungle on her endless quest, remains in the mind. Special mention should also be made of Mutia Omoolu, as Horn's gun bearer & friend, adding dignity and strength to his role; he was rewarded with rare recognition alongside the other performers during the opening credits.
Movie mavens will recognize wonderful old Sir C. Aubrey Smith, appearing uncredited for a few moments at the end of the film, in the role of an Irish trader.
Director Woody Van Dyke liked working on location, if possible, and so MGM went to the greatly added expense of sending the entire company to Africa. (Filming would take place in the Territory of Tanganyika, the Protectorate of Uganda, the Colony of Kenya, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan & the Belgian Congo.) This proved a great boon to the picture, giving it an authenticity not replicable in any studio back lot. The scenes of the actors beside a tremendous waterfall, floating down a swollen river infested with hippos, or interacting with native Africans are still sensational today.
However, the cast and crew were forced to live and work under appalling conditions for many weeks. Miss Booth, one of the most beautiful actresses of the day, caught a jungle fever' which left her deathly ill for years and effectively ended her film career.
The attempts of the Studio to shut down the film after the company returned from Africa, and lawsuits & demands for more money on the part of ill-used performers, only added to the acrimony at the time. However, from a vantage point of more than seventy years distance, TRADER HORN has emerged as one of the great adventure movies and a prime example of the sort of film they just don't make anymore.'
I woke up in the middle of the night in my apartment in New York City,
turned on Turner Classic Movies, and here is this amazing adventure in
Africa captured on film that deserves a "10" for tremendous.
What an effort making this movie must have been for everyone involved. The sheer magnitude of the undertaking is something that would never get produced today. Only though the magic looking glass of film can we witness fiction and nonfiction brought together on such scale.
For kids who love "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings" or the new crop of video-game movies, imagining what it was like for the cast and crew of "Trader Horn" to accomplish what they did is something entirely different. There's nothing digital here; it's all real. You can SMELL the animals on the plains of the old (and gone) Africa, a brutal and far more primordial place than it is today, all filmed without CGI or green-screen gimmickry.
The cast includes Harry Carey in the title role (who performed in more than 250 films) along with the arrestingly beautiful young actress, Edwina Booth, playing a bizarre White Goddess, and who, like many of the cast and crew, was so wiped out and sick from what must have been grindingly grueling conditions on location in Africa, in 1930, that it basically ended her acting career. Two of the crew died during filming; one consumed by crocodiles, and one native boy charged by a rhino in a scene captured and kept in the film. Duncan Renaldo (who played the Cisco Kid years later on television) adds another dimension to the ensemble of the four leading players, completed by Mutia Omoolu, a native African playing Trader Horn's gun bearer in the only role of his life, plus hundreds of extras and other African actors whose names are lost to history.
Fortunately, the remarkable effort of the people who created "Trader Horn" is not lost. Today, and for generations to come, we can experience this truly amazing adventure in Africa and "miracle of pictures."
The first full-length movie ever filmed on location, this African adventure features exceptional wildlife footage, and a nice acting job by Harry Carey. True, it's an antique -- but it's a wonderful, exciting, beautifully-photographed antique, with a wonderful use of the language.
This early 1930s talkie is a fine jungle adventure in spite of its dated, pedestrian look. A great white hunter takes his protégé in tow and leads a safari through the African wilds, braving wild animals and savage tribesmen in search of ivory. A major angle is a missionary's search for her long-lost daughter who is now a white goddess living among a savage native tribe. Conflicts arise between Horn and his protégé over the girl who has a wild, feral animal attraction. The film has a great deal of exciting, realistic footage of wild animals in search of prey and the attacks are recorded in detail. The hippos and crocodiles in the rivers make for some tense moments during the safari's canoe crossings as the party races for safety from pursuing natives. Harry Carey Sr., Duncan Renaldo and Edwina Booth star in this fine but unpolished feature which is introduced by a music score that is not heard again for the entire movie. The only other instruments of note being the foreboding, percussive native drums during a "ju-ju" when the tribes work themselves into a wild, killing frenzy.
W(oodbridge) S(trong) Van Dyke (1889-1943) directed the MGM motion
picture TRADER HORN in 1930 and later wrote a book about the production
titled HORNING INTO Africa (1931). This was the first major Hollywood
picture to shoot on location in Africa, which in this case meant Kenya
and the Belgian Congo. Van Dyke hired professional big game hunters
Sydney Waller and Dicker Dickenson to provide both the action footage
and the meat required for the film crew's daily rations.
HORN starred Harry Carey, Edwina Booth, Aubrey Smith, and Duncan Renaldo. Miss Booth, who bravely agreed to wear the horrendous makeup required for her character (ultra-realistic when you compare it to later "lost white princesses" like Sheena and the woman in JUNGLE GODDESS) nearly died from a severe case of malarial fever caught while in the Congo. Van Dyke produced so much stock footage of African crocodiles, wildlife, and scenery that it was recycled for years in Hollywood films about the Dark Continent, including the great MGM TARZAN movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and the incomparable Maureen O'Sullivan.
TRADER HORN has been re-mastered and is an amazing document of Old Africa, providing footage of local cultural life and a long-lost wildlife paradise. Much of the natural history information given in the film (the lead character gives his protégé sort of a guided tour of the Serengeti) is more accurate than that contained in most hunting books of the time. There are also some authentic hunting sequences, as well as numerous "staged" battles like that between a pair of leopards and some hyenas.
Incidentally, the crew of TRADER HORN was widely blamed for disrupting the local economy, at least by the colonials and at least as far as visiting photographers and film-makers were concerned. The story goes that the production unit wanted footage of a particularly impressive East African tribal chief, and offered him the sum of £40 pounds for the privilege. That amount was many, many times the going rate, and the local people immediately realized that they had been getting ripped off for years. MGM set the new price; even twenty years later Masai and Samburu warriors were often demanding as much as £1 for a still photo, and the colonials were still complaining about it.
A remake of TRADER HORN was made in 1973. Starring Rod Taylor and Anne Heywood, it was so bad that the studio almost canceled its release. It is particularly remarkable for Taylor's performance as an Englishman; judging from his accent he was born in a quaint English cottage on the South Side of Chicago.
...and you can see why this film caught the attention of the Academy at
the time. For the same reasons that viewing live musical performances
from 1970's TV don't excite in the age of the Ipod, anyone who views
this from the perspective of someone who has 24/7 access to Animal
Planet and the Discovery Channel won't get what the big deal is of
seeing Africa's wildlife on film. From today's standards, the wildlife
isn't even that clearly photographed. In 1931, though, most people had
never seen such sights.
When I first saw the year this film was made and that it was a startling 123 minutes long for a film made in the early 30's, I somewhat suspected I was going to be subject to some preposterous maudlin melodrama in the MGM tradition that went on forever, but it is packed with action and has a very good story. The story involves seasoned African adventurer Aloysius "Trader" Horn (Harry Carey) taking Peru (Duncan Renaldo), 23 year-old son of an old friend, on his first big adventure into Africa. Along the way they run into a missionary, also a friend of Horn. She has been preaching among the natives and seeking the daughter that was stolen from her by the natives for twenty years. Soon thereafter, Horn and Peru are captured by a group of natives led by a young white woman - presumed to be the daughter of the missionary woman. Horn, Peru, and their native gun bearer are slated for a horrible execution by the natives unless the young white girl intercedes on their behalf. If she does will the other natives even listen? And if they do listen, how will our protagonists get back to the closest trading post without their guns, which have been confiscated by their captors? Some of the language tossed around, such as Trader Horn calling the African villagers "monkeys" will likely cause you to cringe, but - again - you must remember this dialog is a product of its time. The film did show a surprising and touching camaraderie between Horn and his native gun bearer, Rencharo.
Also note the precode element in this film. Native women are plainly shot unclothed from the waist up, which is probably very much based in reality. If this film had been made five years later that would not have happened. Of course, even in the precode era, this might be OK for the native "savages" but not for the grown white girl raised by them. She has a kind of make-shift fur top on that still shows a great deal, but not everything.
The film elements on this one are somewhat shaggy, the contrast is poor, and it cries out for restoration. In spite of all of this, I still recommend it to fans of this era of film-making as a unique cinematic experience.
The comments of Ron Oliver and marcslope are interesting and
informative and yet what occurs to me is that this antique with all its
racist assumptions about the violence and mystery of 'the dark
continent' is a relic of late 19th-century Boys' Adventure fiction.
These stories by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs (as well as
dozens of others now forgotten) seem to have had a surprising and
lasting life in early talking pictures: TARZAN, THE GREEN GODDESS, SHE
and countless serials all featured these mythic adventurers, forgotten
white gods and goddesses and black 'savages,' both noble and
blood-thirsty. Seeing TRADER HORN reveals that it was among the first
and most influential of these movies, so it's unfortunate that it is so
little known today.
That's no doubt due to its casual racism as well as the pre-code nudity on the part of the African women filmed on location. But TRADER HORN's naiveté and breath-taking political incorrectness make it a rather fascinating primitive. There are other marks against it: an overlong running time, too-leisurely pacing, wild-life photography that is often dull or (in the case of the slaughter of a rhino and a lion) sickening.
