Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promoted W. S. Van Dyke's African saga as a "miracle picture." Given its troubled production, one wonders whether Trader Horn inspired the familiar movie-movie gag that imagines a studio called Miracle Pictures with the slogan, "If it's a good picture, it's a miracle." Having bought the rights to the best-selling memoir of Alfred Aloysius Horn, M-G-M got the ambitious notion in 1929 to shoot the movie in Africa. It then occurred to studio executive Irving Thalberg, halfway through production, that it ought to be a talking picture, too. Now it really was ambitious, but reshoots in Hollywood were inevitable. By the time the movie finally opened in early 1931, a few months before the actual Trader Horn died, it was attended by scandal. Edwina Booth, whose big break this was meant to be, had been sued by the wife of her co-star, future Cisco Kid Duncan Renaldo, for what they used to call "alienation of affections," and returned to America debilitated by malaria contracted on location. Though she was capable of filming two features and two serials over the next two years, Booth later sued M-G-M, claiming that the requirements of her role as a scantily-clad "white goddess" had ruined her health and her career. Contemporary accounts suggest that part of the movie's initial appeal was the challenge of figuring out how much of it was authentic, and how much fake. On top of that was the National Geographic angle: as a pre-Code feature, Trader Horn could show topless African women and excuse it as part of the movie's documentary realism. But the film's main selling point, a year before M-G-M released Van Dyke's Tarzan the Ape Man, was the concept of a distaff Tarzan who proves the opposite of a noble savage.
Long for its time at just over two hours, Trader Horn doesn't shape up as much of a story at first. Horn (legendary western star Harry Carey) is mentoring young Peru (Renaldo), the son of an old friend, on his first African safari. The first section is virtually a travelogue as the whites interact with natives, worry about the risks of "juju," and encounter animals. While some scenes show pretty clearly that Carey and Renaldo were in Africa, there's still a lot of obvious second-unit stuff filmed with doubles wearing the characters' distinctive hats. These are often impressive shots of the hunters in the same frame (albeit with their backs to us) with all kinds of African beasts, with the actors doing voiceover commentary. The artificiality of the assemblage looks obvious to us but might not have seemed that way to original viewers.
Eventually, the hunters, accompanied by bearers and Horn's longtime sidekick Ranchero (Mutiu Omoolu) encounter missionary Edith Trent, who has spent years searching for her lost daughter. Well, I've already told you how this'll turn out. Little Nina Trent has become "the Cruelest Woman in Africa," a white witch, spectacularly blond and barely covered on top, and initially quite happy to see Horn, Peru and Ranchero crucified upside down and burned alive. But Peru's smitten insistence that "white people should help each other" eventually softens the merciless beauty, who orders the trio spared and then has to escape with them. She may not have understood a word Peru had said -- Booth's is one of the great gibberish performances in cinema, but she'd be spectacular in a silent film -- but instinctual race solidarity may have mattered less to her than the fact that Peru is a hunky young guy.
Reputedly based on fact, the Trader Horn film takes place in the same cinematic fantasy land of the early M-G-M Tarzan movies, which is to say as nightmarish a place as anything Universal imagined at the same time. "That's Africa," Horn says, "You're either trying to eat or trying to avoid being eaten." It's a racist dystopia of arrested evolution and a playing field for experiments in noble savagery, Caucasian division. Conspicuously, however, while Tarzan is a very noble savage in books and film, Nina Trent is at first not merely savage but quite possibly evil. Of course, Tarzan is always understood to have been raised not by African people, as Nina apparently was, but by a peculiar breed of apes, but you have to wonder whether there's a gendered double-standard regarding white children raised in a "savage" land. To a so-called chivalric imagination the white female was presumably more susceptible if not automatically subject to "the fate worse than death," the concept that still underpins "honor killing" in some parts of the world and motivated American cinema's most famous attempted honor killing in The Searchers. Men didn't seem to be eligible for a similar fate or a similar death; they aren't defiled by savagery in the manner women were presumed to be. Of course, pop culture promptly invented noble female savages, most notably Sheena Queen of the Jungle, but hers were tales for children. But Trader Horn itself backs off from the idea of defilement, presenting Nina as a redeemable character likely to be civilized by the love of a strong, virtuous man.
The idea of a double-standard lingers, however, in the film's treatment of the relationship of Horn and Ranchero. For the most part it's a straightforward bwana-servant relationship; Horn readily praises Ranchero as "the best gunbearer in Africa" but often berates the stoic, sensible guide. For his part, Ranchero appears selflessly devoted to Horn, and the great hunter responds to this and to his guide's other self-evident virtues in a remarkable moment when they and Peru wait to be put to death by Nina's tribe. Horn is determined not to crack under torture and expects his companions to show like resolve. As he puts it, "We won't disgrace the white race -- no, none of the three of us." At the moment of truth, he elevates Ranchero to the status of an honorary white man. Ranchero repays this acknowledgment by refusing to save himself by running off with Peru and Nina while Horn offers to sacrifice himself by leading a pursuing tribe on a chase. He sticks with Horn instead and, inevitably, takes a spear intended for the hunter. Afterward, Horn's bereavement inspires a curious coda. The film has sporadically suggested that Horn is Peru's rival for Nina's affection, despite a great difference in age. At the end, Horn packs the two young people on a boat for civilization, while he stays on to start another safari, and the last we see of the old hero is him staring at the sky and seeing an image of Ranchero -- a shot that may have influenced the denouement of Gunga Din. It'd be a stretch to say there was something homoerotic between Horn and Ranchero, but the implication seems to be that virtue forms emotional bonds between the true men of Africa stronger than the conventional ties of romance. Ranchero, not Nina, is the noble savage of the picture -- to an extent, gender trumps race.
A lot of Trader Horn will look familiar to people who have never seen it. The picture provided plenty of stock footage for M-G-M's Tarzan pictures, from the crocodiles crawling into the water to the charging rhino. It also sports that snazzy, jazzy theme title music used in the early Tarzans, which you'll hear in the re-release trailer below -- for all I know it was composed for Horn. Because Trader Horn isn't as pure pulp as Tarzan, the former film doesn't quite get into the realm of wild jungle terror that the latter dwells in. Pygmies, portrayed as horrific torturers in Ape Man, prove benign in Trader Horn. While Tarzan could be seen as a knock-off of Trader Horn, in movie-history terms Trader Horn is just a rough draft for the jungle fantasies Hollywood would more regularly make. Its more of historical than aesthetic interest, I'm afraid, but it's still an essential document of the Pre-Code era.
And here's that trailer from TCM: