|Vintage Pulp||Feb 28 2013|
We had no idea when we watched 1942’s White Cargo that the movie had caused such a stir, but in its day it was more than just a film—it was a cultural phenomenon. The public quoted the dialogue, comedians referenced it in their acts, and journalists used the name of Hedy Lamarr’s character Tondelayo as a descriptive. So what was the movie about? Basically it’s Americans learning that Africa will corrupt them, and Africa plus Hedy Lamarr will corrupt them absolutely. In the original novel Hell’s Playground, Tondelayo was black, but because the American censorship regime known as the Hays Code banned sexualized interaction between black and white characters, she was changed to Arab for the movie. So there’s Hedy Lamarr done up in shoe polish and a sarong she borrowed from Dorothy Lamour, driving the American colonialists batty withdesire. Most transcendent movie characters have a memorable entrance, and when Lamarr emerges from the shadows and torpidly delivers her first line—“I am Tondelayo”—as the camera lingers on her preternaturally glowing eyes, it’s certainly not something you’d easily forget. Nor would you forget her sinuous dance number or the way she slithers in and out of various scenes like an Egyptian cobra. We don’t have to get deeply into the plot. It’s boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, boy is ruined by girl as all the other boys say, “Told you so, dumbass.” It’s pretty funny stuff, but highly charged for the time. Think of it as 1942’s Fatal Attraction—a sexually themed cautionary tale that everyone saw and had an opinion about. More than seventy years later—if you can get past the shoe polish, the ridiculous dialogue, and the needless moralizing—it’s still a fun movie. Is it good? We wouldn’t go that far.