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Edwina endures problems, returns home after filming

By D. Robert Carter - | Mar 15, 2008

One fall day, after the MGM safari that was filming Trader Horn had been in Africa more than half a year and had covered about 40,000 square miles of back country, a cable arrived from California calling the expedition home. By this time, Van Dyke had shot almost 5,000,000 feet of film and exceeded his budget by nearly $1,000,000.

The unit broke up at Thika Falls near Nairobi. Most of the members left for Mombasa and home after reveling through a farewell party that lasted all night.

An article in the MGM Press Book paid Edwina a well-deserved complement after the filming in Africa ended. The account asserted that the young actress “proved herself fearless in the face of hardships and dangers that would have terrified most other girls. … It was to her indomitable spirit no less than to her grace and personal magnetism that the troupe owed much of the success of its hazardous journey.”

In an article appearing in the Denver Post, Harry Carey called Edwina a brave girl who held up like a little trooper while the company was filming, but the actor said Edwina wilted the moment they entered Mombasa. On the homeward-bound boat, Edwina was ill, off and on, for the whole trip. Olive Carey remembered that the ship’s doctor “said her blood pressure was so far below normal he was astonished.”

When the ship reached New York, Edwina pretended she was well enough to come out and have her picture taken. Harry apparently hit the nail on the head when he expressed this Hollywood truism: “If an actress were dying she’d still be there when the camera boys called for a newspaper picture.”

Harry likely expressed the collective opinion of the cast and crew when he told the press regarding the trip: “I never had an experience like it in my life. And that goes for all of us. And I think that though we wouldn’t have missed it for a million — we wouldn’t go through it again for $10 million!”

After arriving in New York in November 1929, Edwina and Duncan boarded a train for California. An article carried over the wire and printed in newspapers throughout the country claimed the two returning stars telegramed their spouses, asking them not to come to the train station to meet them. Edwina’s husband, Anthony G. Shuck, stayed home, but Suzette Renaldo traveled to the depot and arrived in time to see her husband assisting the ailing Edwina into an automobile.

Mrs. Renaldo took her husband home. He stayed there a number of days, and then he left again. Duncan soon filed for a divorce, and his wife did not contest his legal action.

Not long after her return, Edwina filed to have her marriage to Shuck annulled on the grounds that the two were under age when they were married. This was not the case.

As was the custom, film companies routinely shaved a few years off the ages of their actresses; MGM arbitrarily made Edwina five years younger than she really was. According to the studio, Edwina would have been under legal age when she married in 1927. She was, however, born in 1904 not 1909, and in 1927, she would have been well over the legal age to marry. Nevertheless, she received the annulment.

Though she was seriously ill, Edwina bravely tried to live a normal life. Shortly after the actress’ return from Africa, journalist Mary Caldwell visited Edwina’s home in Pasadena and joined a group of the actress’ friends in viewing her African souvenirs and hearing her adventurous tales. Caldwell was surprised to see Duncan present and was introduced to the leading man before she met the leading lady. Edwina impressed the reporter, and Caldwell penned these favorable notions of the new celebrity:

“My first impression was of gorgeous golden hair and lively big eyes. … Her well molded nose and her white teeth completed the beauty of Edwina’s face. … Not only was the young girl lovely to look at, she was charming to talk to. She was interesting and vivacious and told stories of her African experiences with an evident pleasure in recalling them. There was not the faintest trace of affection in her manner.”

Sometime later, Edwina also talked of her African experience in a positive, upbeat manner to magazine writer Dick Hunt: “The scenery, the animals and the customs of the various tribes more than outweigh the hardships we encountered. … It was interesting enough for me to want to go back some day and experience it all over again.”

Ere long, however, Edwina suffered a physical and emotional collapse that reversed her opinion of the Dark Continent. During one year in Africa, she had achieved fame and gained the possibility of amassing great fortune, but she had not found happiness. In exchange for her six minutes of fame, Fate exacted a heavy price.

To aid in her recovery, MGM provided Edwina with a home in Del Rey for three months. A Hollywood magazine said the new star was hidden away from friends and the press in a beach cottage with a doctor and a nurse to take care of her.

After Edwina returned to her family’s common bungalow, a writer from a film magazine interviewed her and came to the conclusion that Edwina was “not quite back from Africa.” Speaking with a faraway look in her eyes, the actress told her guest that nothing in Africa looked sane, and everything she brought back had either been killed or was meant for killing.

Edwina told her listener the worst thing about being in Africa was not being able to sleep for more than ten minutes at a time. Even after returning home, she could only sleep an hour at a time before waking up thinking she was back in Africa and hearing the drums beating, the hyenas screaming and the natives chanting.

The ailing actress described her current condition to the writer:

“The doctor tells me now to try not to think about Africa. … It’s sort of like shell-shock, I suppose. While I was away, it didn’t seem so strange or — or terrifying. … Too many new and different experiences happened to me all at once. There wasn’t time to feel everything then, so I was saving it up. I knew I didn’t dare let go or I couldn’t go on working. … I feel as if I’ve had enough emotions to last me all my life.”

