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Edwina in Africa: Cameras roll and crocodiles snap

By D. Robert Carter - | Mar 1, 2008

After completing its final preparations, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer safari sent to film Trader Horn in Africa left Nairobi, Kenya, and trekked northwest toward the first major stop at Panyamur on the shores of Lake Albert in Uganda. On the first night out, everybody retired early only to be awakened by the night sounds of the animals. The cast and crew slipped back out of their beds and gathered around a large fire to listen to the wide variety of growls and shrieks. With the exception of the teetotaling leading lady, they all had a nightcap or more.

The daily routine usually began at six o’clock when the servants brought in a cup of coffee or tea. Edwina complained that the folding tubs they bathed in were “intended for use by acrobats.”

Edwina never received her maid, but a native servant brought her water and cleaned her tent. Her porter knew English, and the two frequently talked about America. When she told him how many cars there were in California, the young man considered her words for a long time and then asked, “Does nobody ride by foot?”

The cast and crew ate breakfast in the mess tent where they received orders for the day. Fish and guinea fowl were almost always available. To supplement their canned goods, specially chartered cars regularly brought in staples like potatoes, bacon, ham and available vegetables and fruit. Hot tea served as the main drink, since unboiled water was too dangerous to drink and bottled pop was too cumbersome to haul.

Sometimes milk could be secured from neighboring villages. For Edwina, malted milk drinks became her staff of life. She found bulky foods too indigestible.

The company added adventure scenes on their journey as they encountered different animals, snakes and crocodiles. Ultimately, more than 50 types of animals appeared in the film.

The first rushes sent back to Hollywood were so favorable that the studio offered Edwina an advance in salary and a longer term contract. She made only about $75 per week, while Renaldo and Carey received about $2,400 a month.

Renaldo later told Byron Riggan, a writer for American Heritage Magazine, that Van Dyke’s directing style was brusque, but that he was marvelous with the natives. Van Dyke rarely did a scene more than twice because he felt the result would seem more normal that way. Many times during filming, the actors were reacting to things that were happening to them. On those occasions, there was no chance to reshoot the scene.

Ugandan officials discouraged Van Dyke from entering the Murchison Falls area on the Victoria Nile near Lake Albert because of the dreaded tsetse fly whose bite could cause sleeping sickness. In that vicinity, about 60,000 natives had died from that illness. Van Dyke went there anyway because of the numerous hippos and crocodiles in the area and because of the beauty of the falls which dropped 120 feet, making them the third highest falls in the world. He became the first American movie director to film these falls.

After 52 days of travel, the film safari reached Panyamur on the shores of Lake Albert, the first area in which they would stay for an extended length of time. For about three months, they camped near Murchison Falls.

For the opening scene of the movie, Van Dyke needed a large number of natives to carry ivory to a barge. The innovative director contacted the Sultan of Panyamur and rented from him an entire village of 2,000 natives. The sultan acted as assistant director, relaying Van Dyke’s instructions to the natives. The total cost of the transaction — a wagon load of trade goods.

While the company camped at Lake Albert, cameramen also shot footage of crocodiles and hippos on the lake. They accomplished this feat from the deck of the Lugard, a Mississippi-River-style, paddlewheel boat.

It has been said that gentlemen prefer blonds. So, it seems, did the African insects that the natives referred to as “doo-doos.” Edwina suffered in her scant costume. After her return to California, she recalled, “Here I learned about doo-doos, insects which bite you, crawl upon you and into your soup.”

Renaldo said thousands of insects committed suicide in their soup spoons between the bowl and their mouths. Insects got in his thick, wavy hair and in his eyebrows. He found ticks for weeks afterward. Concerning his co-star, Renaldo said, “This was a terrible time for Edwina with her long hair.”

A plague of locusts passed through one of their camps. The pests left the trees bare and the equipment caked with insects. These locusts were both a detriment and a boon to the natives. They destroyed vegetation, but the natives also ate locusts. They even ate the insects stuck in the radiators of the vehicles.

The natives also considered white, flying ants a delicacy. These ants swarmed onto the screen when the company projected films at night. Sometimes the natives tore holes in the screen while harvesting ants.

Situated near Lake Albert, the film company found a small group of houses occupied by scientists working for the Rockefeller Foundation. Some of the men had been there for years. They were studying sleeping sickness and seeking a cure for the terrible disease.

Edwina said of these men, “I think that’s drama — men spending their lives in that kind of danger — hoping to find a cure to benefit mankind in general.”

Broadway and Hollywood Movies Magazine later asked Edwina if she had been scared while in the tsetse fly country. Her rather cavalier reply was, “Oh — we got used to it. . . . We just got used to taking the chance.”

In order to ward off sleeping sickness, Renaldo followed the instructions of one of the safari’s white hunters, Pete Pearson. The guide told Renaldo three fingers of good Scotch morning and night would keep the blood racing so fast the disease couldn’t catch hold. Renaldo dutifully followed this regimen the whole time they were camped at the falls, and he may have continued it after they left the camp just for good measure.

