White Woman Film Details
Overview: A nightclub singer marries the rich owner of a rubber plantation. When she returns with him to his estate in Malaysia, she finds out that he is cruel, vicious and insanely jealous. She and …
Review: When a film and its main character are as outrageous as they are here, there is no way they will not be some fun. This one is quite far from perfection – but fun it is, with strong acting by Laughton, Carole Lombard and Bickford, and fairly gripping and well-filmed. In the present case, despite the title and the first billing, and alas for Carole Lombard’s admirers – among which the present reviewer can be counted – the central character which is the raison d’être of the film is clearly not hers. Actually the story opens with her, and starts on a strong footing. As an impoverished widow Judith Denning has been reduced to scrape a living by singing in bars of dubious standing. She is as much despised by the narrow-minded white colonial society as she herself despises it. She could not care less about their opinion if it did not add to her troubles by repeatedly obliging her to move from one island to another one. For a woman in a weak position she is quite strong-minded. But this side of her mostly disappears when, rather than staying under the threat to be imminently expelled once more, she lets herself be convinced to marry and follow Horace Prin, the self-made and self-style King of the River in the upland inside. That is a bold and ominous decision, considering the very strange person he obviously is. He has persuaded her that they are somehow alike, outsiders facing and hating the hypocrisy of bourgeois conventions. In any case she probably believes she does not have a lot of other clearly better choices, or anything much to lose. Obviously she is wrong, but if she had not been there would not have been a film – many film stories could not exist without a fair amount of misplaced decisions from their main characters. Anyway she rapidly understands her big mistake when she finds herself in the “palace” of her king and master, a river-houseboat moored deep inside the jungle, among native tribes which are supposedly subdued but not very reassuring on the whole. Wild tribesmen, with a nasty habit of cutting heads when they are unhappy, are not her main problem though. Her cunning and stark-raving mad husband is, who reigns Nero-like, despotically and pervertedly, over a ragtag of runaway jailbirds he has brought and offered asylum to, using them as enslaved deputies to rule his extended lands – he is supposed to be a planter, though it is not very clear how he earns his wealth. Among them is David, an ideally romantic young man whom she learns later to be a traumatized deserter – feeling understandably little sense of loyalty towards her husband and this being a pre-code film, Judith does not have lengthy hesitations before letting herself fall for the handsome David and reciprocally. They have acknowledged each other as soul mates, strayed away from a good upbringing which separates them from Prin and the others – when they talk about native drums, which Judith enjoys, they compare them to Ravel’s music… However this cooing does not last long. As could be totally expected from him, highly-jealous Prin retaliates against the seemingly weak-willed David by exiling him farther inland, while he is replaced by newly-arrived he-man Ballister, one who does not let himself be impressed in the least by Prin. This includes trying right away to seduce his wife under his very eyes – to Ballister’s credit, he does not hold it agains her that she refuses him flatly. This makes Prin even more incensed and he takes the rash move to offend mortally a tribal chief of the highlands so as to trigger a rebellion which is likely to entail a dire fate for David – who demonstrates unexpected pluck by crossing on foot through the forest the rebels’ territory so as to warn them. By that time rebels have also reached the outskirts of the houseboat – such backfiring was not unexpected by Prin, he has foreseen machine-guns to greet them. Judith has found back her strong will and decides to leave with David – that as well Prin has prepared to, he has sabotaged the boat by mostly emptying the tank and prepared a reception committee of murderous tribesmen (of those faithful to him…). Unfortunately for him Ballister has showed unexpected empathy towards the young couple by giving them the only full tank, which reduces to nil possibility of escaping for Prin and himself; and incensed that Prin has gratuitously killed his pet ape and companion Duke (a courtier…), another of his minions, Jakey, has thrown away the machine-guns in the river and replaced them ironically with Duke’s corpse. The final scene is one of its most memorable ones. With very limited hope left, if any, to save their skins, Ballister and Prin sit for a poker game which the former has proposed, and Prin discovers from him that his plans for having the young couple killed are failing as well, they hear them escape the ambush. Prin finds himself alone when Ballister is shot by a blowpipe, and starts a bombastic and defiant tirade proclaiming he is still King of the River – he then goes out on the balcony under which tribesmen on a boat are waiting to spear him. Though one thinks about Nero declaring “What an artist dies in me!’, the closest reference which comes to the mind is rather Richard III dying on the battlefield of Bosworth, as lonely and defiant as he has ever been – both do not have a public any more, but anyway the only public they ever respected and played for was really themselves… Charles Laughton has a field day playing this over the top character, which is purely evil during most of the film, but has his character explained at the start, and is granted a kind of absurd, half-mock heroic grandeur with his end. It is quite an interesting and sensible choice to close the film on Prin’s death – moreover elliptically, the killing itself and his body are not shown -, rather than to feel obliged to show us again Judith and David; yes, they are saved, this is just sort of an appendix to the conclusion which we learn about through Ballister. It more than confirms, if needed, who the actual “hero” of the film was all along. The film could almost have been based on a Conrad story of madness – there is something of Heart of Darkness in it, of course in a quite crude and simplistic Hollywood treatment. Maybe, as another comment suggested, this was just the studio’s answer to similar stories with Jean Harlow, or another variation on delirious tales which jungle settings were often inspiring then. All the same, it is well worth seeing, and unlikely to be forgotten.
Duration: 68 min
Also known as: Infierno verde,White Woman,Mujer blanca,Bela zena,Ídolo Branco,L’inferno verde,O Ídolo Branco,Den Vita Kvinnan,Fehér asszony a pokolban,Flodens konge,Le fou des îles,白い肉体