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Although it's seldom discussed, one of the staple genres that classic Hollywood tackled best was the jungle-set melodrama. It gave studio technicians an opportunity to experiment with oppressive artificial sets, eerie sounds effects and expressionist lighting. Those Venetian-blind shadow patterns so characteristic of film noir were preceded by just as many painterly images lit through louvered windows and bamboo curtains. And the exotic backgrounds allowed jaded screenwriters to attain a delirious level of moral turpitude, betrayal, sadistic violence and erotic obsessiveness, not to mention downright racism. White Woman may not quite rank with the finest wallows in the white man's grave (Red Dust, Tropic Zone, the absolutely jaw-dropping Kongo), but it certainly concocts a heady stew of cruelty, masochism and lasciviousness. This is thanks to a dense script by some old reliables, and by another ingenious portrayal by Laughton (much more subdued than in the similarly-set masterpieces, the Beachcomber and Island of Lost Souls, but wilier and more self-deluding.) Lombard was still stuck in her earnest, victimized stage before she hit her stride as a comedienne, but her brittle blonde presence and flustered pretensions are a fine fit here. Charles Bickford kicks the plot into overdrive as a Gable-like he-man who won't brook Laughton's guff. They're a perfect match for each other playing a doomed hand of poker while their gruesome fate awaits them at the hands of the natives they've crossed. Thankfully, the filmmakers avoid the moralising and let the viewer stoically sink into the morass along with them.
They don't make them like this anymore. A lurid jungle picture with a fallen woman (the gorgeous LOMBARD)forced to sing in an interracial cafe after her husband commits suicide. No one in the African jungle British community wants anything to do with her. The British are there tearing up the jungle for the rubber plants and building huge rubber plantations. Rumor is her husband killed himself over her cheating ways. She's miserable and salvation comes along in the guise of Charles Laughton playing Horace Prin, the "King Of The River" - he's the richest rubber plantation owner in the jungle and he likes what he sees in Lombard. They marry, she's now rich but she's nothing more than one thing he owns and she begins to realize that he is obsessively jealous and insane and cruel. Laughton is amazing. A brilliant actor (from Witness For The Prosecution, Advise & Consent, Mutiny On The Bounty) who is capable of hamming it up for the sake of ham (Island Of Lost Souls, un-released Caligula)this is the hammiest performance I've ever seen but it is also so entertaining. He has a field day destroying any worker who dares to look at his new bride. What a hoot!!!
It's probably worth mentioning that this jungle islands "farrago", as
Simon Callow calls it in his biography of Laughton, is set in Malaya,
not Africa. In those days it was still part of the British Empire,
which accounts for Laughton's cockney accent. In addition, at the
dinner party on Laughton's river-boat (about 20 minutes into the film),
his new wife (Carole Lombard) says she'd like to learn Malay.
This was the last of the handful of films which Laughton made for Paramount during 1932-33 under a short-term contract (the others being Devil and the Deep, Sign of the Cross, If I Had a Million, and Island of Lost Souls). Callow thinks Laughton's acting is both original and preposterous: "giggling and teasing and play-acting, screwing up his eyes, scratching his head, pulling at his moustache and using a whole battery of tics."
It's certainly preposterous that the Carole Lombard character would ever have considered marrying such an unpleasant person as Laughton makes him, so this fatally weakens the story. On the other hand, she has little choice, having been ostracised by the British community who would like to see the back of her. The mysterious suicide of her husband has forced her to earn a living singing in shady bars, so Laughton's proposal of marriage, coupled with his claim that he owns a great deal of land up river, offers a way out of her predicament. It's only when she arrives at his house-boat that she realises what she's got herself into, and seeks solace with some other, rather more pleasant, male members of the cast.
Laughton's Horace Prin has never been considered in the same breath as his Henry VIII, Captain Bligh, or Quasimodo. Even so, it is still probably worth seeing, if only as an example of his early Hollywood work.
"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.
In between that glittering array of memorable roles Charles Laughton
created like Henry VIII, Doctor Moreau. Moulton Barrett, Emperor Nero,
Inspector Javert, and Captain Bligh is nestled in his credits White
Woman. It will never make the top ten of any list of Charles Laughton's
Nor will Carole Lombard or Charles Bickford's fans be really pleased with this film. It's a jungle melodrama about a western woman whose husband committed suicide. The whispers about the reason and the scandal attached therein has left Lombard doing the only thing she can for a living, singing in a native café. The respectable white folks don't want to go near here.
Except Charles Laughton who doesn't really worry about respectability. He's Horace Prin, formerly of London and self-styled 'King of the River' on his south sea island. It's the only place where this cockney from the slums can feel like a king.
And the chance for a beautiful trophy wife like Lombard isn't going to slip through Laughton's fingers. When she gets to his jungle retreat, Lombard finds distractions in Kent Taylor and Charles Bickford. She also learns what a monster she's married to.
I'm sure Charles Laughton who was getting one great role after another at this point in his career knew very well this one did not rank up with the ones I mentioned before. Still he was under contract to Paramount and when you're in a turkey, gobble incessantly.
Which Laughton does in an overacted performance to beat the band. But in his place he could do little else, but have some fun and collect a paycheck. The story is dumb, the other players look embarrassed, but Mr. Laughton is having one great old time.
He's the only reason to watch this jungle turkey.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A very flamboyant performance by Charles Laughton asks the question, is
he being feminine or foppish? At times, he seems to be flitting around
his own ship, and it certainly is eye raising. He's escorting Carole
Lombard out of the tropical community where the uptight white people
who have taken over are appalled by her performing in a native cabaret.
Lombard falls in love with deserter Kent Taylor, but his sudden
departure leaves her open to the strong armed advances by over-seer
Charles Bickford who has the power to save Taylor when he's in trouble,
but is stopped by his obvious lust for Lombard.
This exotic adventure is escapist fare at its campiest, not quite the classic of Laughton's "Island of Lost Souls" or the bad taste of Lombard's "Supernatural", both released around the same time as this by Paramount. Lombard seems to be sleepwalking through this, obviously bored by contractual obligations and a wretched screenplay that has the characters who barely know each other talking like they've known each other for years. Beckford is commanding, but brutish, while the future Pa Kettle, is touching as a crew member who has a chimpanzee as a pal. Stereotypical portrayals of unseen natives pepper the script with clichés. It's impossible to totally hate it, but there are some truly tacky moments that really emphasize why the production code was enforced the following year.
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