The crocodiles in the Victoria Nile River below Murchison Falls provided another problem as well as some entertainment for the cast and crew. One night the smell of canned green beans attracted the reptiles, and they invaded the camp. A lively scene followed, and after that, the company paid more attention to keeping the crocodiles out of camp.

After Edwina returned home, she told Broadway and Hollywood Movies Magazine about the crocodiles: “Natives used to build a fence around camp to keep them out when they lumbered around looking for food. . . . They’re all right if you keep away from their jaws, and don’t get within striking distance of their tails.”

The large reptiles appeared curious about the lights and cameras and posed for their pictures. Edwina and Duncan had conflicting opinions about why the crocodiles stayed within the circle of a spotlight. Duncan said it was because the light hypnotized them. Edwina insisted they stayed because they enjoyed the spotlight like actors and actresses did.

Forty years later, Duncan reminisced about the ungainly beasts: “Edwina and I would sit outside our tents at night and watch a flotilla of crocodiles sliding up to the bank. All you can see is their eyes, great knobs protruding above the water. . . . They shine red as the beasts move upstream so smoothly they leave no ripples.”

Crocodiles played a major part in one of the movie’s escape scenes. The script called for Carey and Renaldo to swing via overhead vines to an island in a small lake filled with the reptiles. In order to create the scene, the set crew diverted part of the river into a hollow, creating a pond. Then they threw carrion into the water and attracted about 200 crocodiles. Native laborers helped the set crew erect a brush and willow fence around the pond to keep the crocs corralled.

Their plan would have worked well, except the next two days were overcast, and the company had to keep the crocodiles within the enclosure for two days until sunny skies allowed them to film the sequence. Cast and crew took turns maintaining a 24-hour surveillance on the crocodile compound. The men built fires outside the fence to intimidate the reptiles and keep them from breaching the enclosure.

Duncan and Edwina served their guard duty at night. Edwina described the initial peaceful scene in a letter to her mother: “The black mysterious water would catch and hold the light of the flickering flame only to fade into darkness again. Like stray sparks in the night a million fireflies glowed in the tall grass and among the trees. . . . It was like a dream garden of the gods shut away from the world by a wall of shadowy trees that lost their branches in the heavens.”

Then a large crocodile disturbed the peaceful setting by making a fast, lizard-like rush toward the fence. Duncan grabbed a lighted torch and thrust it into the crocodile’s wide open mouth. The startled creature backed up for a moment and then rushed the fence once more. Edwina almost tumbled over the barrier once while trying to ram a lighted torch down a crocodile’s gullet.

A large group of men carrying rocks and torches ran to her aid. The natives cried “Mamba! Mamba!” meaning crocodile or serpent. Bullets from a .22 caliber rifle finally drove the enraged beast back, but two others took its place. The tail of one of the crocodiles broke through the fence and hit Harry Carey’s leg, laming him for a week. Guards finally resorted to killing the two crocodiles with high-powered rifles.

During the crocodile encounter, Pete Pearson whispered to another hired white hunter, “These people are absolutely crackers.”

Edwina detailed the battle in a letter home: “They were like things possessed, rearing, writhing, charging, their enormous mouths wide open. In the light of the fire they looked like dragons out of a fairy tale. I felt like someone without identity, looking on at something horrible and terrifying, fascinated to the point of inaction. … I tried to realize that it was really me, that I was in Africa, that all this was happening in my life, but I couldn’t.”

When her shift was over, Edwina returned to her tent, but she couldn’t sleep.

While camped at Murchison Falls, the company witnessed a number of violent thunderstorms. Edwina described one in a letter to her family: “Last night there was another tempestuous storm. Huge jagged flashes of lightning in quick succession tore the sky into shreds followed by shocks of thunder that left the earth tense and trembling. Africa was having a tantrum.”

One of these storms, a cloudburst, caused a flash flood that nearly destroyed the film safari’s camp set up in a gully near the river. Edwina later told Broadway and Hollywood Movies Magazine what happened:

“We had all gone to bed, when all of a sudden a whistling wind rose, woke us, and then came a crash of thunder the like of which one never hears in the United States. It just seemed as if the whole world was coming to an end. And then the rain! With a swoop, solid sheets of water crashed down, smashing in the roofs of the tents, and then a torrent from the hillside swept everything away from under us. We clung to tent poles until native workers could rescue us. The whole camp was washed away into the river except the autos and trucks. Then, almost as suddenly, it cleared, and the black boys got new supplies from the trucks and had camp going again. But I was terribly scared for a minute.”

Gazing down on the camp from the safety of a nearby hillside, Edwina thought she saw monster forms moving about through the darkness. These forms turned out to be two hippopotami, a male and a female. Members of the safari referred to them as “trucks without headlights.” Occasionally, hippos ran through camp, dragging tents and poles behind them.

The film company, of course, placed the safety of its celluloid cargo above everything. During the flood, the crew dashed for the film cans first, and miraculously, they did not lose one. The flood did, however, cause filming to cease until the safari could be refitted.

To be continued…

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