The movie White Cargo (1942) tells us of the hellish heat on an African rubber plantation at the turn of the 20th Century and how it can play with your mind… Unsurprisingly, it is based on a novel entitled Hell’s Playground which was indirectly borne upon a murder that resulted in what the media described as The Trial of the Century.
“Blasted hot today,” says a heat-affected rubber plantation engineer to his co-worker played by Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984 after strokes), for what must be the millionth time…. Enter the Wizard of Oz himself Frank Morgan (1890-1949 heart attack) as an alcohol-soaked physician who lays around the plantation drinking himself into oblivion… You can almost feel the heat and humidity which affects these characters in the MGM movie White Cargo… The MGM gloss is at odds with the material, where the men sweat profusely as they drink and complain in equal measure, while that one character repeats the same phrases over and over such as: “I’ll be all right once I get acclimatized!” Pidgeon wants to throttle this fellow over just the very thought he’s going to repeat that phrase yet again.
But the actors already mentioned are only half the cast in this film which introduces a native girl in the form of Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000 heart disease). She was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood at the time of White Cargo. Her entrance into the hut of actor Richard Carlson (1912-77 cerebral haemorrhage) with the words: “I am Tondelayo” are a part of movie legend.
Lamarr was originally from Austria and called Hedwig Kiesler and then Hedy Kiesler. She caused a sensation for appearing nude in scenes from the Czech film Ecstasy (1933) aka Ekstase. Hedy swims naked in that movie and also runs through the woods bare-arsed and the film is credited for being the first non-pornographic movie to show a woman achieve orgasm. As a result, it was controversial in its day and there are reports when copies of the movie turned up in the United States in 1935, they were seized and promptly burned for being obscene.
It was toned down and released years later but remained condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency for many years after Pope Pius XI (1857-1939 heart attacks) denounced it after it appeared at the Venice Film Festival. I guess it is not surprising that Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883-1945 shot) is reported to have kept a copy of the movie.
Hedy had no problem with doing the nude scenes at the time said cinematographer Jan Stallich (1907-73) but in later years claimed she was tricked into doing them. Director Gustav Machaty (1901-63) left Europe under Adolf Hitler before World War Two as did Hedy who had Jewish heritage.
After appearing in this art film, Hedy tried to follow a more conventional career on stage. It was around 1934 that she met her future husband, the incredibly rich and politically powerful fascist arms dealer Friedrich Mandl (1900-77). It is claimed that Mandl was a control freak who constantly kept an eye on her… But it was the fact that Hedy sat and listened through various business meetings about defence weapons with Mandl which would lead to her becoming an inventor… but more on that later.
It was years later, after she left Mandl and was in London, that she met the head of MGM studios Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957 leukemia) who must have liked what he saw in Ecstasy and was an admirer. He took her back to the States on a boat trip across the Atlantic and christened Ms. Hedy Keisler – as one Hedy Lamarr.
It was Mayer’s admiration for the silent Hollywood star Barbara La Marr (1896-1926) that led to this name being chosen. Barbara La Marr was once dubbed the “Girl Who Was Too Beautiful”. She played the vamp and partied and drank heavily. She starred and wrote one of the first films to deal with mental illness and bipolar disorder, the now lost Sandra (1924). La Marr, who crash dieted and bragged she only slept two hours a night, collapsed on the set of her final movie The Girl from Montmartre (1926) and died at her parent’s home from complications associated with tuberculosis and kidney failure.
La Marr’s young son Marvin was adopted by close friend and screen comedienne ZaSu Pitts (1894-1963 cancer).
Anyway, Hedy Lamarr was born to honour that poor actress.
White Cargo is probably THE prime example of MGM’s stereotyping of Lamarr as a brainless sexpot. The actress tried to change her image by producing her own films in the mid-1940s with films such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s (1904-72 after stroke) substantially budgeted follow-up to Detour (1945) entitled The Strange Woman (1946) as well as Dishonored Lady (1947) which was bowdlerized by The Hays Office and failed at the box office.
But she wasn’t a twit, as she is credited for inventing a device which improved traffic stoplights and a tablet that would dissolve in water to create a carbonated drink, which was unsuccessful probably because, as Lamarr said, it tasted like the antacid pain reliever Alka-Seltzer.
Untrained and self-taught, she also helped develop a frequency hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed and could help guided torpedoes hit their target. Hedy had a patent but she wasn’t taken seriously by the defence department. This was the stupid native girl Tondelayo after all! It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the technology was used in navy ships after the patent lapsed. The basic technology is incorporated into Bluetooth today. Smart girl.
