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If "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" has any meaning at all to most Americans today, it's probably as the title of an obscure Moody Blues song. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the true story of how journalist Henry M. Stanley journeyed into a remote region of Africa to search for the missing British explorer and physician David Livingstone was a well-known and thrilling adventure; and that sentence Stanley allegedly uttered when he finally encountered Livingstone became a popular catchphrase.
20th Century Fox had planned a film called Henry M. Stanley for production in 1937, and sent second-unit director Otto Brower and a crew to Africa to shoot backgrounds. According to press reports, they were "besieged by fever, mutiny and attacks from African tribes," much in the same way that both the real Stanley and Livingstone expeditions had been. Production was further delayed by script rewrites and casting. Some sources say Tyrone Power was originally supposed to play Stanley, others that he was to perform the role of Gareth Tyce, ultimately played by Richard Greene. MGM agreed to loan Spencer Tracy to play Stanley only after production on Northwest Passage (1940) was delayed. It was a triumphant homecoming for Tracy, who had begun his film career at Fox. Shortly after production on Stanley and Livingstone (1939) got underway, Tracy was awarded his second Oscar® in a row for his performance as Father Flanagan in 1938's Boys Town. Presenting the award was Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who played Livingstone. Stanley and Livingstone would be Tracy's only film of 1939.
As was common at the time, the facts of the Stanley-Livingstone saga were highly fictionalized and romanticized in the film. It's true that Livingstone was a minister, and part of the reason he went to Africa was as a medical missionary. But the motives for his travels were more complex. He was as much an explorer, a scientific investigator, and an anti-slavery crusader as he was a proselytizer. As for Stanley, the film gives him a totally superfluous and fictitious romance. And even critics of the era derided Stanley and Livingstone's sanctimonious ending. It is true that Stanley returned to Africa after Livingstone's death, but it was for purposes of exploration and empire building, not to follow in Livingstone's footsteps as a missionary.
Most critics acknowledged the hokum, but appreciated Stanley and Livingstone as a rousing adventure story, and praised the performances. The New York Times called it "intelligent, restrained, and dignified," and lauded the script and actors for underplaying the story's most famous moment. So did Newsweek: "The film's ring of truth is sounded by the exceptional performance of Sir Cedric Hardwicke as a credible Livingstone and Spencer Tracy as Stanley, who reads that classic emotional understatement made at Ujiji - Dr. Livingstone, I presume - as a dramatic summation rather than a time-worn gag-line." Just as impressive as Tracy's succinct and low-key delivery of the climactic line was his way with the longer speeches and narration. Near the end of Stanley and Livingstone, a speech, in which he describes his adventures in Africa to the Royal Geographical Society, ran 442 words.
Director: Henry King
Producer: Kenneth Macgowan, Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Philip Dunne, Julien Josephson, based on historical research and story outline by Hal Long, Sam Hellman
Cinematography: George Barnes, Otto Brower
Editor: Barbara McLean
Costume Design: Royer
Art Direction: William Darling, George Dudley
Music: Louis Silvers
Principal Cast: Spencer Tracy (Henry M. Stanley), Nancy Kelly (Eve Kingsley), Richard Greene (Gareth Tyce), Walter Brennan (Jeff Slocum), Charles Coburn (Lord Tyce), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Dr. David Livingstone), Henry Hull (James Gordon Bennett, Jr.), Henry Travers (John Kingsley).
by Margarita Landazuri