Jungle June: White Cargo (1942)
It's summertime, when the weather gets sweltering and the imagination conjures images of tropical jungles, exotic cultures and wild animals. Join us on a trek through a genre that has seen a resurgence in recent years with films like Jungle Cruise and The Lost City, but which flourished in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the jungle film.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: White Cargo is set in the wilds of the Congo where a company of white men harvest rubber. It is a harsh landscape and the employees with the most longevity are worse for the wear, and the new recruits annoy them endlessly. A gorgeous native girl throws a wrench into their lives by her very existence.
Robert Osborne in his introduction for TCM said, "It's based on a play from the 1920s which had always been considered pretty trashy, but had always appealed to theater goers looking for a titillating evening out, but now the grand and stately MGM studios was doing a movie version, classing it up considerably though in the process."
Although I don't always agree with the sentiment, I've read that MGM had the worst writers of the major studios. If you're of that mind, you'll be pleasantly surprised by this film which benefits from being based on a play. While overall, the movie might be salacious jungle trash, it has intelligent things to say about the white man's destructive presence in wild, untamed areas.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: This is definitely not the kind of film that MGM excelled at; for some reason it seems more like a Paramount property to me, so it’s kind of surprising that they purchased the rights to a play as notoriously seedy as this. Edward E. Gloss, the Theater Editor of the Akron Beacon Journal wondered why MGM would pick up a property like this, presuming that the film would need to be sanitized to the point of being unrecognizable, comparing its problems to those that plagued the recent film version of Shanghai Gesture.
“And when the studio had finished using its benzene, chlorine and whitewash on Shanghai Gesture, the movie was just as harmless and dull and individually unimportant…its central theme – miscegenation – is strictly forbidden and there is no qualification of the rule. Eliminate this fundamental complication in the plot of White Cargo and the story is without point or punch”.
He makes a valid point here, and knowing MGM’s love of “message pictures”, I went into this film with a bit of trepidation. What I got was a bit unlike any other movie that I’ve seen before. A bizarre, campy, skeezy treat about a love triangle on a rubber plantation.
SG: Even though he is cranky and obviously in need of a long, relaxing vacation, I liked Walter Pidgeon's Harry Witzel quite a lot. He is aware of his surroundings and that he is a small cog in a large machine. He doesn't overestimate his own importance or treat the natives as an impediment to his goals. He also seems to have a strong understanding of the people around him, summing the doctor up as an alcoholic coasting on crude doctoring skills in search of his next drink and pegging Langford for an insecure power-hungry boy constantly trying to prove his masculinity to his own detriment. Is it any wonder that Witzel would be cantankerous considering he seems to be living in the movie Groundhog's Day with the constant influx of new, bright-eyed recruits spouting overused phrases and stupid questions in the oppressive jungle heat full of bloodsucking mosquitos?
RB: Pidgeon is just fine in this movie, really the only one of the main players with any sense, reacting the way pretty much any of us would in such a miserable situation. Everyone seems suitably annoyed with the heat, which no amount of acclimating to can handle. It reminded me a bit of Safe in Hell, the delicious pre-code where everyone looks SO sweaty and SO miserable all the time. I also thought that Frank Morgan handled his role as the alcoholic doctor well, allowing glimpses of sentimentality in. I wanted to know more about his back story.
SG: Me too. He's playing the western stereotype of the drunken doctor who is a victim of circumstance. I want to know what drove him to the bottle, besides the misery of his locale.
RB: And then, there’s Hedy. It may be a controversial opinion, but I’ve always found Lamarr to be more attractive than she is actually a good actor, and this film won’t change anyone’s mind. However, there’s no question that she is the star. When she is on screen, from the first time she utters “I am Tondelayo”, you can’t take your eyes off of her. She’s an amoral, unscrupulous human being and you can’t take your eyes off of her. She’s no great shakes as an actress, but again, the way this film is handled, that wasn’t really a requirement.
SG: I've always found her to be a capable actress with intelligence behind her stunning face. I also read once that Hedy was supposed to be pronounced like, "Haydee," and so I always call her that, even though it garners strange looks from movie fans.
