At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

TRADER HORN (WB Archives) 1931

By • Sep 17th, 2015 •

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We open on Duncan (the future Cisco Kid) Renaldo as the young initiate, who sounds like Sabu and spouts numerous offensive platitudes about the dark continent. Snuggled next to him in the canoe is Harry Carey as the eponymous veteran who knows all these platitudes by heart and can barely withhold his scorn when the kid mouths them – yet, scornful or not, he also believes them, and a whole bunch more. He never misses an opportunity to brag about their being the first white men to have seen this or that vista.

And then there’s us: we’re willing participants in what came to be known as National Geographic Sexploitation. If the women walked around half-naked with their sagging breasts on display in real life, then we were allowed the ethnographic privilege of seeing them in this state in purely theatrical entertainments as well. And see them we do, positioned strategically in the frame, walking by, chatting with one another, as often as director Van Dyke can get away with it. It’s the kind of stuff David Friedman would be doing twenty-five years later on the indie grindhouse circuit, only Friedman’s targets generally were nudist camps. He didn’t have to leave his home continent to get the goods. TRADER HORN, shot on location in Africa, is a prime candidate for The Pre-Political-Incorrect Olympics.

And it’s so outrageous that you probably should own it.

Next comes twenty minutes of our protagonists hiking across the continent while observing and commenting on the wildlife. This section goes on and on and seems to have only one purpose – acquainting US theatre-goers with exotic locales and animals. Some of the footage is pretty extraordinary for the time, and there was such an excess of it that the unused footage appeared in a number of MGM films that followed, including the director’s own TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932).

Then, after a full hour has passed, the actual story kicks in. Carey, Renaldo, and their bearers find a rumored lost child who disappeared decades earlier. In the tradition of SHE, she’s now a beautiful young blonde who has embraced her African native upbringing and is regarded with deference by her fellow villagers. This second half of the film is often harrowing, and dramatically powerful, mainly due to the performance of Edwina Booth as the jabbering, near-hysterical ‘white goddess’. She is convincing, upsetting, sexual, bewildered not only at the appearance of these Caucasians, but at the romantic overtures that one of them (Renaldo, natch) is making towards her. She really turns the film around, so that if you didn’t want to own it for its historical indelicacies, you have a solid psychodrama in Act 3 to get caught up in.

Now sadly, Ms. Booth became quite ill while shooting the film – ‘jungle fever’, probably malaria – and it derailed her career. What a shame. More is the reason to own the title. You won’t be seeing her odd, off-beauty looks, and skimpily clad body, anywhere else.

Perhaps, however, the acting honors should go to Mutia Omoolu as trader Horn’s loyal gun-bearer. Omoolu under-acts as intensely as the others overact, and we are forced to read an awful lot into his somber demeanor. A very effective, restrained, and natural performance.

Director Van Dyke was known (proudly) as One-Take Woody, bringing films in either on, or under, budget. Hollywood loved him. But he didn’t do us any favors. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then, and so a few of his films are remarkably good, in particular THE THIN MAN (1934), shot in 18 days, but much of that phenomenon must be credited to its stars – William Powell & Myrna Loy – for their great chemistry, as well as for their ability to improvise their way around the dreaded one-take death sentence.

TRADER HORN was a 1931 release, but it was shot on location substantially earlier, so some technical inconsistencies associated with early sound are to be expected. I had difficulty hearing some of the dialogue. Also there is the errant soft shot. But my feeling is that the Archive staff worked hard to get it into the shape we see here. Also, the supplement is pretty wild – a short live-action parody of the film performed entirely by dogs! – TRADER HOUND – using the characters’ actual names from TRADER HORN, and even the irksome racial cringers.

TRADER HORN was remade in 1973 with Rod Taylor and Anne Heywood, and I wish I’d liked it, since I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Rod Taylor fan, but it’s a pallid affair. Then there’s TRADER HORNEE (1970), an X-rated sex comedy actually written by the above-mentioned David Friedman, a sexploitation take on the 1931 classic.

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