The jungle movie was a staple in the early years of Hollywood, perhaps even rivalling the Western for a brief time period and peaking with the successful Tarzan series. Lost amid the churn of the early 1930s is White Woman, an interesting pre-code stew of a film.
White Woman comes packaged as a Carole Lombard vehicle, and it is for the first couple of reels. In one of her last films before her comedic spark was discovered and marketed, she is Judith Denning, a night club singer in Malaysia. Early on we learn that this lowly job is the only one she can get as there is a stigma lingering as a result of her husband’s recent suicide.
It’s a bit murky here but still easy to infer that Judith is assumed to be linked to her husband’s death either as a corollary to her potential adulterous affairs or even having killed him herself. She’s soon told that she’ll be deported as a result.
About this time she comes across Horace Prin, who quickly becomes smitten with her. Prin, played by Charles Laughton as part of a short contract with Paramount, starts off quirky and goes from there to the stratosphere. Prin’s the perhaps self-proclaimed “King of the River” and owns much of the land upriver as part of a large rubber plantation.
Diabolically attracted to those without options, Prin proposes marriage. In what can only be explained as a tremendous plot-hole, Judith accepts. We have to assume she doesn’t know the goings-on at the plantation, but given Prin’s boisterous and attention gathering attire and personality it seems unfathomable that rumors wouldn’t have hit the streets.
Clearly uninterested in her new husband even as she’s introduced to her new home, Prin’s plantation house-riverboat, Judith barely contains her disgust as she meets his caretakers and staff. Even the overseer David (Kent Taylor) are clearly here for only one reason. They have nowhere else to go, a fact that Prin makes clear at every juncture. And once on the plantation, no one ever leaves.
Clearly everyone working for Prin needs to be there out of a pure lack of options, but they all also have insanely weak personalities. In this way even Judith falls into line. All of these characters have flaws but more egregious is their lack of any real backbone. These folks are merely fodder for the wiley King of the River Prin, who acerbically works and torments all equally.
Almost immediately Judith starts a relationship with David which is halted only when the new couple decide to leave and start a life together. In response Prin sends David away to his most remote outpost. About this time the new overseer (to replace the outgoing David) arrives in the form of Ballister (Charles Bickford).
With Bickford’s first appearance about halfway through the film we get the feeling that finally we have someone here to challenge Prin’s authority. He does just that after making an unsuccessful play for Judith, but poses just a more challenging hurdle for the evil Prin.
It is only when Prin makes an extremely egregious (even by his standards) mistake with the chiefs of the local tribes that things begin to ramble on to their conclusion. With the sound of drums (oddly compared to Ravel) constantly getting closer, Prin loses further grip on reality and murders Jakey’s (one of the staff) chimps.
At this point Judith and David (who has just escaped from his remote outpost) take off down river with some clandestine help from Bannister. Surrounded and hearing the drums almost immediately outside the riverboat, Bannister and Prin become resigned to their fate a settle down to await their fate over a game of poker.
The highlight of the film is surely Charles Laughton, though neither he nor any of his fans would confuse with one of his better films. Once he appears onscreen the film no longer belongs to Carole Lombard. Laughton starts off rather quirky but by the end of the film he is completely batty, with his self-deception and witty remarks knowing no bounds.
Though definitely not worthy of any color treatment, his attire also evolves into more and more comical and lively patterns as the plot progresses. At various times he looks like a carnival barker, a cowboy and a candy striper. Laughton’s constant comical twisting of what may be the world’s worst mustache is also worth the price of admission. At times it is hard to dissociate his performance here with his similar performance in the Paramount picture Island of Lost Souls, with the latter picture being only slightly more over the top.
Though Lombard’s name is front and center on this picture, after Laughton’s entrance she becomes a bit of an afterthought. Sadly films like White Woman don’t highlight what she was best at- light comedy. For whatever reason she doesn’t avail herself of numerous opportunities to toss a zinger back at her woeful husband.
Not helping matters for Lombard is the woeful casting of Kent Taylor as her Lombard’s love interest. He seems lost and rather out of his element. The surprising element of his role in the film is that somehow he actually does escape execution from the natives at his remote outpost and actually makes if back to Judith. It’s challenging as well to imagine David holding Judith’s attention for long outside of perhaps a purely physical attraction. He definitely wasn’t her Clark Gable.
Bickford, one the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. As Bannister he’s never presented as a serious potential love interest for Judith, as she immediately rebuffs his half-hearted advances. While he initially comes over as tough and stern, he ultimately seems to implode and meekly accept his fate with Prin.
White Woman isn’t classic by any means, but is still an enjoyable little romp through some well-designed jungles. Prin’s riverside palace also shows good production values all around and have just the right feel of shabby new money you’d expect in…..well, a riverboat, I suppose. Toss in Laughton’s outlandish attire and you can’t be overly disappointed.