Wednesday, August 17, 2016
DVR Diary: WHITE CARGO (1942)
Richard Thorpe's film may well have seemed an anachronism when it appeared. The story behind White Cargo had been in circulation for thirty years by then. It began with Ida Vera Simonton's novel Hell's Playground, which you can sample at the Internet Archive to see for yourselves how oh-lordy bad it is. The playwright Leon Gordon loosely adapted the novel for the stage; his White Cargo had been touring all over the place for twenty years while M-G-M's film was in production. Burlesque queen Ann Corio was playing the half-caste seductress Tondelayo at the same time that retrospectively-recognized supergenius Hedy Lamarr was blacking up for movie cameras. At the brink of the film noir era, the epoch of the femme fatale, Metro was offering a real oldschool vamp, a demoralizing virtual succubus and corrupter of men. But what was the difference, really, between the archetypes? It's easy to differentiate when the vamp is also a racist stereotype as Tondelayo is. She's actually toned down from her stage version, less blatantly African, but she still embodies the idea that outside western civilization, the people are childlike, sensuously materialistic and utterly without ideals. Tondelayo wants sex and she wants stuff, and that's all she knows. She's a brainless parasite with just enough cunning to be dangerous to whomever she might exploit. She latches on to Langford (Richard Carlson), the new English arrival at an African rubber plantation who like a sap falls in love with her despite the warnings of cynical Witzel (Walter Pidgeon), pious Rev. Roberts (Henry O'Neill) and a drunk doctor (Frank Morgan). He wants to marry Tondelayo because he loves her, and to stick it to Witzel, who despises the woman, probably from experience. The long scene in which the other white try to argue Langford out of the marriage is the film's high point, apart from Lamarr's mere presence. It's a scene that simply can't mean the same thing now that it did then, since our instinct now is to take Langford's side almost unreservedly, on the assumption that the other men are howling racists. But in the film's own context they're absolutely right, and if you want to treat Tondelayo as an individual and not as a representative of her sex or ethnicity, you have to realize that she can only be a disaster of a wife. Soon enough she and Langford grow bored with each other, and while Langford might carry her like a cross indefinitely, Tondelayo finally wants out by any mean necessary, only to be forced by the contemptuously righteous Witzel to drink her own poison.
The problem with White Cargo is that it's impossible to extricate the indictment against Tondelayo as a person from the assumption that she's categorically unfit because of what she is, let alone what she does. She's a double-whammy: a savage and a vamp. She's like that because they're like that -- and that, I suppose, makes the difference between a vamp and a femme fatale. For all that the latter is also arguably a misogynist archetype, the femme fatale always has more individuality and often can be indulged sympathetically as a creature or victim of circumstance rather than dismissed as someone (or thing) that can't help being what she is and can't be forgiven for it, either. So much for the dissertation, which is my confession of guilt in taking some pleasure in Hedy Lamarr's slinky antics and the over-the-top duel of Carlson and Pidgeon. As I suggested, White Cargo may well have been treated as camp as soon as it premiered, while now treating it as camp is probably the only way to make it acceptable. Some people today won't accept it under any circumstances, but most of us still find plenty of deplorable things entertaining, in spite of themselves or not. White Cargo isn't really that entertaining, but it's definitely a fascinating film in its sort-of-evil way.