But on the plus side: Harry Carey's direct, natural and gruff performance has been noted by others. I was far more interested in Duncan Renaldo and Edwina Booth. Renaldo was so personable and extraordinarily handsome -- he looked like a prettier Don Ameche and from certain angles seems a dead ringer for a black-haired Brad Pitt -- that I was astonished to have never heard of him. He was certainly no great actor, and yet he had a definite physical presence and was highly photogenic. His Hispanic accent must have been the primary impediment to a career in 'A' pictures. The (in some ways) legendary Edwina Booth turns out to have had a strong facial resemblance to Marlene Dietrich, and like Dietrich she's not a very expressive actress. And yet she throws herself wholeheartedly into her portrait of a wild, willful and childish White Goddess, spitting out all of her dialog in unintelligible movie African. It's camp for sure, but also a gutsy performance.
And the scene in which Carey and Renaldo first meet Booth is memorable: after appearing in their hut wearing only a monkey fur bikini (and showing the kind of long, lean, cut body that contemporary taste demands) she proceeds to have a shrieking tantrum while flogging every African in sight. When confronted by the gorgeous Renaldo, she proceeds to whip him as well (in a scene that obviously inspired a similar one in Clara Bow's CALL HER SAVAGE a year later) while he simply smolders and hardens and she becomes aroused. It is a provocative scene of real sexual tension and something of a revelation.
A bigger one is the fact that in plot and iconography TRADER HORN was an obvious influence on the far more famous and evocative KING KONG. Having grown up with Kong and Fay Wray I was shocked to be watching TRADER HORN for the first time only to note that Carey begot Robert Armstrong as Booth begot Fay Wray and Renaldo begot Bruce Cabot. Such are the random ways that imitation can sometimes unintentionally inspire great folk art.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
TRADER HORN, 1931 is quite an adventure story. I just watched it on
TMC, and it sure deserves a digital clean up. The quality of the print
had faded over the years, but the excitement has not.
Being a 'pre-code' movie, we have some strong scenes. For example, the two whites and one native are about to be crucified, upside down, till the White Goddess steps in to save them. That would get an 'R' rating today! Vintage footage of Natives and wildlife in Africa, is very real, because it was filmed there. And the 'National Geographic' style topless natives are there too.
Toward the end, the white adventurer, saves his wounded native helper, and carries him away from danger. I mention this because I don't think we would see this in an American film in the 1930s. Also we see the native looking back, like a spirit, up in the clouds, near the end. Interesting movie.
I would like to see this film restored.
I don't think any film that managed to finish its shooting schedule and
be released ever had as much problems as Trader Horn. So much so that
for 20 years no American film company ever went back to Africa for
location shooting until The African Queen and King Solomon's Mines. But
so much footage survived that MGM was able to stock a series of Tarzan
films and not put its players at risk the way Harry Carey, Duncan
Renaldo and Edwina Booth were.
The plot is a skimpy one. Carey is your basic white hunter who is taking along a young friend Renaldo into some unexplored country in search of missionary Olive Carey's daughter. When they find her she's now the princess of a savage tribe. But one look at these two, especially Renaldo, makes her realize there are others who look like her. After that it's the three of them plus Carey's gunbearer on the run from the tribe and without weapons in the jungle.
While American companies avoided Africa, colonial powers like Great Britain shot films in Africa and did it because they knew what the hazards were and took precautions. The goring of a young native by a rhinoceros is real and captured on film and frightening. Director Woody Van Dyke kept his cast and crew loaded with gin and quinine. It still did not save Edwina Booth from a rare tropical disease which many thought killed her. I've always believed that was a deliberate publicity stunt by MGM because Ms. Booth was through with show business after this shoot. Who could blame her?
The first half of the film is a travelogue on safari. At the time this was great stuff for the American movie-going public. Still no studio wanted to face the expenses MGM had during Trader Horn's shooting.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Trader Horn seems to have set a precedent for later African adventure
movies. It introduces the African adventurer (not a hunter or explorer
in this movie, but a trader). There are very typical scenes: alligators
and hippos in the rivers and lakes; herds of wildlife stampeding;
beautiful distant vistas; teeming jungle and swamps; loud waterfalls;
variety of African tribes; tribal drums, dances, daily life, and
weapons; natives torturing and killing other natives; a paddle-wheel
riverboat; native "chief gun bearer" and porters; predator/prey kills;
and the shooting of animals to protect the adventurers. It includes a
reverse-Tarzan storyline, with a female white person abducted as a
child by natives, who later becomes a sort of tribal queen, but is
"rescued" by the adventurers and returned to civilization. Graphic
scenes include shooting and killing two rhinos and watching lions and
leopards killing prey. A considerable amount of the film is devoted to
scenes of wildlife, with descriptions of the common names of the
animals and something of interest about each type, which is much like a
documentary. Most other African adventure movies seem to have borrowed
ideas and scenes from this movie.
Something that interests me about this film is that the primary supporting role is played by Duncan Renaldo, when he was a very young actor. About 25 years later, he became a very popular western hero on television, starring in the half-hour weekly show The Cisco Kid.
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