Sunday, March 13, 2016

Tonight's Movie: White Cargo (1942) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

A trio of favorite actors star in WHITE CARGO (1942), recently released by the Warner Archive.

The actors are Hedy Lamarr, Walter Pidgeon, and Richard Carlson, in a steamy, sweaty story of life on a rubber plantation. Although it has its moments, chiefly due to Hedy Lamarr ("I am...Tondelayo"), in the end I didn't find it an especially enjoyable 88 minutes.

Langford (Carlson) shows up to work a four-year contract on the plantation. Witzel (Pidgeon), the man in charge, is a nasty sort who constantly berates Langford, especially when Langford suggests he needs time to "acclimatize." That is one of Witzel's least favorite words, and whenever anyone uses it or comments on how hot it is Witzel flies into a rage.

There's one thing Witzel's correct about, though, and that's the danger of the luscious but no-good native girl, Tondelayo (Lamarr). Tondelayo, who once tangled with the bitter Witzel, sets her sights on Langford and his money. Lonely, lustful Langford marries Tondelayo, but she tires of him almost immediately and decides to erase her marital problems with poison. Witzel, however, learns the truth and administers justice in shocking fashion.

Frank Morgan is the plantation doctor, worn down by heat and drink, and Henry O'Neill plays a more benign character, a missionary pastor for the area. Reginald Owen is the skipper of the Congo Queen, which transports mail and new employees to the isolated plantation.

The screenplay by Leon Gordon, based on his own play, is for the most part rather stagebound, other than a handful of scenes along the river. It frequently feels like the filmed stage play it is, while it has brief moments when it manages to break past that into something a little more exciting. Honestly, though, it's not great fun to watch the characters sitting around drinking, sweating, yelling, and generally being miserable.

I don't think I've ever seen Pidgeon so unlikeable! He is typically a soothing presence in his films, but not here. Some of his misery and complaints are justified, such as the fact Langford can't seem to do his job keeping trees alive, but Witzel is an unhappy man who is mean about absolutely everything.

Carlson is initially more sympathetic as the energetic new employee, but he's done in by gullibility and desire. Given the time period in which the film was set, you wonder what Langford was thinking marrying Tondelayo, as she's hardly the kind of girl you'd expect him to bring home and introduce to his mother, but then, that's the point -- he wasn't thinking.

Lamarr wears dark makeup as the Egyptian-Arab temptress but is as gorgeous as ever. She doesn't have great dialogue, with Tondelayo constantly referring to herself in the first person, but she does have a great presence about her; despite, rather than because of, her dialogue she manages to create a tempting yet evil being. I love the way Lamarr moves, such as in the scene where Langford invites her to sit and, rather than taking a chair, she slithers to the ground. She brings the movie to life, and the fact that she doesn't appear until a third of the way into the film is one of its drawbacks.

The movie is told in flashback; look for a young Jim Davis in one of his first films as a seaplane pilot in the opening sequence.

Richard Thorpe directed, with black and white cinematography by Harry Stradling.

The print looks good; some of the nighttime scenes are quite dark, but I suspect it's intended. The disc includes a trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.


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