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  White Cargo Bungle Fever
Year: 1942
Director: Richard Thorpe
Stars: Walter Pidgeon, Hedy Lamarr, Frank Morgan, Richard Carlson, Reginald Owen, Henry O'Neill, Bramwell Fletcher, Clyde Cook, Leigh Whipper, Oscar Polk, Darby Jones, Richard Ainley
Genre: Drama, Trash, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: Remember the days back in 1910 in West Africa where the natives toiled on the rubber plantations under the orders of the white man? Let us go back there to see what it was really like, since it's possible to romanticise and the reality was very different as Harry Witzel (Walter Pidgeon) would tell you. He spent years there and it wasn't so much the locals that drove him up the wall as the white men he had to work with, for they were wont to prattle inanely, saying the same things over and over again, and be singularly ill-equipped to deal with the conditions and character of the men they were supposed to be ordering about. Take one day when one of the worst of these incompetents was going to be replaced...

Which is all very well, but you're asking who or what is this Tondelayo? She was the role played by Hedy Lamarr, well into her phase of stardom as the most beautiful woman in the world (according to Hollywood publicity of the era) and taking on the part of this native woman in most unlikely fashion since in the original novel and play she was a black African. The trouble with that was the censorship code that the studios were forced to abide by would not accept that, since Tondelayo ends up married to a white man in the story, and to have her played by an African American, or even an actual African, would have caused scandal. It may sound absurd now, but this was the society the United States was in the pre-Civil Rights era.

So the solution was presumably not to touch the material with a bargepole, only the studio sensed a hit what with films centred around exotics still very popular, and the lure of profits was always going to win out over any sense of propriety, however misplaced it appears to us now. What to do? How about cast a white woman as the female lead, and put brown makeup on her, so the audience would all know she wasn't black, but could pretend in the context of the film that she was? Why, that's brilliant! No, wait a minute, that's really stupid, but that’s what they did, and with blue-eyed Lamarr delivering her performance as some kind of semi-feral embodiment of sexual allure, the results have been spoken of by lovers of camp ever after.

Witzel is the only one who sees through not only Tondelayo's conniving, but everyone else as well, so quickly becomes the hero figure, albeit a jaded and embittered one who is frustrated to the point of distraction by every single person around him. After seeing off snivelling Bramwell Fletcher, the man broken by the surroundings of the plantation, Richard Carlson shows up on the riverboat as his replacement and immediately rubs Witzel up the wrong way by speaking the same clichés that every newcomer does. He sets the man right: here’s nothing to do here but work and drink, so shut up and get on with it, though interestingly the natives are not portrayed as a bunch of simpletons, as it's clear they are getting one over on these so-called masters.

None more so that Tondelayo, who is kept offscreen for most of the first half of the movie as if to build up the anticipation in the viewer. When she finally establishes herself in the plot, she is utterly untrustworthy but inescapably desirable, that forbidden lust informing the way Carlson's naïve official reacts to her, strongly against the advice of Witzel. The other whites are little help, with doctor Frank Morgan more interested in the bottle and the padre (Henry O'Neill) a meek but far from stabilising presence, so the basic message was if you were a visitor to Africa, you had to fight to keep your moral character because spending too much time around these folks would warp your mind sooner or later. Needless to say, this was far from enlightened, and for that reason White Cargo has become a cult movie among those who like to laugh at and mock the outdated approaches to such subjects. While it is ridiculous in places, and will make you chuckle, overall the mood was testy and bad-tempered, as if the heat was getting to everyone from the writer on. Music by Bronislau Kaper.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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