Film historian Kevin Brownlow suggested Edwina had suffered a nervous breakdown, and publicity about her physical illness was later used to cover it up.

Meanwhile, production on Trader Horn inched forward. For six months, editors worked on cutting the 5,000,000 feet of film to fit a story line. In spots, the sound was insufficient and some scenes needed to be reshot. Edwina’s illness slowed filming of the closeups in Culver City. She was so weak she could hardly sit up in the projection room to see the film shown.

The reshoots didn’t work, with the exception of a few closeups of Duncan and Edwina, so the audience saw the original film with touched up sound.

The film studio and the actress herself tried to convince the public that Trader Horn’s leading lady was not dying or “marked by the jungle fever.” An August 1930 article carried in the Denver Post claimed Edwina had suffered malaria, but she had recovered enough to shoot some closeups in the studio.

Edwina tried to make light of her problems. The Post quoted her as saying, “Some of the accounts they’ve printed are funny. One related that my life was numbered by days and by the time the picture is released I will be dead. … A third tells about the jungle fever that is slowly but surely killing me. It’s fine to be famous, but not in that way.” These accounts were not as outrageously funny as Edwina wanted the public to believe they were.

In late September 1930 as MGM put the finishing touches on their groundbreaking movie Trader Horn, another severe emotional shock stunned Edwina. Duncan and Edwina had been free from their former spouses for about six months when 40-year-old Suzzette Renaldo dropped an unnerving, emotional bombshell. She filed a $50,000 alienation of affection suit against Edwina, claiming that while filming in Africa, the actress had deliberately stolen the love of Duncan Renaldo.

Animosity between Renaldo and his former wife quickly escalated. When Suzette Renaldo threatened to have Edwina called to the office of her attorney, Paul Shapiro, to make a deposition, Duncan threatened to have his ex-wife declared mentally ill and unfit to serve as the custodial parent of their four-year-old son.

In return, Mrs. Renaldo warned that if Duncan tried to take her son from her, she would reveal to U.S. emigration authorities how he had entered the United States illegally. In truth, Renaldo had done just that.

The star later admitted he had been orphaned so early in life he couldn’t remember his father and mother and was unsure if he were born in Spain or Romania. He became a merchant marine at age 13, and when the ship on which he served burned in the harbor at Baltimore in 1921, he stayed in the United States illegally.

Both ex-spouses carried out their threats, and a few days before Trader Horn premiered January 22, 1931, authorities arrested Duncan Renaldo and charged him with illegal entry into the United States. After falsely testifying that he was born in Camden, New Jersey, he was also charged with making false statements in order to obtain a passport.

Fortunately, Duncan was not in U.S. custody when Trader Horn premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He and Edwina arrived arm in arm at the most glamorous film opening the world had seen up to that time.

On the same night the film opened at the Grauman’s, Harry and Olive Carey attended a simultaneous opening at the Astor Theater in New York City. Mayor Jimmy Walker accompanied them.

Most revues were favorable. Harrison Carrol of the Los Angeles Evening Herald called the movie “one of the greatest vicarious thrills in my experience.” He went on to say, “Edwina Booth, a comparatively inexperienced actress, manages to invest the white priestess with the necessary ferocity without sacrifice of feminine allure. Hers is an excellent performance of a difficult role.” The film was later nominated for the best picture of the year award.

Trader Horn played at Provo’s Paramount Theater late in April 1931, opening with a Saturday midnight preview. The show played for three days to packed houses. Children entered for ten cents. The prices for adults were graduated: Those who attended before 2 p.m. paid 25 cents, from 2-6 p.m., admission was 35 cents, and night-time tickets sold for 40 cents.

A local program preceded the film. Norm Anderson acted as master of ceremonies and Verdi Breinholt’s band provided the music. After a number of variety acts, several short film subjects and the Paramount Sound News, the feature began.

The Evening Herald hailed Edwina, Provo’s native daughter, as a “sensational screen find” and “a new screen personality.” The paper touted the film as “a magnificent spectacle … hailed as one of the outstanding film offerings in history.”

Trader Horn was so successful it returned to Provo for a second engagement in August 1931. This time it played at the Orpheum Theater.

Even though it took MGM nearly two years to produce the film at the record cost of $2,900,000, the company made more than $1,000,000 on the movie. Most of the 5,000,000 feet of film Van Dyke shot was used in one way or another. Surplus film sold for $10 a foot, and a lot of footage was used in Tarzan and other jungle movies.

Trader Horn also helped stimulate Africa’s economy. After viewing the movie, more people, including author Ernest Hemingway, became interested in Africa, and tourism and the safari trade on the Dark Continent increased as a result.

• To be concluded next week.

D. Robert Carter is a historian from Springville.

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