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TRADER HORN(director: W.S. Van Dyke; screenwriters: from the book by Ethelreda Lewis & Alfred Aloysius Horn /J.T. Neville/Dale Van Every/Richard Schayer; cinematographer: Clyde de Vinna; editor: Ben Lewis; music: William Axt/Sol Levy; cast: Harry Carey (Trader Horn), Duncan Renaldo (Peru), Edwina Booth (Nina), Mutia Omoolu (Rencharo), Olive Carey (Edith Trent); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving G. Thalberg; MGM; 1931)
“Remains interesting as a curio.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Trader Horn received a 1931 Best Picture Academy Award nomination (losing to RKO’s epic western Cimarron). It was the first non-documentary to be filmed in Africa. Trader Horn is based on the sensational 1927 memoirs of Alfred Aloysius Horn (Cowritten with Ethelreda Lewis). Director “One-take Woody” Van Dyke in 1929 spent almost 10 months in production in the African jungle with director of photography Clyde DeVinna making sure the film looked authentic, but were faced with many disasters in the unsafe region and were called back by the studio who now wanted it to be filmed as a talkie. A second unit crew was secretly sent to the safer regions of Mexico to get their needed authentic footage and was later accused of cruelty to the animals as they starved several lions in order to get them to attack the deer and hyenas brought into the country for the film. It was filmed for a lavish budget, at the time, of three million dollars, but proved to be a popular film for MGM and easily turned a big profit for the studio.

In darkest Africa, veteran white hunter Trader Horn (Harry Carey) takes the young greenhorn son of a late friend Peru (Duncan Renaldo, Rumanian-born actor) up an undiscovered river by canoe in the hopes of trading for the valuable ivory. The fierce Masai warriors’ chilling chants force them to camp at night by a river bend filled with crocodiles. During the night intrepid missionary Edith Trent (Olive Carey, Harry’s wife) passes by their campsite and Horn warns the lady he calls “the bravest woman in all of Africa” that the native drums mean danger. She is nevertheless determined to go on to Opangu Falls, even at night, because she heard her daughter Nina (Edwina Booth) is living there with a savage tribe. Twenty years ago Edith’s husband was killed by a raiding tribe and her baby daughter was kidnapped and, now, at last, she believes they can be reunited. Horn is allowed to follow behind at a distance to make sure she’s safe, but is not allowed to accompany her because she feels that “the presence of white males with guns will only startle the warriors into violence.” Horn vows to search for her daughter if anything should happen to her. At the falls, a few days later, Edith is found dead by the white hunters and their loyal gun-bearer Rencharo (Mutia Omoolu).

Horn keeps his promise and the picture turns into a travelogue of jungle life filled with enough animals to stock the Bronx Zoo twice over. There are elephants, lions, zebras, wildebeests, a black mamba snake, giraffes, ostriches, baboons, leopards, panthers, hyenas, warthogs, gazelles, wild dogs, impala, buffalo, a jackal, and two charging rhinoceros. The rhinos are killed after stampeding to death one of the natives. The white hunters are captured by the savage tribe and finally meet the wild-eyed blonde Nina, who has become their queen and takes on the mantle of the White Goddess. The adventure from here on turns on not getting burned to death on the stake, bringing Nina back to her own people, and escaping from the clutches of the savage tribe.

The outdated film remains interesting as a curio featuring a cannibal dance, an encounter with Pygmies, and great animal shots; but, is saddled with a thin story. But it has clinched its place in film history because of its groundbreaking style of film-making. It also is remembered for the gossip surrounding Edwina’s affair with married costar Duncan, whose wife sued her, and Edwina’s later suit of MGM because she contacted on location a neurological disease. She won a big settlement from the studio and lived to a ripe old age, but the suit resulted in her being blackballed in Hollywood.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”