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Edwina in Africa: Clouds appear on bright horizon

By D. Robert Carter - | Feb 23, 2008

In March 1929, 24-year-old Provo native Edwina Booth made frenzied preparations for the trip of a lifetime. She had recently signed a contract to appear as the female lead, Nina T., The White Goddess of the Isorgi, in the much anticipated Hollywood film, “Trader Horn,” which was to be filmed in Africa. Edwina boarded a train in California late in March and sped away toward New York City. Other cast members Harry Carey, Olive Golden (Harry’s wife) and Duncan Renaldo traveled with her.

The studio singled out Harry Carey as its choice to play the part of Trader Horn. The 170- pound actor physically resembled Horn, who in his younger years weighed 168 pounds. Carey, who was born in New York and studied law, went West as a young man and became a cowboy. He wrote and starred in the Broadway play, “Montana,” before becoming an actor in silent movies, where he played roles in many westerns. His love of rugged, outdoor life made him a natural for the lead part in “Trader Horn.”

Carey did not immediately accept the role of Horn because he did not want to be away from his family for a year. The studio agreed to give his wife, Olive Golden, a small role as a female missionary so she could accompany him. The Careys took their children to Nairobi, where the young ones attended school. Their parents were able to visit them occasionally.

Golden was no stranger to show business. She had starred on the stage and appeared in Western movies as Harry’s leading lady. Like her husband, she loved hunting and outdoor life.

Duncan Renaldo landed the part of Peru, a young man from South America who accompanied Horn on one of his trading expeditions. Handsome Renaldo, who was an ardent hunter and outdoors man with a spirit of adventure, had recently played Esteban in the silent screen version of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”

William S. Van Dyke, the director of “Trader Horn,” left by train a few days earlier than the others. Van Dyke, whose mother was an actress, received his schooling all over the country and earned his first role in a play at age seven. He eventually became a director and filmed movies all over the world.

After a brief stay in the “Big Apple,” Van Dyke and the troupe boarded the Ile de France for the first leg of their 25-day trip to Mombasa, Kenya. A technical staff numbering about two dozen men joined them on board the ship. A forward unit of nine men sailed on an earlier ship to make advance arrangements.

’A proper do-gooder'

As soon as the ship entered international waters, the bar opened, and the craft became a floating cabaret during The Era of Prohibition. Olive Golden later said she had never seen so many drunk people in her life. Edwina stayed aloof from the drinking.

In 1968, as he gathered information for an American Heritage Magazine article about the filming expedition, Byron Riggan interviewed Renaldo, Mrs. Carey and John McClain, who was the press agent for the expedition. The voyage to Europe gave the acting troupe a chance to get acquainted with each other. Riggan later asked the three members of the troupe for their opinions of Edwina.

Renaldo called Edwina one of the most levelheaded women he had ever met. Concerning her personal life, he said, “Her morals and standard of conduct were very strict.” Olive Golden summed up the budding actress by saying, “Edwina was a very high-minded and intelligent young woman. She was interested in life and took it very seriously.”

McClain saw Edwina in a different light. He found her to be pleasant and pretty, but humorless. He called her “a proper do-gooder” and “a bit of a bore.” Later, in a book he wrote about filming the movie, Director Van Dyke described Edwina as being obnoxious.

As for life on the boat, many of the passengers seem to have felt that what happened on the ship stayed on the ship. Renaldo continually fought off women who tried to get into his stateroom. Edwina fended off male advances, especially those of one Jean Borotra, a French tennis star who kept kissing her hand. Borotra’s kisses got longer and more frequent as the cruise progressed.

Finally, Harry Carey, who seems to have taken a fatherly, protective stance toward Edwina, booted the amorous tennis star in the back court as he was bent over kissing Edwina’s hand. This swift kick hurt the Frenchman’s pride and almost resulted in a duel. Fortunately, the ship’s captain intervened.

Edwina in Europe

Otto Kahn, the millionaire who had earlier offered to take Edwina to Europe, buy her a new wardrobe, board her in a castle and provide her with acting lessons, was also aboard the ship. He had many conversations with Edwina concerning her future. Edwina’s sister Ruth stated later that Kahn’s advice to Edwina was, “Stay as sweet and good as you are.”