Hedy would make about 20 movies in starring roles and married six times all told. One of her children, with whom she was estranged, was a police officer by the name of James Loder – son of actor John Loder (1898-1988) – who shot a 14-year-old black girl in the back of the head while investigating a party at a vacant building in Omaha, Nebraska in June of 1969. The death of the girl sparked three days of riots in Omaha’s northeast neighbourhood as a result and Hedy’s son was later acquitted of manslaughter by a jury. I guess some things don’t change.
Hedy thought she gave her best performance as Delilah in Cecil B. De Mille’s (1881-1959 after heart attacks) Samson and Delilah (1949). Her last feature film appearance would be in producer Albert Zugsmith’s (1910-93) trashy The Female Animal (1958) and toward the end of her life she became somewhat of a recluse. She was accused of shoplifting on a couple of occasions and in 1991 pleaded no contest for stealing $20 worth of laxatives and eye drops in Florida where she eventually died.
In the 1970s, she sued Mel Brooks (1926-) for using the name Hedley Lamarr for the villain in his movie Blazing Saddles (1974). Brooks said he was flattered that he was being sued by the actress for ‘almost using her name’ and the studio settled out of court. Brooks said that she never got the joke.
Having said that, I am at risk of dismissing her early Hollywood films which were hugely popular around the time of White Cargo. These include the big-star oil wildcatter movie Boom Town (1940) which also starred Clark Gable (1901-60 heart attack) and Spencer Tracy (1900-67 heart attack). My favourite is the comedy Comrade X (1940), which also stars Gable alongside Hedy. This one is set in a backward Communist Russia where Hedy is a Soviet beauty named Theodore – you have to be a man to operate trams in Russia! – who is so intelligent that she can speak five languages!!
This is a funny film and although it is probably just a re-tread of Greta Garbo’s (1905-1990 kidney failure) Ninotchka (1939) with a serious and straight-faced Hedy playing for laughs… It has a great finale with the stars being chased in a tank by a squadron of other tanks.
Another favourite film of this era in which Hedy appears is Tortilla Flat (1942) which is a highly sentimental movie at times based on the 1935 John Steinbeck novel. It is prone to taste and not everyone likes it … But the film which has Hedy as a poor and simple paisano village girl who gets a vacuum cleaner as a gift from John Garfield (1913-52 heart attack) is worth watching alone for White Cargo co-star Frank Morgan’s performance as a dog-loving hermit who has saved a small fortune to pay for a golden candlestick for the Lord saving the life of one of his precious dogs when it was sick. Morgan was justly nominated for an Oscar.
But Hedy wouldn’t win any awards during her career, except perhaps notably the sour apple award from the Golden Apple Awards of 1949 as Least Co-operative Actress. Costume designer Edith Head, who funnily enough won as Oscar for that year’s Samson and Delilah, said she was one of the worst actresses she ever worked with.
But in terms of the studio’s original investment, when compared to Boom Town and Comrade X, White Cargo was the most successful of these at the box office.
Originally based on the novel Hell’s Playground (1912) by Ida Vera Simonton (1870-1931). The writer was originally a New York socialite who visited West Africa in 1906 to avoid testifying in the murder trial of architect Stanford White (1853-1906). White was shot dead by the husband of a woman who claimed that White had drugged and raped her as a sixteen-year-old several years earlier. The Hearst newspapers called the ensuing courtroom drama The Trial of the Century, as White had been killed in public at the Madison Square Garden theatre by being shot twice in the face. The crowd in the theatre thought at first it was an elaborate party trick but then chaos ensued. In the end, after one hung jury, the killer, who was known for his drug addiction and fondness for cocaine and morphine ‘speedballs’ was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Both killer and victim were revealed to have satyr-like sexual appetites during the trial and it’s a story which has been told in such movies as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) with Ray Milland (1907-86 lung cancer) as White and Ragtime (1981) with Norman Mailer (1923-2007 kidney failure) as White.
Simonton’s book Hell’s Playground was adapted into a play in the early 1920s by Leon Gordon (1891-1960 heart ailment) who was also an actor. He, incidentally, appeared in the previously mentioned lost 1924 silent film starring Barbara La Marr – Sandra.
Gordon toured White Cargo in Australia before he joined MGM in 1930 and helped to write the screenplay for Freaks (1932) and another Pre-Code cult item from that year Kongo (1932). He goes uncredited for work on the Marx Bros. A Day at the Races (1937) and one of the last screenplays he co-wrote was Kim (1950).
Gordon’s White Cargo play was originally made into a part-talkie in Britain in 1930 starring Maurice Evans (1901-89 heart attack) who many will remember as Doctor Zaius in Planet of the Apes (1968) and its sequel.
