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Trader Horn (DVD Review)

14 Sep, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 DVD

Not rated.
Stars Harry Carey Sr., Duncan Renaldo, Edwina Booth.

As the first non-documentary to take movie audiences into Africa on a major studio’s large dime, W.S. Van Dyke’s still entertaining not-quite creaker (a best picture Oscar nominee at the time) has a famous production history that my grandmother first told me about when I was give-or-take 9. Female lead Edwina Booth, who still looks hot here with her distinctively sculpted goldilocks and breasts barely scotch-taped to the inside of her top, contracted some kind of jungle rot while on location — all but ending her career on the spot and precipitating a lawsuit against MGM amid a recuperation said to have lasted six years. Compounding the insult, she also apparently got hit with an alienation of affections suit of her own from co-star Duncan Renaldo’s wife (read: a different kind of on-the-set jungle fever), though my grandmother didn’t tell me about that one.

Renaldo, as any aged boomer will tell you, had a long run as early TV’s “Cisco Kid” — though whenever co-star Leo Carrillo (as Pancho) called out to his partner, the name came out “Ceesco” before the two of them (often) collapsed into shared laughter. Renaldo wasn’t much of an actor, but the kiddie-oriented cowboy role suited him better than the green explorer he plays here — which fortunately doesn’t matter that much because Trader Horn’s anchor is the great Harry Carey Sr., a Western star for John Ford during the silent era and one who wrapped up his career with small but memorable contributions to Red River and Disney’s So Dear to My Heart. As a white hunter with more integrity than that creep-ball dentist in Minnesota who killed Cecil the Lion, Carey exudes all the authoritative clout the movie needs as he instructs Renaldo (playing the son of his best friend) on the ways of “noble savages” and some of the more intimidating creatures under the sun. He carries the same name as the source novel’s source: Alfred “Aloysius” Horn.

One can have a spirited conversation trying to determine if Trader or The Front Page is the more politically incorrect movie these days, but you can be certain that this one wouldn’t carry one of those “no animals were harmed” designations in the credits — any more than you would see that kind of assurer in the series of Frank Buck big-bwana documentaries that RKO soon began releasing throughout the ’30s (possibly spurred by MGM’s success here). In fact, the Trader casualties ran high: a native crewmember was eaten by a crocodile (there are many seen lurking around) and a youngster (also native) was struck by a charging rhino. Presumably, they didn’t have access to Edwina Booth’s lawyers.

The actress doesn’t show up until well into the narrative, when she turns out to be the long lost daughter of a female explorer (Olive Golden) and subsequent captive of a native tribe. But for a captive, Booth really cracks the whip (literally) at her so-called superiors and definitely seems to be running the show when Carey and Renaldo finally locate her. The one-scene actress playing Booth’s mother, by the way, married Trader’s top-billed star and became Olive Carey — real-life mother of Harry Carey Jr. and the actress who played Vera Miles’ mother in The Searchers a quarter-century later.

At 122 minutes, it all threatens to become too much — though the picture does give a sense of what boys’ fiction was like at one time (at least for boys who ignored their mothers about what was proper to read). Despite many production headaches beyond the Booth situation (including studio re-shoots when the sound quality proved inferior in location scenes involving actors), the long schedule was rewarded with robust box office and presumably enough stock footage to keep Tarzan and Jane in business at MGM through the early ’40s (the staffers who designed the scanty garb for both Booth and Maureen O’Sullivan knew what they were doing).

By 1973, when the studio had little left beyond than dusty properties it owned, Metro mounted a Trader Horn remake with Rod Taylor and Anne Heywood to play drive-ins for those times when there wasn’t a George Kennedy movie available. If anything, it made less of a dent on the national consciousness than 1970’s Trader Hornee, an ‘X’-rated artifact of some reputation about a supposed white gorilla who turns out to be an escaped Nazi war criminal in a gorilla suit.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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