White Woman (1933) Blu-ray Review: Certainly Watchable but Not Much More Than That

In the early 1930s, Paramount Pictures made a name for itself by making films with beautiful women in exotic settings. Films like Shanghai Express (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and The Sign of the Cross (1932) all used this idea and had been successful at it. They were hoping to do the same with White Woman, Unfortunately, they cast Carole Lombard in the fallen woman role and allowed Charles Laughton to chew the scenery like it was his last meal. Kent Taylor is handsome but rather tame as the love interest. Charles Bickford is brash and tough and sweaty, but he doesn’t come in until late, and by that point, most of my interest was lost. The setting is Malaysia but it is clearly a Paramount backlot filled with water and greenery with painted backdrops and a pretty cool boat. All of this wouldn’t be so bad if director Stuart Walker had given it any oomph, or any style whatsoever, but he mostly just points the camera in a medium shot and lets the actors walk into and out of the frame.

Lombard plays Judith Denning, a woman whose husband killed himself under scandalous circumstances (it was poor finances, but that doesn’t mean the locals haven’t gossiped it into being her fault). The only job anybody will let her have is singing at a nightclub that caters to the locals which scandalized the ex-pat British socialites even more. She’s so low that she jumps at Horace Prin’s (Laughton sporting a giant walrus mustache and some kind of cockney accent) offer of marriage. He takes her to his boat where he plays “king of the river” on his rubber plantation. He’s tamed the natives and he’s got all of his white workers smashed under his thumb. They are all on the run from something or hiding from something and Prin knows everything. He’s also got all the boats and access to escape, and if you try to leave without his permission, he’ll get the natives to kill you.

David von Elst (Kent Taylor) is an Army deserter who fled the ranks after the enemy decapitated his friend and rolled his head across the floor of his hut (I’ll give you three guesses as to what happens to him again in this film, and the first two don’t count). He and Denning fall in love but without a boat, they’ll never make it out of the jungle. Von Elst has lost all his nerve anyhow. Ballister (Charles Bickford) is nothing but nerve. He comes aboard after one of Prin’s other men is killed trying to leave his domain. Prin may have something on him, but he doesn’t seem to care. He constantly belittles Prin to his face and says things like, “You could do a lot worse in this hole than give me a tumble” to Judith. Things come to a head when the natives finally get tired of Prin trading them rotten rice and generally treating them like slaves.

Carole Lombard was a wonderful comedic actress, but she doesn’t seem to know what to do in this exotic drama. To be fair, the film doesn’t give her much to do other than wish she was somewhere else. One imagines they were trying to get something like a Marlene Dietrich out of her for this, but she just isn’t that exotic. She looks great, though, in white slacks and a shirt unbuttoned all the way down to her navel. Charles Laughton on the other hand is turned all the way up. I have no idea what he was aiming for but it comes out as utter camp. Charles Bickford is the only actor who feels like he belongs in this movie, but he comes in so late into the film even he can’t save it.

It is not that White Woman is a terrible film (although that is a terrible title); it is just that it feels half-hearted. Stuart Walker’s direction feels lazy. The sets aren’t half bad. They built a whole jungle with a river and a full-sized boat, but he does nothing with it. His camera movements are so dull that the few times it actually moves with any verve make the audio commentators believe someone else must have subbed in for him during those scenes. In the end, it is a film that is certainly watchable, but not much more than that.

Kino Lorber presents White Woman with a new 2K master. Extras include trailers for other Kino releases and a very informative audio commentary from filmmaker Allan Arkush and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer.

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Mat Brewster

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