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Filming concludes and Edwina returns home

By D. Robert Carter - | Mar 8, 2008

While a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer filming company shot scenes for its movie adaptation of the best-selling book “Trader Horn,” the expedition camped for an extended period of time near Murchison Falls in Uganda. During their stay, physical and emotional stress took its tole on Edwina Booth, the film’s leading lady. She had been sick since filming began, and as the safari progressed, she suffered from malaria, amebic dysentery and insect bites.

Edwina’s scanty costume did not protect her adequately from the sun. Director Van Dyke said he did not allow her to film in the sun for more than a minute at a time. When she wasn’t filming, she either sat under an umbrella carried by natives or in a portable, covered sedan chair.

Nevertheless, Edwina suffered from exposure to the sun’s rays. On June 6, 1929, Van Dyke wrote in his journal, “Miss Booth hit with sun.” Back in America, Edwina summed up her reaction to the African weather for magazine writer Dick Hunt: “There’s no halfway about that country. Either the rain is coming down in torrents or it is freezing cold, or the sunstroke will get you. … On the latter I did not fare so well.”

During filming, elephant grass cut Edwina, thorns and branches scratched her, and she couldn’t shoo away insects because an African Goddess was not supposed to itch.

A few years later, Olive Golden recounted Edwina’s plight: “She was always ripped to pieces — thorn scratches — all the bushes have thorns. If you run around there in the weeds you get scratched and over there a sore festers in five minutes. The bugs and ticks would be all over her. I have pinched ticks as big as the end of my finger out of that girl’s body … many times.”

Golden also remembered the young actress’s emotional trauma. She said Edwina “would get a funny look in the eyes, almost a demented look, an irrational look, a starry look, and get up and pretty soon she was gone. … She’d get back to her tent and then lie down and be ‘Oh I am sick!’ “

During a bout of hysteria at Murchison Falls, Dr. Clark gave Edwina a quarter grain shot of morphine to calm her. That would normally have been enough of the drug to knock out a horse, but it had no effect on Edwina.

These attacks occurred about every two or three days without any apparent cause, and sometimes they would last all night. Golden asserted the company’s physician, Dr. Clarke, would say Edwina had malaria one time, and the next time he’d say he didn’t know what she had.

A number of accounts report that Edwina slept only a few minutes at a time while she was in Africa. Fitful dreams seem to have bothered her during those brief moments of sleep. Five months after her return from Africa, Edwina told a Hollywood magazine: “One night … I heard Mother calling me. I got up and ran. A native boy caught hold of my arm just as I was going down the bank into the Nile.”

Only a hint of this emotional distress reached home in a letter. After shooting native sequences near Lake Navagaba for three days, Edwina wrote on Sept. 18, 1929: “The tom toms have been beating so steadily, and the natives have abandoned themselves to such weird dances, that the whole atmosphere of the camp seems to have taken on the feeling of barbarism.”

Not wishing to alarm her family, Edwina played down her illnesses in her letters home or neglected to mention them at all. In an Aug. 28, 1929, letter to her mother written from the Murchison Falls camp, Edwina said, “Along with the others I had a little touch of fever but I am O.K. now. People out here speak of fever much as we do at home about a cold.”

After reading the letter, Josie Woodruff, who may have read a message between the lines, penned a return letter expressing love and encouragement. She told her daughter:

“You have a strong spirit, I know you are really brave. Hang on to the thought that some power will see you through. … Dear you know how much you are to me. You know I have loved you long before I knew you. That you are an answer to a prayer from my inner most soul. That through sorrow and care and heartaches I have never wavered in my love for you or my faith in you. … My only hope is that time will go by. Figure that you are on one of the greatest adventures in the movie world and rise to the heights you can my dearest girl.”

Edwina would need all the love and encouragement she could get to make it through the next several months.

Late in September 1929, the film safari ended its lengthy stay at Murchison Falls. The movie caravan moved eastward into the Itrui Forest in the Congo River country where Director Van Dyke planned to shoot jungle scenes.

Filming the area’s pygmy population provided one of the highlights of this segment of the company’s safari. Van Dyke lured the little people from the jungle with promises of salt, one of their most desired substances. For publication in the MGM Press Book, Edwina described the troupe’s encounter with the pygmies:

“They were strange little people. … They lived far into the jungle where we could not go, and so the natives sent word to them by the talking drums. … I never heard such weird noises as these talking drums make. They carry sound thirty-five miles, I was told. In a day or two, pygmies began to arrive. An hour before they came into sight we could smell them. They have a peculiar odor of their own.”

Edwina told a newspaper reporter the strong, disagreeable odor of the pygmies made them more unpleasant to work with than the insects were.

For awhile, the pygmies found it disagreeable to work with the film company also. They mistook the black cables leading from the cameras to the sound trucks for black mambas, the deadliest of snakes. The pygmies fled to the treetops, and it took many pounds of salt and days of entreaty to coax them down.

In actuality, snakes did not appear to cause the filming company many problems. Although Edwina ran through the grass barefoot on many occasions, she never had the misfortune of stepping on a snake.

In a letter written October 1, 1929, Edwina described the diminutive people to her mother:

“The pygmies are very cute, averaging about three to four and a half feet in height. I’d like to take a couple back to Hollywood. … They are agile and quick as cats, and small enough to slip through the thick forest like a flash. They are the last vestige of African wild life which even the missionaries leave alone.”

The other natives generally left the pygmies alone also. They called them snakes and feared their tiny poisonous arrows.

In another letter written the very next day, Edwina revealed that she had completely changed her opinion about the pygmies. She wrote to the folks back home: “I have had the most dreadful experience. Right here and now I take everything back about the pygmies being cute. I think they are terrible.”

