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A particularly sweaty take on the familiar "native temptress in the jungle" tale, White Cargo (1942) marked a successful attempt at image transformation for international film star Hedy Lamarr as Tondelayo, the half-Egyptian, sarong-clad femme fatale with broken English who spells doom for her white male co-stars. At an African rubber plantation established by the English, overseer Harry Witzel (Walter Pidgeon) warns his latest assistant, Langford (Richard Carlson), that the wily and voluptuous Tondelayo has already destroyed his predecessor, Wilbur (Bramwell Fletcher), and will surely bulldoze her way through any other men in her path. When Tondelayo appears and manages to entice Langford with great ease, the cycle begins anew as the beguiled assistant determines to marry her at any cost. However, she soon grows weary of her latest conquest and decides that a bit of homicide might allow her to corrupt yet another hapless male...
Originally a novel by Ida Vera Simonton entitled Hell's Playground, this popular mixture of exotica, pulp thrills and over-the-top misogyny first gained popularity in 1923 under its more famous title as a stage play, then as a 1930 British film by J.B. Williams and A.W. Barnes that took seven years to reach American shores. This Hollywood version was adapted by the play's original author, Leon Gordon, a busy scribe through the early 1950s who also penned such films as Kim (1950). Well aware of the source material's absurdity, Lamarr undertook the lead role as a means of shattering her pristine, untouchable persona. "That name kills me," Lamarr reminisced of her jungle siren lead in her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me. "John [Loder] thought from the start I was ridiculous to play it, but there was so much sex in it I couldn't resist the temptation to kill the 'marble goddess image' for good!" However, the results failed to please her, causing her to declare "it was all hopeless... I know, though, in my coca-butter-smeared nudity I contributed to the war effort. Soldiers all over the world sent fan letters to Tondelayo." Lamarr also recalled an amusing anecdote from one critic's screening: "Critic George Jean Nathan listening to, 'Me Tondelayo. Me stay,' got up and said, 'Me George Jean Nathan. Me Go.' And he walked out of the theatre."
One of the most popular screen icons of the World War II era, the Austrian-born Lamarr (born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) began her career in a number of Czech and German films including 1933's notorious Ecstasy, where her nudity and sex scenes catapulted her to international stardom. Her Hollywood debut, Algiers, (1938) was a smash hit which enshrined her as one of the most striking beauties of her era. Her years at MGM resulted in a wide variety of titles including Boom Town (1940) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941), with White Cargo marking one of her most auspicious leads. However, after turning down a number of prize roles which would have expanded her dramatic range such as Casablanca (1942), her career went into decline after her final significant Hollywood lead in Samson and Delilah (1949). At the height of her popularity with White Cargo, Lamarr was also compelled to visit what she termed "my first in a long line of distinguished psychiatrists. This doctor... made me realize that in spite of my exalted position in the film world and the fact that so many people called me beautiful, I didn't believe it. It was his job to make me believe I was beautiful! As is usually the case I fell in love with him."
Along with an indelible female at its center, White Cargo boasts a fearless troupe of male supporting players familiar to many movie buffs. A busy character actor since the silent era, Walter Pidgeon anchors the film as the man in charge with a possible secret lust in his heart; though already familiar for his previous role in How Green Was My Valley (1941), his most famous work was yet to come as Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet (1956) and Florenz Ziegfeld in Funny Girl (1968). Reliable sci-fi actor Richard Carlson, who had appeared in the previous year's The Little Foxes (1941), became a familiar face on television and earned a soft spot in the hearts of baby boomers everywhere as the stalwart lead in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). As the plantation's resident physician, Frank Morgan will forever be remembered for the title role in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, as well as his classic turns in The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and his previous collaboration with Lamarr in Boom Town.
A controversial project from its inception, White Cargo originally established Tondelayo as a black native woman whose relationship with all of the white men around her carried an interracial charge far too potent for the Hays Code. Though the British version retains the original racial schematics of the source material, Hollywood had to tone it down by giving Tondelayo an unlikely but more "palatable" Egyptian parentage to appease the censors; also, a flashback structure was imposed on the story to convey its status as a moral lesson. However, none of these changes could suppress the essential heavy-breathing juiciness of the tale, a deliciously ripe relic from a time when everyone was all too eager to "go native." Producer: Victor Saville
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Ida Vera Simonton (novel), Leon Gordon
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Film Editing: Fredrick Y. Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Hedy Lamarr (Tondelayo), Walter Pidgeon (Mr. Harry Witzel), Frank Morgan (The Doctor), Richard Carlson (Mr. Langford), Reginald Owen (Skipper of the Congo Queen), Henry O'Neill (The Reverend Dr. Roberts).
BW-88m. Closed captioning.
by Nathaniel Thompson