The reading of that line, "I am Tondelayo," has an unintentional sprinkling of comedy on it because of the movie that came out 25 years after, In the Heat of the Night, in which Sidney Poitier delivers his famous line, "They call me Mr. Tibbs."
The bookends with Mr. Worthing recounting his experiences in the wilds of the Congo are completely superfluous, and I'll admit that by the time he came back into the story I had forgotten all about him.
RB: Oh, yeah. That. Completely unnecessary.
SG: It is difficult for my modern eyes to wrap my head around the scandalous nature of the marriage between Tondelayo and Langford. This is an era when miscegenation was a crime, a full 25 years before the Loving v. Virginia case prevented states from upholding laws that discriminated on racial grounds. What further boggles my mind is that the studio attempted to sanitize the relationship by making Tondelayo lighter-skinned, as if the collective consciousness's racism operated on a sliding scale based on the degree of skin pigmentation.
RB: In the play, Tondelayo was African. MGM changed her to half-Arabian/half-Egyptian, I suppose in an attempt to lighten her skin as you mentioned.
SG: Ridiculous. Egypt is in Africa. That's African.
RB: Here in Ohio, the film still ran afoul of the censors upon initial release, as they held it up for further scrutiny. Publicity puff pieces released by the studio note Lamarr’s beauty, in spite of her “chocolate bronzer”. It’s mind boggling today to imagine ANY of this being okay today.
SG: The story behind the censorship makes me angrier than the actual depiction in the movie.
The courtship is an odd one. Most of the men see the native women as a necessary distraction, but not a meaningful or worthwhile part of their lives. Langford's infatuation with Tondelayo begins partly because she is forbidden fruit. Lamarr is undeniably beautiful too, so her allure is understandable in spite of all the warnings. The scene where they play records, appropriately antiquated jazz, and Tondelayo begins a vibrant solo native dance but is muted by Langford's introduction of the white man's way of dancing, which is markedly different and inappropriate for the style of music. He makes no effort to acclimatize, the word he often uses, to Witzel's aggravation, but never truly achieves.
RB: That’s an underlying theme to this movie to me. Nobody really wants to acclimate. They want everything else around them, from the tribesmen to the weather, to acclimate to them. There’s no clear motivation for Langford to marry Tondelayo, except for a desire to sleep with her, which is implied already happened (well, as much as you can imply that in a 1942 movie). The marriage seems to take place almost purely out of spite for Harry. It makes little sense, but as a viewer, you just kind of shrug and go along with it.
SG: Spite and the guise that the relationship is more than physical. By no means is Tondelayo an admirable character or deserving of our sympathy. She is given credit for her intelligence and cunning, but she uses her brain to do underhanded, detrimental things. She is also shallow, willing to trade her virtue (which she has no concept of) in exchange for cheap, glittering trinkets and superficialities.
RB: Tondelayo immediately takes to her power as “Mrs. Langford”, showering herself in cheap baubles and fabrics and beating tribesmen for trivial reasons. She’s a miserable person, but you do get the distinct impression that she doesn’t know how to be any different. She’s despicable but interesting.
The film itself was a huge hit, earning over 2.5 million dollars at the box office, but that must’ve been in the big cities. There was even a tie-in song, “I Am Tondelayo”, which I’d LOVE to hear, but seems to have been lost to the annals of time. Small town America HATED this movie. “Probably one of the worst motion pictures I have ever run,” griped Warren L Weber of the Ellinwood Theatre in Ellinwood Kansas. He also ran it at the Ritz Theater in Stafford, Kansas, where he went on, “Everytime I think about it I get mad. This one should be labeled ‘not fit for human consumption’."
SG: I expected a big budget version of a low budget jungle movie, but got much more with White Cargo. This is an enjoyable movie with more depth than it has a right to. Three stars.
RB: It’s hard to take this film seriously, and even in 1942, it was joked about and the phrase “I am Tondelayo” was made fun of by kids, both real and imaginary. Little Leroy Forrester got a real kick out of it in a memorable episode of The Great Gildersleeve. I’ll also go three stars, but I did have an awfully good time with it. My favorite of Jungle June.