Simonton’s original book must have captured the hell that was the African rubber plantations before air-conditioning as it was a bestseller. In the 1942 movie, which is scripted by playwright Gordon, the story is told in flashback. There is no phone or radio, let alone television. The structures that the characters inhabit suffer from dry rot and there is only a book for company. So, it is a place where a man could get lonely in the isolation of the jungle and he must eventually find solace in a drink, if he cannot find it in work or other respectable hobbies.
It is a place where a man may become prepossessed with the notion of finding a woman, any woman, and marry her for the sex and company or the company and sex… whichever way you would have it once the glow of the honeymoon has worn off.
Poor Richard Carlson’s character has been warned against fraternising with the natives, but when Hedy Lamarr turns up with her “I am Tondelayo” line, he is hooked. This uneducated native girl whose eyes light up at the thought of “much silk and bangles” wants nothing of a man but the trappings his basic middle-class salary can give her.
“She’s the nearest thing I’ve seen to a civilised woman in five impossible months,” says Carlson, lying on his bed thinking of her, despite warnings from doctor Frank Morgan that Tondelayo “purrs her way into your mind and scratches her way out… always taking and never giving.”
If you can well afford such women and have a knack of taming them, then take them… and Carlson does, with no idea what he’s doing except that he’s consumed by a feverish adolescent crush for Tondelayo. And he does it partly because Walter Pidgeon’s character despises Tondelayo and Carlson in return despises Pidgeon!
You can tell it’s a play as there are various tensions at play amongst the canny dialogue and strong characters.
Hedy’s bronzed face is lit and photographed lovingly by cinematographer Henry A. Stradling (1901-70). She never looked more alluring and yet naturally beautiful. Stradling photographed such stars as Marlene Dietrich (1901-92 kidney failure), Vivien Leigh (1913-67 tuberculosis), Audrey Hepburn (1929-93 abdominal cancer) and Judy Garland (1922-69 barbiturate overdose) among many others. He knew how to help actresses give good face. He won an Oscar for My Fair Lady (1964) and won another one for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). He received nearly a dozen more nominations.
White Cargo is considered trash and didn’t get any Oscar nods, least of all because it was still controversial to see an affair between a white man and a black woman. They get past the censors of the day when it is explained that Tondelayo was half Egyptian and half Arab.
“It’s something you’ll regret all your life… It’s unwholesome,” is some of the ripe and dated dialogue by Morgan about Carlson’s obsessions and plans to marry Tondelayo.
But, really, it’s not because of her race, but the fact that Carlson is being carried away by an onanistic fantasy. He is almost stark staring mad as he rants: “I tell you, I love this woman! I can’t and I won’t live alone here any longer!”
Poor Carlson isn’t “acclimatized” and is about to go bananas or troppo over this woman if he doesn’t get gratification. Meanwhile Tondelayo runs from Pidgeon’s admonishments like a frightened child who knows she’s done wrong. Pidgeon could well tame her, if anyone can.
“But Tondelayo want more,” she says about her hunger for possessions, once the pair are married and she starts to yell at Carlson, who seems exhausted after all the heavy breathing which is not shown has worn off… It won’t be long before Tondelayo is bored enough with her husband and his lack of silk and bangles… to poison him.
It is, indeed, Hell’s Playground as suggested by the novel’s original title. White Cargo is a play that in its day sought to titillate and thrill audiences who liked the idea of half-dressed native women and hot and sweaty men as they play mind games on the edge of civilisation. The exotic tryst that it promised is in an exotic locale which is overheated to the point where it is a kind of Hades that drives its residents to breaking point and where beauty is only skin deep and hides rotten innards like spoiled tropical fruit which has long dropped from the tree due to the insidious heat.
The film wraps itself up with the flash-forward to the air-conditioned comfort of the present day where there is an old chestnut of a joke.
“And so, you became acclimatized?,” the peaceful looking elderly former plantation worker is asked, having told the story of White Cargo.
“Don’t you ever use that word to me!,” he stands and blasts in a sudden fit of anger.
Hedy is billed in one trailer as: “… Tender and treacherous… delightful and deadly… romantic and ruthless…” in other words “The most intriguing enchantress in the world of entertainment.”
White Cargo may not be “the most amazing drama in the history of modern theatre” but its title about the white rubber harvested from trees, also hints at white slavery and, indeed, white man Carlson is a slave to his desires for a devil woman… So, if you have a need to get hot and sweaty, and visit the underbelly of man’s most elusive desires watch White Cargo!
And as for looking for a translation or meaning of the name Tondelayo… I think it was the writers being tongue in cheek in that ‘I am Ton-de-lay-o’ means: I am getting laid by the ton!