White Cargo is a 1942 film directed by Richard Thorpe and starring Hedy Lamarr and Walter Pidgeon. Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, it is based on the 1923 London and Broadway hit play by Leon Gordon, which was in turn adapted from the novel Hell's Playground by Ida Vera Simonton. The play had already been made into a British part-talkie, also titled White Cargo, with Maurice Evans in 1929. The 1942 film, unlike the play, begins in what was then the present day, and uses a flashback technique.
1942 US theatrical poster
|Directed by||Richard Thorpe|
|Produced by||Victor Saville|
|Written by||Leon Gordon|
|Starring||Hedy Lamarr |
|Music by||Bronislau Kaper|
|Cinematography||Harry Stradling Sr.|
|Edited by||Fredrick Y. Smith|
|December 12, 1942|
Arriving by seaplane to inspect an isolated but thriving rubber plantation in the African jungle during World War II, Worthing (Richard Ainley) reminisces about the old days, when conditions were much harsher. The film then flashes back to 1910.
The only four white men within hundreds of miles eagerly await the arrival of the riverboat Congo Queen. Wilbur Ashley (Bramwell Fletcher) and his boss, Harry Witzel (Walter Pidgeon), have grown to hate each other. Ashley is finally going home, and the boat is also bringing his replacement, Langford (Richard Carlson), for a four-year stint. The other two white men are the alcoholic doctor (Frank Morgan) and missionary Reverend Dr. Roberts (Henry O'Neill).
Harry and Langford get off to a bad start, and it only goes downhill from there. It takes all of the efforts of the doctor and Roberts to keep the two men from each other's throats. The situation becomes worse when Tondelayo (Hedy Lamarr), a seductive native woman, returns. Harry, as resident magistrate, has already previously ordered her to leave his district, as a disruptive, amoral influence.
Tondelayo begins to work her wiles on Langford. Despite the warnings from all three of the other men (and perhaps to spite Harry), he eventually succumbs to her charms. When Harry orders her expelled once more, Langford decides to marry her. Roberts reveals that she is not a native, but rather half Egyptian and half Arab, and in spite of his better judgment, reluctantly joins them in holy matrimony.
After five months, Tondelayo has grown bored of her husband. However, when she tries to seduce Harry, he reminds her that she is Mrs. Langford "until death do you part". That gives her an idea. When her husband becomes sick, the doctor gives her some medicine to give him periodically. She obtains poison and makes him drink some of it instead. However, Harry suspects what she is trying to do. He leaves, then returns just as she is about to give Langford another dose. Harry forces her to drink the rest of the poison. She runs away screaming and collapses on the jungle floor.
The doctor takes Langford away on the Congo Queen for better medical treatment, identifying him as white cargo. From the boat comes Langford's replacement: a younger Worthing. Harry grabs him and forcefully tells him that he will stick around. Returning to the present, Worthing observes that he did.
- Hedy Lamarr as Tondelayo
- Walter Pidgeon as Harry Witzel
- Frank Morgan as The Doctor
- Richard Carlson as Langford
- Reginald Owen as Skipper of the Congo Queen
- Henry O'Neill as Reverend Dr. Roberts
- Bramwell Fletcher as Wilbur Ashley
- Clyde Cook as Ted
- Leigh Whipper as Jim Fish
- Oscar Polk as Umeela
- Darby Jones as Darby
- Richard Ainley as Worthing
In 1930 Gordon sold film rights to British International Pictures (BIP) for£15,000. The company then decided to make a sound version and paid Gordon an extra £10,000 for talking rights. The British film version followed the play closely. MGM bought the film rights from BIP and hired Gordon to adapt his own play.
Production Code problems
According to the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA collection at the AMPAS Library, the miscegenation element of Leon Gordon's story caused great censorship difficulties, beginning with the U.S. distribution of a 1929 British screen adaptation of his play, also titled White Cargo. As noted in articles included in the MPAA/PCA files, in accordance with the MPPDA's 1924 agreement of self-imposed censorship, MPPDA head Will Hays deemed the play unacceptable material for screen adaptation and effectively banned any studios from producing it. In the play, Tondelayo is described throughout as a "negress." The March 1930 New York release of the 1929 British film, directed by J.B. Williams and Arthur Barnes, starring Leslie Faber, Maurice Evans and Gypsy Rhouma, generated complaints from industry insiders, who felt that its distribution in the U.S. violated the spirit of Hays's decree.
Tondelayo's ethnicity was changed for this movie to avoid violating the Motion Picture Production Code. She was turned into half-Egyptian and half-"low cast arab". In Gordon's original script this fact was to be revealed at the end, but the censor requested the information be revealed earlier.
In April 1942 MGM announced they would make the film as a vehicle for Hedy Lamarr. Leon Gordon adapted his own play and Walter Pidgeon was assigned the lead role (which had been played by Gordon in the original stage production).
The production ran from May 18 to early June 1942.
- The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
- ANOTHER SCRIPT FROM THE HOLLYWOOD LAUNDRY: 'White Cargo' Gets Clearance Papers New York Times 17 May 1942: X3.
- 'White Cargo' Reportedly Is Scheduled by Metro as a Hedy Lamarr Vehicle New York Times 17 Apr 1942: 21.
- Walter Pidgeon to Play Role of Witzel in 'White Cargo' With Hedy Lamarr New York Times 30 Apr 1942: 15
- "Top Grossers of the Season", Variety, 5 January 1944 p 54
- "101 Pix Gross in Millions" Variety 6 Jan 1943 p 58