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A nightclub singer marries the rich owner of a rubber plantation. When she returns with him to his estate in Malaysia, she finds out that he is cruel, vicious and insanely jealous. She and the plantation's overseer develop a mutual attraction, but are terrified at what will happen if her husband finds out. Written by
Charles Laughton is King of the River and Carole Lombard his bride
"White Woman" (1933) looks very good indeed in its newly-released DVD print. This is a story that's set in the Malayan jungle. A river empties into a port town, but a large part of the upland rubber plantation is owned by the self-styled "King of the River", played by Charles Laughton. It is his method to recruit employees by having something on them and providing them a haven from authorities or other devils bothering them. Once under his thumb, escape becomes well-nigh impossible due to hostile natives in the jungle and on the river. He lives on a river boat.
In the port town, Carole Lombard is a luminous singer at a local downscale club; but she's something of a fallen woman who again is being told to leave by the local constabulary. She's run out of places to go. Her savior appears to be Laughton, whom she marries. This unlikely union comes under pressure almost immediately because of Laughton's treatment of everyone around him. He exacts his cruelty but not with whips, bars or chains. He delights in demeaning those over whom he has power. He allows them a long leash, but ridicules their weakness with a great deal of surface politeness. He offers them the out of a jungle passage and almost certain death, and taunts them with their cowardice and weak position.
The screenplay first focuses on Lombard, but once Laughton comes into the story, it may as well be titled "King of the River", which he calls himself. Lombard's his wife but no queen. The character as written in the script is quite something. I find it hard to imagine anyone else playing the part but Laughton, and no one else playing it so that we watch it with fascination today after 83 years.
The Paramount sound stage is apparent in some sequences, the giveaway being its sound quality; but there was no stinting in creating a river or in hiring extras to play natives. Charles Bickford provides his usual strong and gruff support. Lombard is decked out and looks terrific. She has some smooth scenes but also there are some awkward lines that she exchanges with Kent Taylor. Her part calls for a good deal of silent suffering. Kent Taylor can't quite handle his part as a man who has lost his nerve. Percy Kilbride ably creates a sympathetic character.
The film is no classic. The story fails to produce enough high spots that stand out; but there are a few. This is both a script and a directing problem. Still, it's great to have this back in circulation and looking so good.
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