Saturday, November 4, 2023

Trader Horn (1931)

MGM’s Trader Horn was the first major feature film (as distinct from documentary film) shot on location in Africa. It cost a fortune to make but was a major box-office hit. It’s a kind of jungle girl adventure film.

It was based (loosely) on the memoirs of the real Trader Horn, Alfred Aloysius Horn, a celebrated ivory trader.

In the movie the middle-aged Trader Horn (Harry Carey) is introducing the son of his late partner to the like of a trader in Africa. The young man is named Peru (Duncan Renaldo).

They encounter a famed woman missionary, Edith Trent (played by Harry Carey’s wife Olive). Edith has been searching for twenty years for her daughter Nina, carried off as an infant in a native raid. She believes she now has a fair idea where her daughter might be found. It means travelling into very dangerous country indeed. She extracts a promise from Horn - if she is killed he will continue the search for Nina.

Soon afterwards Edith is killed, and Horn is determined to keep his promise. Horn, Peru and Horn’s gun bearer Rencharo set off to find Nina.

They find Nina (played by Edwina Booth). She has been raised by an isolated tribe that has had no contact with Europeans. The tribe worship Nina as a kind of goddess. Horn, Peru and Rencharo are captured and are about to be sacrificed but Nina decides she can’t let that happen. Accompanied by Nina they make their escape in a canoe but the tribe is in hot pursuit. The second half of the movie is an extended chase through the wilds of Africa.

Nina is blonde, gorgeous and sexy and both Horn and Peru fall for her charms. So we have a classic romantic triangle setup.

The acting is a mixed bag. Harry Carey is pretty good. Edwina Booth is perfectly adequate and manages to look like a very glamorous jungle girl. Duncan Renaldo’s performance on the other hand is excruciatingly awful and irritating.

The making of the film was not without its problems. Two members of the crew were killed during the location shooting in Africa (according to one story a cameraman was eaten by a crocodile). Edwina Booth became very ill. There were problems with the sound recording and as a result some scenes had to be reshot in the studio. It was an incredibly ambitious movie. It has to be said that the location shooting is very impressive. Some additional scenes were shot in Mexico.

This was long before the age of television nature documentaries but in the 1920s and 30s documentary films shot in exotic places were hugely popular. The director of Trader Horn, W.S. Van Dyke, had actually made such films.

Trader Horn ends up being a cross between an adventure story and a travelogue. The travelogue elements slow the movie down (and at just over two hours this movie is much too long) but audiences at the time were entranced by the location shooting.

The pacing is a real problem. There’s nothing wrong with the plot, it’s a standard jungle girl story which hadn’t yet become a cliché, but there’s just not enough plot to stretch out for two hours.

Does it have any pre-code elements? Not many, but Edwina Booth’s costume is pretty revealing and would have caused problems with the Production Code after 1934.

There was another Trader Horn movie, with a totally different plot, made in 1973.

The 1931 Trader Horn has some truly spectacular visual moments and it is a jungle girl movie and I love jungle girl movies. Just don’t expect it to reflect the social attitudes of 2023. It has some entertaining moments but it’s so very slow that it’s difficult to recommend.

The transfer on the Warner Archive DVD is acceptable.

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