When the ship docked in Le Havre, France, the troupe disembarked for publicity shots. The initial photo almost ended their African adventure prematurely.

The shed the cast went into for the photos had been used to store some sort of volatile chemicals. After the principals were suitably posed, the photographer ignited the magnesium flares used to illuminate the site. The flares touched off the chemical residue left in the shed and caused an explosion.

The blast blew out the sides of the storehouse and blackened the faces of the astonished cast members. They exited the shed stunned, just moments before the roof collapsed. Miraculously, nobody was seriously injured.

Then Edwina and the others spent three days in Paris. She wanted to see what made Parisians chic. Instead, she saw The Eiffel Tower and a tomb. She later told a magazine writer, “I got more of a thrill out of Africa.”

Filming and obstacles

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Press Book maintains it was while the troupe was in Genoa that Director Van Dyke first learned “Trader Horn” was to be a “talkie,” not a “silent” movie. This would be MGM’s first sound movie and the first talkie filmed in Africa by a Hollywood company.

Filming a sound movie posed several problems for the director, cast and crew, not the least of which was lack of recording equipment. Also, since they did not expect to be filming with sound, there was no detailed script. The actors were basically forced to make up their dialogue as they went.

Renaldo encountered another problem. Peru, the character he represented, played the guitar. When the film was scheduled to be silent, this posed no problem, but when it became a talkie, Renaldo was forced to learn to play the instrument.

The intrepid actor took lessons for five days in Genoa while the troupe waited for the ship to Mombasa to arrive. Then he practiced during the voyage from Italy to Africa. Renaldo almost became a recluse, but he learned to play the guitar.

Edwina also faced a difficult dilemma. She needed to speak her lines in Swahili, a language foreign to her as well as to her intended audience. She had to rely on her actions to help convey the meaning of her words. The company’s press book quotes her as saying, “In speaking as ‘Nina T.’ I had to watch my characterization every minute. My emotional reactions had to be exact and accurate, for the words I was speaking did not help the audience to re-build those reactions in their own minds.”

From Genoa, the group embarked on the freighter Usaramo and sailed for Mombasa, Kenya. Several years later, Olive Carey remembered Edwina seemed to be in good health as they left port, but her condition soon changed.

Director Van Dyke ordered Edwina to sunbathe in the nude on the ship’s sundeck. In a 1934 interview, Edwina told a Washington Herald reporter, “When we got into the Red Sea, on our way to Africa, I was told to take daily sun baths in order to acquire a tan for the picture. I took them every day, but my skin refused to darken. I didn’t know then that the sun was penetrating into my body.” Her skin, though fair, did not seem to burn, but absorbed the sun’s rays.

One night on the ship, Edwina fainted during the dinner hour. Olive Golden later recollected what happened, “Edwina pitched downstairs … Harry picked her up. … She had on a beaded evening gown — there were beads from one end of the boat to the other. … I knew she was having terrible pain on the boat because she told me about that but we never connected it with the sun baths in any way.” The next day, Edwina seemed to be fine.

Her illness did not improve when the ship reached Mombasa. Later, Edwina told the Washington Herald correspondent, “When I got off the boat in Africa I was so sick I could hardly stand, but there we were 7,000 miles from the studio and the picture had to go on.”

In spite of her illness, Edwina found Mombasa, the rendezvous point for the company, to be a very interesting town. Broadway and Hollywood Movies Magazine quoted her as saying, “Mombasa, the seaport, was one of the quaintest, most colorful places that I’ve ever seen.” Edwina determined, however, that she could not live in Mombasa for any length of time. She loved movies, and the films they showed in that city were 10 or more years old.

Deathly ill

During the company’s short stay in the African port, its members received additional inoculations against fever and sleeping sickness. Edwina also learned from the European colonists that the only native words she would need to know on the filming safari were, “blundering fool” and “son of an idiot.”

