White Folks in the Tropics: a Cinematic Celebration
April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments
I’ve discovered a new mid-century film subgenre! For the time being, let’s call it Jungle Love. (No, not that kind of jungle love. Given that the title of this blog includes the word “sex,” though, I have plenty of kinky Google searches leading to it. Might as well add to it!) This subgenre I’ve discovered combines elements of the romance, adventure, and melodrama genres into one entirely new fusion. Here are the essential elements:
- Pretty white people. Often, a 25-year-old actress paired with a 50-year-old leading man.
- An exotic, tropical setting largely populated by brown people. Often a plantation. India or Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is the most common, but the rest of Asia, Africa, or even the Caribbean can substitute in a pinch. (For some reason South America is vastly underused for this purpose–maybe because the Brits never owned it.)
- Romantic Complications. Usually this takes the form of a love triangle, but it can also consist of double love triangles (whoa!), love quadrangles, or simply one of those classic I-love-you-I-hate-you, back-and-forth pairings.
- The interference of nature: generally a natural disaster, a plague, or a wild animal attack. Some ambitious films (I’m looking at you, Rains of Ranchipur) manage to cram in all three. This interference is generally meant to up the emotional stakes for the romantic leads (and maybe even kill off the unchosen party of a love triangle), but to a post-colonial viewer, just highlights the extreme self-centeredness of the protagonists, who keep blathering about their love lives even as thousands of “natives” die off in the background shots.
Bonus points awarded for:
- Minor royalty.
- Prostitutes/”good time girls”/”companions” (if we’re in the Hays Code era).
- Blackface. Or yellowface . . . in most cases, literally orangeface, as the 1950s Hollywood attempt at making white characters look Indian was to spray them with a particularly garish, neon shade of self-tanner.
Need examples? Keep reading.
The Rains of Ranchipur
Rains of Ranchipur is pretty much the grand dame of this subgenre. It takes every element and then cranks it up to eleven.
Pretty white people? Lana Turner, Joan Caulfield, Richard Burton, Fred MacMurray, Michael Rennie
Bonus! Royalty: Lana married Michael for his title (and he married her for her money).
“Exotic” setting? Ranchipur, India, largely taking place within a Maharani’s palace
Love triangle? And then some. Turner’s married to Rennie, but falls in love with Burton. MacMurray’s her ex, who hooks up with Caulfield. This isn’t a triangle; it’s a straight-up cat’s cradle.
Mother Nature has her way? Burton saves Lana and her husband from both a tiger and a snake in the early moments of the film; earthquakes, floods, and a mysterious illness close it out.
Sympathetic protagonists? The only character you can really root for is Caulfield’s college student, and even then, you’re only rooting for her to get the hell out of there and go back to Iowa. Lana Turner’s character is vile throughout (and I don’t really buy her about-face in the closing minutes of the film), but her nadir comes when she gets mad at Burton, a doctor, for staying to treat the hundreds of patients hurt in the earthquakes and floods, rather than coming to her side.
Bonus! Blackface: Burton is the face of “modern India,” stuck in a turban and shades of radioactive orange face paint that vary in intensity from scene to scene. The Maharani is played by a white actress, too.
Fun fact: Turner and Caulfield were both 33 when they filmed this movie, but Caulfield got to play a fresh-faced college student (and looks the part) while Turner was stuck in the role of a spoiled, aging princess who’s finally forced to grow up. Poor Lana.
Pretty white people? Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews, Peter Finch.
“Exotic” setting? A tea plantation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Love triangle? You betcha.
Mother Nature has her way? Cholera, an elephant stampede, and a grand conflagration that takes down the plantation’s mansion very dramatically.
Sympathetic protagonists? Peter Finch’s unexplained morphing from overall nice guy to complete jerk means that we do, at least, understand why Liz is ready to take any steps to get out. Still, how much sympathy can you have for a woman who agrees to move halfway around the world for a man she’s known for a matter of weeks and knows almost nothing about?
Fun facts: Elephant Walk was supposed to star Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, but he had to back out before filming due to other commitments, and she backed out shortly after filming began, due to complications with her bipolar illness. Leigh’s still visible in some shots that the director didn’t have time to re-do with Taylor.
Pretty white people? Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, Clark Gable, Gene Raymond.
Bonus! Prostitute: Harlow.
“Exotic” setting? A rubber plantation in Indochina (Vietnam).
Love triangle? Love rectangle. Jean loves Clark who loves Mary who sort of loves him but is married to Gene.
Mother Nature has her way? Pretty subdued, compared to the above examples. A touch of malaria and a tiger attack are both plot points, but they’re actually integrated into the character development–they serve to highlight the fact that Gene Raymond and his wife are utterly unprepared for the environment they’ve “adventured” into.
Sympathetic protagonists? Red Dust is one of the better examples of this kind of film, and thus you feel for its characters even when they act in unlikeable ways. The way that the filmmakers refuse to insert natural disasters to raise the stakes–and own the fact that all the romantic tempestuousness is self-created–helps. Jean Harlow is adorable and her chemistry with Gable is spot-on.
Fun Fact: It’s a two-for-one! This movie was remade some twenty years later as Mogambo. That version switched the setting to Africa, and had Gable reprise his role–this time with the incomparable Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly fighting over him instead of Astor and Harlow.
- The Painted Veil
- The Rains Came
- The World of Suzie Wong
. . . and just to prove we haven’t come that far since the 1950s . . . The English Patient.