Last night, as I attempted to drift off to sleep, I switched over to TCM and watched the 1931 film Trader Horn.
Why Was I Watching It?
I’m on a mission to see every film ever nominated for best picture and Trader Horn was nominated back in 1931. (It lost to the first western ever to win best picture, Cimarron.) Trader Horn is a bit of an oddity among Oscar contenders in that it received no other nominations save for best picture and it has never been released on DVD. When I saw it on TCM’s schedule last night, I figured that might very well be my only chance to see this forgotten best picture nominee.
What’s It About?
So Trader Horn (Harry Carey) is a heroic ivory hunter. Yes, this film was made a long time ago. He makes his living in Africa where he spends his time killing animals and explaining how, whenever the natives start playing their drums, it means that “every black devil is in the bush.” Again, this film was made a very loooooooong time ago.
Anyway, at the start of the film, Trader Horn is introducing his apprentice (Duncan Renaldo) to the facts of life in Africa. Eventually, they meet a missionary (Olive Golden) who is looking for daughter who was kidnapped by a tribe years ago. When Golden is killed, Trader Horn takes it upon himself to find her daughter (played by Edwina Booth) and bring her back to civilization.
Trader Horn was the first non-documentary to be filmed on location in Africa and, as you watch the movie, it quickly becomes apparent that the film’s plot is really just an excuse to show off all the nature footage that director W.S. Van Dyke managed to capture. Countless time the film’s story comes to a complete halt while Carey and Renaldo simply stop to watch a grazing giraffe or to watch a leopard hunt a wildebeest. Normally, this is the sort of thing I would complain about but, in this case, the story was so predictable and silly that I was happy for the interruption. It helps that the 80 year-old nature footage is still visually impressive and exciting to watch. According to the research I did on the Internet after seeing the film, Trader Horn’s footage was used as a stock footage in countless “jungle” films over the next three decades in much the same way that the same old distressing mondo footage tends to show up in every single Italian cannibal film.
There’s a scene were Renaldo finds a lion cub and oh my God, it’s just the most adorable little kitty ever!
Trader Horn actually has an interesting production history and I enjoyed reading about it after I watched the movie. Apparently, Van Dyke spent seven months in Africa making this film and almost the entire crew ended up falling ill. At least two cameramen were killed while filming the wild animals and Edwina Booth returned so sick that her film career was pretty much ended.
On one final note, there was apparently a pornographic remake of this film in the late 60s. Its title? Trader Hornee.
What Didn’t Work?
Did I mention this film was made a really looooooong time ago? Because, seriously, it was. On occasion, I’ve heard an old film described as being “creaky.” I never really understood what that meant until I saw Trader Horn because, quite frankly, this film is amazingly creaky. It moves slowly, the performers are rather melodramatic (though Harry Carey does a good job), and. while the cultural attitudes may have been acceptable in 1931, they now come across as extremely racist and its hard not to feel really uncomfortable with scenes where Renaldo ogles the bare-breasted native women and says, “Why, they’re not savages at all! They’re like little children!”
“Oh My God! Just Like Me!” Moments:
I would have wanted to adopt that lion cub too.
1931 was a long, long time ago.