Most of the actors and crew members soon departed from Mombasa via train for Nairobi, where the safari formed. A few men stayed behind, waiting for the trucks loaded with sound equipment to arrive. After the ship carrying the equipment reached Mombasa, the first sound truck to be unloaded fell from a broken crane into the harbor, and it had to be replaced. When those left behind finally had in their possession three sound trucks equipped with caterpillar treads for travel over rough terrain, the stragglers moved on to Nairobi where the safari awaited them.

Edwina enjoyed her stay in Nairobi. “The British officials were most charming to us,” she recounted, “and … we played golf and saw houses that almost reminded us of the Hollywood bungalos.”

Toward the end of their stay, the British governor of East Africa invited Edwina and Harry Carey to be guests at Government House. Edwina slept in the bed Edward, Prince of Wales, used on his trip to Africa.

Van Dyke hired his last cast member in Nairobi. He engaged native Kenyan Mutia Omoola to play Horn’s gun bearer. Mutia had worked for years as a gun bearer, and he had filled that position for many famous hunters, including The Prince of Wales.

When it came time to leave Nairobi, none of the company had been ill except Edwina. The British governor feared for her life if she continued on the safari. He urged her to give up and go home, but responsibility to the film company and the folks back home kept her on the job.

The crew finally finished preparations, and the safari, the largest movie expedition to penetrate the African wilds up to that time, took a whole section of Hollywood into the back country. Onlookers said the cavalcade looked like a cross between a circus parade and a military expedition.

The caravan, made up of 80 to 100 tons of equipment, included a nine-ton portable generator that produced 1,400 amperes of electricity. This generator powered ice-less refrigerator units used to store food and film. It also provided power for fans, giant arc lights, sound equipment, radios, cameras and other equipment.

The MGM Press Book claimed the 100 trucks and autos making up the caravan included 10 Buick and Chevrolet pickup trucks, three sound trucks, a hospital truck manned by British doctor J.B. Clarke, a prop workshop truck, a studio truck, a dark-room truck and film trucks each carrying hundreds of thousands of feet of film.

Other vehicles carried tires, electric cables, clothing, movie projectors, screens, insect spraying equipment, gas guns used to sedate animals, camping equipment, 30,000 pounds of canned food (enough to last for six months) 16 cameras and their replacement parts and copious amounts of liquor to fuel the crew. In short, the caravan carried everything from chicken wire to cosmetics.

All of this equipment traveled through 4,000 miles of back country where even light travel was a problem. Many bridges had to be built or rebuilt, and roads had to be cleared. In order to accomplish these tasks and clear and set up camp, Van Dyke hired over 100 natives from 12 different tribes to assist the three dozen men on his film crew. In addition, each staff member had a native servant. For some scenes, Van Dyke also retained an army of native extras.

Director Van Dyke, his cast and crew left Nairobi anxious to begin production on the film. “Trader Horn” began as an adventure movie and evolved into an adventure spiced by romance. Horn (Harry Carey) and Peru (Duncan Renaldo), who was the wealthy son of one of Horn’s friends, leave on a danger-filled trading expedition and become involved in an attempt to find a female missionary’s daughter, who, as a child, had been kidnapped by natives during a raid.

Circulating rumors say the child has been made Goddess of the Isorgi (Edwina Booth) because of her fair skin and the extreme blondness of her hair. Horn and Peru meet the missionary (Olive Golden), who has set out to find her daughter. After the missionary is killed by natives, Horn and Peru continue the search for the missing daughter.

The two men find the Isorgi and their Goddess, but they almost lose their lives in the process. The traders are saved by the Goddess, Nina T., who is curious at the sight of other white people. Both men fall in love with her, and she falls in love with Peru.

The three, plus Horn’s gun bearer, Renchero (Mutia Omoola), make an adventure-filled escape from the Isorgi in which Renchero is killed while aiding his white friends. After the three reach civilization, Horn realizes that Nina T. prefers Peru, and gives the two lovers his blessings.

When the MGM safari left Nairobi to begin filming, many of the natives thought Edwina would not last a month. Before the trek was finished, their direful divination of death had almost come true — several times.

To be continued…

D. Robert Carter is a historian from Springville.

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