Trader Horn (1931)

Genres - Action, Adventure  |   Sub-Genres - Adventure Drama, Biopic [feature]  |   Release Date - May 23, 1931 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 105 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Hans J. Wollstein

A rather languidly told travelogue interrupted at regular intervals by typical Hollywood melodramatics, Trader Horn had a rather interesting production history. Using Alfred Aloysius Horn's sensationalistic 1927 memoirs as their blueprint, M-G-M in late 1929 shipped an expedition off to darkest Africa under the leadership of ace director W. S. van Dyke. Production, however, was halted when the studio wired Van Dyke that "the world is demanding their pictures all-talking." Simultaneously, a second unit crew was sent to Mexico to insure more dependable footage and was later accused of starving several lions to near death in order to insure immediate and exciting attacks on likewise imported deer and hyenas. In Africa, meanwhile, the initial crew, now augmented with sound technicians, were attacked by ferocious animals as well, technical advisor Major W. V. D. Dickinson at one point being nearly gouged to death by an attacking rhinoceros. There were at least two fatalities: a native crew member fell into a river and was eaten by a crocodile, and a local boy was fatally struck by the same rhinoceros that had nearly killed Major Dickinson. The latter incident actually made it into the released film! But despite all the hardships, almost all the dialogue scenes had to be remade in Hollywood, giving some credence to a long-held rumor that the entire film was a fake. To insure the authenticity of at least a majority of the footage, the original release of Trader Horn was expanded with a foreword in which director Cecil B. DeMille discussed the hardships endured by the crew with Aloysius Horn himself. The final production cost rose to a then-gargantuan $3,000,000, but, happily, Trader Horn proved a major box-office success that garnered M-G-M a 1931 Best Picture Academy Award nomination. (The film eventually lost to RKO's epic western Cimarron). Also benefiting from the exposure was veteran leading man Harry Carey, who actually had been a last minute replacement for the studio's resident action star Tim McCoy. Young Duncan Renaldo was not quite so lucky, his wife Suzette filing a widely reported "alienation of affection" suit against co-star Edwina Booth immediately upon their return to Hollywood. To compound matters, the Rumanian-born actor was arrested on charges that he had entered the United States illegally and was eventually sentenced to two years in a federal prison. The blonde Miss Booth, meanwhile, reportedly sued producer Irving Thalberg for having contracted a near-fatal neurological disorder while on location in Africa. As a result of the suit, which was settled out of court, the actress was more or less blacklisted by the industry and rumors of her sudden death from the mysterious illness persisted for years. (In reality, Booth retired after a couple of Mascot serials, dying at the ripe old age of 86 in 1991). Remaining a curious mix of manipulated documentary footage and serial-like histrionics, Trader Horn has been beautifully restored and is a must for fans of early Hollywood sound films. An X-rated spoof of the film emerged in 1970, inevitably entitled Trader Hornee, and M-G-M remade the original under less strenuous circumstances in 1972.