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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Trader Horn (1931)
Trader Horn (1931)
Warner Archives // Unrated // September 1, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 10, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Trader Horn (1931), an epic MGM production starring Harry Carey and the first dramatic feature shot in Africa, demands historical-cultural context. By today's standards it's outrageously politically incorrect. A veritable celebration of real-life "white hunter" Alfred Aloysius "Trader" Horn (1861-1931), an ivory and hides trader in Central Africa, and on whose book Trader Horn: A Young Man's Astounding Adventures in 19th-Century Equatorial Africa it was very loosely based, the movie chokes with scenes that would make audiences today blanch.

Magnificent animals of all kinds are gunned down on camera, while others were starved for days by the filmmakers to make their fights with one another more brutal. (Some of this footage was secretly filmed in Mexico, to avoid animal cruelty laws in the U.S.) The script abounds in what today would be regarded as insensitive, racist dialogue: "No white man knows more of Africa than I," declares its title character to traveling companion Peru (Duncan Renaldo) who, upon gazing at an indigenous tribe, declares, "They're just happy, ignorant, children!" And so on.

Eighty-four years ago, however, Trader Horn was a huge popular success, reporting a profit of over $1 million, making it one of the top-grossing movies ever up to that point. Moviegoers back then may have been less enlightened about Trader Horn's racial and environmental quandaries, but it's also fair to say few if any moviegoers or critics at the time would have objected much. Indeed, it's easy to imagine young boys idolizing its hero. This is not a film one would send Spike Lee to review.

Rather, Trader Horn falls into that category of film that is absolutely without malice. Africa back then was almost universally regarded by the "civilized" world as a kind of final frontier. (Being a "Pre-Code" film, a lot of what was acceptable to censors then would not have passed by the end of 1934.) Today we realize that gorillas, for example, are highly intelligent, usually gentle and sociable animals not far removed from homo sapiens, but around the time Trader Horn was made so little was know about them they were then still regarded as something like bloodthirsty monsters. Much of Trader Horn abounds in similar unmalicious ignorance.

Likewise, what's racist about Trader Horn by today's standards probably wasn't consciously considered an expression of white racial superiority over people of color. Besides, the script makes plain that Horn regards his African translator as a brother whom, he says, he'd no sooner abandon than he would his own leg. That's not to condone movies that deliberately distort history (e.g., Gone With the Wind), just to note that standards of acceptability were simply different back then. Indeed, Trader Horn became along with Tarzan, the Ape Man (1931), King Kong, and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) the films that virtually locked all the mythic jungle movie iconography into place. Barely a dozen years later, ultra-cheap movies like Nabonga (1943) were veritable remakes of the expensive, ambitious Trader Horn.

A Warner Archive release, Trader Horn is more or less presented in its original uncut version. (An onscreen introduction reportedly featuring producer Cecil B. DeMille is still missing from this cut.) The image is notably soft and has lots of minor damage everywhere, but it's watchable, and the disc includes a couple of extra features.

The film tells one of the iconic jungle plots, a cliché by the 1940s but comparatively virgin territory in movies (though not popular literature) when it was new: the search for the long-lost daughter of missionaries, at first kidnapped by natives who now regard her a White Goddess. "Trader" Horn (Carey) is a veteran of the African ivory trade, showing the ropes to Peru (Duncan Renaldo), son of Horn's oldest friend.

Accompanied by their African guide, Rencharo (Mutia Omoolu), and nameless bearers, the party encounters widowed but hearty missionary Edith Kent (Olive Golden, actually Olive Carey, Harry's wife), a brave woman who for many years has unendingly searched for her daughter, Nina, rumored to be living among the Isorgi Tribe beyond the Opanga Falls. (Her story has faint echoes to the later The Searchers, which featured Olive, son Harry Carey Jr., and which includes a visual tribute to her husband.)

When Edith dies early in her attempt, Horn and Peru pick up the search where she left off, eventually discovering Nina (Edwina Booth), now a grown woman and regarded as a White Goddess among the warring tribe.

The making of Trader Horn is as storied as the movie itself. It began shooting as a silent film, then halfway through production switched to sound. Illnesses (malaria, sunstroke, etc.), flash floods, swarms of insects, and accidents besieged the crew in Africa, specifically Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda, Kenya, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (now Sudan), and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire). There were at least two fatalities: one crewmember fell into a river and was eaten alive by a crocodile, while a charging rhino killed another. (Some reports insist the second fatality was caught on film and used in the movie, but the shot in question is very clearly a traveling matte, a special effect, and not real.)

Booth herself became infected with either malaria or schistosomiasis ("snail fever") or both, and her six-year recovery, spent mostly in a darkened room, resulted in a lawsuit against MGM that effectively blacklisted her from the major film studios. Despite the success of Trader Horn, she appeared in just two other features, The Midnight Patrol (1933; not the Laurel & Hardy short of the same title and year) and Trapped in Tia Juana (1932), the latter with Duncan Renaldo; and two serials with Harry Carey, The Vanishing Legion (1931) and The Last of the Mohicans (1932). All were for minor companies. Adding salt to the wound, Booth was sued for $50,000 by Duncan Renaldo's wife at the time, charging Booth with "alienation of affections" while Renaldo served a short prison sentence as an illegal alien before being personally pardoned by President Roosevelt.

Much of the film had to be reshot on MGM's backlot and nearby, reportedly because of the poor quality of the audio. Booth is noticeably thinner with dark circles under her eyes in these scenes, though no less wild-eyed.

The final cost of Trader Horn has variously been given as anywhere between $1.3 million (entirely possible) to $3 million (highly unlikely). It was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture and spoofed in cartoons and short comedies, one of which is included here.

Video & Audio

Presented in its original full-frame format, Trader Horn looks mighty soft with lots of minor damage in almost every scene, but it is uncut, retaining lots of violence and considerable bare-breasted African women, for what that's worth. The Dolby Digital mono is likewise not the greatest, but okay considering the film's age and the technical challenges of capturing sound on location in far-flung Africa with primitive recording equipment. The disc itself is region-free.

Extra Features

Supplements include a trailer and Trader Hound (1931), a two-reel comedy co-directed by Jules White and featuring the voices of Billy Bletcher and Pete Smith. It's pretty grueling to sit through but nonetheless a nice supplement.

Parting Thoughts

Recommended for film buffs able to put such films into historical-cultural context, Trader Horn, though a bit overall at 122 minutes, is worthwhile and fascinating.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available while his commentary track for Arrow Video's Battles without Honor and Humanity will be released in November.

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