At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

WHITE CARGO (WB Archives)

By • Mar 8th, 2016 •

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WHITE CARGO takes a frame out of their banned MGM film FREAKS by having a femme fatale poisoning someone whom she’s married for treacherous and self-aggrandizing reasons. In this instance it’s not a side-show person, just a deluded young guy (Richard Carlson) going stir-crazy in the African jungle while over-seeing a rubber plantation.

Wally Pidgeon does a lot of stewing and screaming – he’s gone stir-crazy long ago, only he’s on permanent loan to the jungle, unlike his naïve charges like Carlson who stride in every few years, all gussied up in their white suits and ties, only to succumb to the heat and ‘dry rot’ as the months go by and their temporary assignments drag on and on.

The story is 30% gone by the time lead actress (title above Pidgeon’s) Hedy Lamarr enters the picture, gorgeous beyond belief, an effect achieved by augmenting what the great god of genetics had given her, in this case with dark make-up, lipstick, and barn-doors on the lights cutting off her hair and forcing us to gaze, enraptured, at her pristinely smooth skin and luminous eyes (possibly aided by the use of mini-spots)…and bad acting.

Ms. Lamarr’s make-up design was the work of Jack Dawn, who had a very long list of such credits to his name (including THE WIZARD OF OZ, where he was creator of character makeups). What worked well here, in B&W, and in WIZARD’s gaudy Technicolor fantasy-land, lavishly ladled onto his subjects’ faces, worked far less well, and hokier, in a film like KISMET, overwhelming William Dieterle’s direction, Ronald Colman’s performance, and drawing unwanted attention to itself.

As for the screenplay, it’s like Tennessee Williams in the tropics, only instead of a smooth native boy tempting the colonials, it’s this sinewy, sensual woman-child from nowhere specific, who dangles herself in front of them like sex-candy. Her name is Tandelayo, which the ever-sweating men (and even she) keep repeating, as if uttering it stirs some dark, mythic brew, some sexual fever akin to snake-bite. I remember hearing the name when I was a child, spoken by adults now and then, so I guess it had long legs in the public film-going consciousness, kind of like “Umgawa” in the Tarzan flicks.

What I regretted most not finding in the film (which, by the way, is simply gorgeous – kudos to the Warner Archive restoration dept.), is any sign of Darby Jones. He’s listed 11th in the onscreen credits, as the Doctor’s Houseboy, but there’s no mistaking that visage – remember him in Val Lewton’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE? – and I even stop-framed a few shots, but although Frank Morgan refers to someone as ‘Darby,’ the Darby I was looking for was nowhere to be found.

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