The pre-code era gave birth to a whole sub-genre of outrageous lust in the jungle melodramas in tropical settings. Kongo (1932) may have been the most outrageous of them all but when it comes to pure unadulterated sleaze Paramount’s 1933 offering White Woman is hard to beat.
Carole Lombard is Judith Denning, an American widow eking out a living as a singer in a native bar in Malaya. Or at least that’s what she was doing until it was made clear to her that she was no longer welcome anywhere in the colony. Judith’s husband had shot himself and although she was not charged it’s obvious that there was a strong suspicion that her adultery had driven him to suicide and that she might even have been guilty of more than adultery. That was enough to make her persona non grata but singing in a native bar was the icing on the cake. There really isn’t anywhere for Judith to go since the scandal of her husband’s suicide is going to follow her so when Horace H. Prin (Charles Laughton) asks her to marry him she accepts.
Whether the suspicions attached to Judith’s past life are justified or not it’s obvious that she does not take her marriage vows the slightest bit seriously. Pretty soon she is canoodling with Prin’s overseer David von Elst (Kent Taylor). This simply amuses Prin. He knows he holds all the cards. All the men who work for him have one thing in common - they have no choice. They all have some dirty secret in their past, a dirty secret that Prin knows about and uses gleefully and with sadistic relish. In von Elst’s case it’s cowardice - he deserted from his regiment some years earlier in shameful circumstances. Prin is if anything quite pleased that Judith and von Elst have fallen for each other. If offers him the opportunity for some sadistic entertainment.
The real trouble starts when two native chiefs arrive to complain about Prin’s shoddy trade goods. Prin insults them in a manner that is outrageous even by his standards. Pretty soon the jungle drums are beating and rebellion is in the air. Prin still believes he is in control, and so he is, for a while. But events are spiralling out of control.
The jungle settings are superbly realised. This movie looks quite lavish in a decadent degenerate sort of way.
Charles Bickford shows he can match Laughton when it comes to over-acting. The exchanges between Laughton and Bickford are the movie’s greatest strength - these two actors bounce off one another with magnificent zest.
With Laughton and Bickford in full flight Carole Lombard is inevitably overshadowed. Her performance is good but she’s simply outgunned. Surprisingly, given that Lombard was on the verge of becoming the queen of screwball comedy, she doesn’t try to counter Laughton with wisecracks. It’s obvious that at this stage of her career no-one had yet recognised her supreme comedic talent, which is a pity since a few wisecracks delivered in inimitable Lombard fashion would have enlivened her performance.
The Universal Vault Series made-on-demand DVD is barebones but it offers an extremely good transfer.
This is real pre-code territory and there’s plentiful sexual innuendo and a general atmosphere of sleaze and depravity that is still quite startling. White Woman positively wallows in sleaze. With Laughton giving one of the most delightfully excessive performances of a delightfully excessive career and Bickford equally over-the-top the result is a deliciously overheated melodrama. Highly recommended.