The following, frightening experience changed Edwina’s opinion of the diminutive natives forever. On Oct. 2, a large group of pygmies gathered around Edwina’s tent and began to dance. Through an interpreter, their spokesman announced that the little people had decided she really was a white goddess, and they were determined to take her back into the forest with them.

Edwina screamed and looked for other members of the camp who could help her, but nobody was in sight. She tried to press through the circle of undersized black bodies, but the ring tightened. All the while the pygmy spokesman sang her praises, the interpreter translated and the throng danced on. This carried on for about three hours.

The frightened actress had almost lost consciousness when the interpreter gave an order. The pygmies picked Edwina up and placed her on their shoulders. She screamed and fought until she heard laughter. Looking up, she saw film company members appearing from behind the surrounding trees. Edwina realized at once that she had been set up, and she suspected Harry Carey was behind the startling prank.

In truth, natives were often attracted to Edwina. Some of them had never seen a white woman before. They did not usually approach or touch her, but they would stare at her for hours. The strange guttural cluck-clucking coming from deep in their throats expressed their approval.

When she wasn’t filming, Edwina amused herself by reading, writing poetry and studying French. She strolled around the confines of the camp. Wild animals made it dangerous to walk outside the compound alone. Edwina later complained to magazine writer Dick Hunt, “It was impossible to lie or sit on the ground because of poisonous insects. If you felt like climbing a tree that was out because nearly all of them came equipped with sharp thorns.”

For livelier sport, she watched the monkeys chattering in the trees and playing tricks on each other. While writing a letter to her mother, she asked Duncan how to describe the way they traveled from tree to tree. He replied, “Oh, say they go monkeying along.”

Not all of Edwina’s leisure activities were so commonplace. On at lease one occasion, she joined a white hunter and several natives on a lion hunt. Shortly after returning to America, she described the experience to a movie magazine writer:

“I shot a lion [measuring nine feet, six or seven inches in length]. I though I’d killed him, but he jumped and hopped around and then came toward me. I’d already dropped the gun. One of the boys had to shoot him all over again, but just the same he was my kill, and I have pictures to prove it. I shall live over that experience many, many times in my life, I am sure.”

Lions crossed Edwina’s path at least two more times while the company was filming. One scene during their escape from the Isorgi called for Edwina, Duncan and Harry, who were crazed with hunger, to drive feeding lions off their kill and eat the meat themselves. The filming crew found three lions feeding on a topi. Director Van Dyke reminisced, “I ordered them to charge and drive [the lions] off the carcass, and the idiots did.”

While discussing the danger wild animals like lions posed to his cast and crew, Van Dyke told a reporter, “They made no attempt to come near my people. They never do unless driven by hunger. Why, we made one shot of Edwina Booth and a couple of men beating a lion off with a club and nobody in the world will believe it’s real.” Van Dyke admitted that as this scene was being filmed, hunters had their rifles trained on the lions to prevent an accident.

On the same day they filmed this segment, and after shooting for hours under the broiling sun, Van Dyke ordered Edwina to climb a tree as part of another lion scene. Native workmen scattered carrion around the tree to attract the lions.

After sitting in the tree in the hot sun for an extended period of time, Edwina suffered sunstroke and fell to the ground. Fortunately, the lions had not yet gathered. Enraged by Van Dyke’s brutish behavior, Duncan, according to his own account, charged Van Dyke shouting, “You son of a bitch, I’m going to kill you.”

Toward the end of the film company’s adventure, tempers began to flare, and there was too much drinking among safari members. This was especially true of Van Dyke who used to fill his water bottle with gin.

During filming, Edwina and the others continually faced dangerous situations. A white hunter broke an arm by tumbling into a stream bed while running to rescue Edwina from a threatened attack by enraged baboons. A big crocodile tipped over a canoe in which Edwina was paddling and almost plunged her into deadly swirling waters. A week later, a hippo rose unexpectedly from the water and tipped over a boatload of cameramen. Duncan sprained an ankle in a wild rush while escaping from 38 panic-stricken elephants. He had earlier shaken a stick at them for the benefit of the camera.

Several times, Van Dyke and Carey quelled fights between natives. One night, a near riot broke out among them. The natives got out of hand during the filming of a temple scene. They became excited when Edwina lashed at them with a rubber property whip. Carey calmed the natives by speaking to them in their own language.

The trip was not without its moments of humor either. Van Dyke had a drum wired with a speaker, and he made it “speak.” This frightened the natives into docile behavior for a while. Duncan Renaldo innocently tapped out a rhythm on a drum. The resulting message brought hostile natives popping out of the jungle.

Carey, who had spent some time in Montana as a cowboy, couldn’t resist the temptation of lassoing a huge python, and he snubbed the rope around trees like he did when he roped steers in the West. He even lassoed a baby hippopotamus. This feat earned him a native nickname — “Mr. Hippopotamus.”

The natives honored others in the troupe with nicknames also. Van Dyke became “Big Boss,” Duncan Renaldo was called “The Young One” and Edwina was dubbed “Miss Few Clothes.”

Edwina’s overall health continued to decline as the film safari progressed. She grew ever weaker. Toward the end of the trip, the young actress would disappear into her tent at the end of the day, and she would rarely appear again until the next morning.

In 1936, John McClain, the expedition’s press agent, touted Edwina’s effort in his column in The New York American: “She was dead game, anxious to make a success of her part, and I dare say she answered the call many mornings when she should have been under a doctor’s care.”

Duncan Renaldo noticed Edwina suffered from the sun more than anyone in the troupe. He also observed she had a type of anemia that caused her to be weak and listless about 80 percent of the time. He was quick to add that she didn’t complain.

To be continued …

D. Robert Carter is a historian from Springville. He can be reached at 489-8256.

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