Sunday, March 8, 2015

White Woman (1933)

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.

Cockney Prin is a wealthy trader and planter known as the King of the River. He’s debauched and middle-aged and Judith is obviously repelled by him but at the time it seems like the best offer she’s likely to get. So she marries him and they set off for his home in the jungle, a large river steamer decorated in the kind of expensive bad taste you’d expect from a man who started life in the gutter. Spiritually Prin has never left the gutter. He is a bizarre specimen of humanity gone very wrong and he rules his petty kingdom like an oriental despot.

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 first sign of real trouble comes with the arrival of a new overseer, Ballister (Charles Bickford). Ballister is not afraid of Prin, in fact he’s openly contemptuous. For Prin this offers a new and even more amusing challenge but perhaps this time he has found someone who will call his bluff.

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 Laughton’s performance is deliriously over-the-top even by Laughton standards. When this is combined with one of the most ludicrous moustaches in film history and some  outlandish costumes the results could easily have been mere high camp silliness but Laughton adds a very real sense of viciousness to his characterisation. Prin is a ridiculous figure, but a very dangerous one as well, and his insane over-confidence makes the situation truly explosive.

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.

Kent Taylor is even more completely overshadowed although he’s competent enough.

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.

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