Saturday, October 23, 2010

Me Tondelayo

Caught the 1942 MGM chestnut "White Cargo" the other night.

Hard to try and discuss the thing, what between the bad acting, wooden directing, terrible script and, particularly, the amazingly out-front Forties racism and misogyny. All it lacked was some dancing pickaninnies and a comical John-Wayne-variety wifebeating. Seriously. It stunk just that bad.

The racism was so bad it wasn't even Forties-tolerable. The original New York Times reviewer called White Cargo "that antique lot of bunk which could, with the proper treatment, be made into screaming farce—you know, that lurid business about white men in darkest Africa going to pot from the heat, too much booze and the charms of a dusky native girl."But the "dusky native" girl" is, of course, the only reason to watch this dog anymore, since Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler - better known as Hedy Lamarr - was a native of Austria and dusky by virtue of whatever Metro used as spray-tan in the war years (since the genuine spray-tan was needed to make GI boots or something...) but was certainly all girl, or woman, and slinks about the film in cocoa makeup and a sarong speaking a bizarre sort of pidgin. Although the film is set somewhere in British colonial Africa Hedy's character, "I am Tondelayo" is said to be Egyptian/Arab, probably to get around the Hays Office issue with portraying white-black sex on screen.

And thats "White Cargo" summed up, really. Sex. Forbidden, blacky-white sex. It's about the stalwart White Man's burden; the slinky, scheming Dark Woman, who wants only to mulct him for the benefits of his White Progress by enticing him with her irresistible dusky poozle. Of course, Whiteness triumphs in the end, as the scheming Hedy/Tondelayo is forced to drink the Vile Puggle she is using to poison her white husband and runs screaming off to, presumably, Do The Right Thing and die in lonely agony in the jungle.

Hedy is both wonderfully scenic and monumentally awful, though her thigh-slapping Tonedlayo Dance really has to be seen to be appreciated. It's hard to believe she can't act, as she did well in other pieces both before and after this, and it's difficult to guess whether it was the rotten script or the bad direction that makes her so bad, or whether she just really hated the film and the part. Certainly the reviewers did, but at least they got some vicious entertainment value from it. From the NYT, again;
"...Metro has chosen to play it for Drachmae and implications of sex—or, at least, as much as the Hays office would let pass, which is mostly wiggles and leers. It has given Hedy Lamarr a mahogany finish, a limited vocabulary and a few dry goods and turned her loose to play Tondelayo with whatever else she happens to have. It has called upon Richard Carlson to be the sap who cracks up at this display, and it has set Walter Pidgeon, Frank Morgan and several other able actors to sweating and shouting the most abusive and ridiculous twaddle that has been heard in a long, long time.

As the gentlemen keep telling one another, the dry rot has set in—on the Capitol screen. Or is it the damp rot? We can't remember. But it is some kind of rot; that much is sure."
You write that today, Jackson, and you've got a hell of a lawsuit on your hands, but I have to agree - "White Cargo" sucked pipe.

The injustice hidden underneath all that makeup is that Hedy was, in her way, a really brilliant woman. Her adventures, beginning with her escape from Europe and a beast of a first husband, are as good as a storybook, and she seems to have been something of a minor genius with a knack for invention, developing an early version of radio frequency-hopping that eventually became the SINGCARS radios I used in the Army in the 1990s and Oughts.

I'm not kidding. Got it patented and everything. Smart woman.She was also a difficult person, too, apparently, with all sorts of personal and money problems. She was broke a lot later on, and was caught stealing several times. She sued a lot of people later in her life over use of her name and image; she never really managed to transfer her wartime-era glamor into a career in films that survived the Next Hot Girl and she seems to have become pretty damn bitter about it. She had a very up-and-down sort of life after the stardom years, and died in Florida ten years ago this January in relative obscurity.

But she was riding the crest the year she made "White Cargo", and as bad as the film is it's hard to watch it, and her vamping sullenly in her ridiculous makeup and imagine the hard years to come. In the flickering monochrome darkness of my living room in Portland, 2010, it was still 1942, the war was waiting outside, and the gorgeous woman with the lissome figure was still smiling up succulently and husking "What Tondelayo want, Tondelayo get."

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