“I am Tondelayo,” Hedy Lamarr announces in MGM’s laughably alarmist White Cargo. The actress darkened her skin and shed most of her clothes to play the African native who seduces and destroys white men running the nearby rubber plantation. Walter Pidgeon is the seasoned boss who fails to warn newcomer Richard Carlson of Tondelayo’s ways, and as with any interracial screen relationship in 1942, it does not conclude in an especially happy manner. The story, dated in its sexism and racism even at the time of release, came from the novel Hell’s Playground and was adapted by Leon Gordon, who had previously turned the plot into a play. He gives the cast some awful dialogue to spit out, and writes Lamarr’s Tondelayo in such broad and conflicting ways that it’s hard to blame the terrible performance solely on the actress. She tries her best to sell her absurd broken English lines, like one moment where she begs Carlson to “please beat me. Then maybe you feel much better. Soon we make up. Much love.” It’s unlikely any actress could have made the role work—Lamarr’s vague foreignness that many films exploited helps somewhat, but she still has blindingly white teeth that make clear what a joke the whole film is. There’s an admirably sweaty quality to the very set-bound production, and Pidgeon’s performance has a committed gruffness to it, but White Cargo is ultimately too silly to even be truly offensive in its contempt of women and people of color, let alone effective as storytelling in any way.
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