Carole and Charles Up River

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Stuart Walker’s 1933 film “White Woman” is a fine example of what Charles Laughton, still a relatively fresh face in Hollywood, was capable of. His masterful turns as Captain Bligh and Inspector Javert were still ahead of him. His work hadn’t yet become mannered, so his performance in this film as Horace Prin, a planter and self-proclaimed “King of the River” was a fresh experience for audiences. His Dr. Moreau in “The Island of Lost Souls” was a coolly intellectual sadist. Prin, on the other hand, is just a nasty little man. Like Lon Chaney in the silent “West of Zanzibar,” Prin rules a jungle hell-hole peopled by abused natives and white men whom he controls through a combination of blackmail and fear. It may seem graceless to state that Laughton is The Whole Show here, but fact is that Carole Lombard was still perfecting her craft and future B-movie stalwart Kent Taylor was not especially notable as the love interest.

When Laughton’s toad is dazzled by Lombard’s songbird-with-a-past, the film’s course is set. As Laughton gleefully mocks his newly-acquired prize, “her ladyship,” and sardonically observes her growing attraction to his handsome overseer, a deserter, he demonstrates how futile their dreams of escape are by arranging the death of one would-be quitter and regaling Lombard with a juicy tale of her beau ideal’s cowardice. He appears unassailable until the arrival of a tough American convict to serve as his new overseer. As the new boy in camp, Charles Bickford makes clear from the start that Laughton doesn’t impress him. He treats his boss with amused contempt–“cockroach” being one of his terms of endearment. The film picks up a bit with Bickford’s arrival as his tough guy enjoys needling Laughton’s bully as much as Laughton enjoys needling his underlings.

But the tough-talking Bickford isn’t Laughton’s undoing. Although Prin’s spitting a mouthful of gin in the faces of the native chiefs who have come to negotiate for better working conditions–a wonderfully shocking moment–sets the wheels of his downfall in motion, his senseless shooting of the beloved pet of his much-abused manservant is what finally does him in.

Laughton fears nothing because he has a pair of machine guns in reserve, but when his compound is surrounded, he learns that the worm turned and dumped his firepower in the river. Opening the weapons locker he finds the dead pet and a mocking note from the servant, who with Lombard and her lover have fled from the impending massacre.

Despite the steam-factor inherent in its plot, the most shocking pre-Code moments of “White Woman” involve violence, not sex. One of Laughton’s managers is killed by the now-rampaging natives and his severed head is tossed through a window. Barricaded in Laughton’s steamboat-headquarters, a question addressed to Bickford goes unanswered, and Laughton finds Bickford grinning grotesquely with a native dart sticking from his neck. Laughton’s defiant death occurs off-screen. I guess the Paramount execs felt that one visit to The House of Pain was enough for their new master of menace.

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