Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton make one of the oddest couples in Hollywood history in the bizarre pre-Code drama White Woman. The blessedly brief tale about a maniacal plantation owner's marriage to an alluring shady lady on a primitive isle is wild, weird, and very wicked. A brand new 2K master showcases Lombard's beauty, solid audio immerses us in the native jungle atmosphere, and a lively commentary track tries to make sense of this outlandish film that will only appeal to diehard Lombard and Laughton admirers. For Fans Only.
Before she found her niche in screwball comedy and became the genre's icon, Carole Lombard plied her trade playing several statuesque blondes in a host of forgettable movies. One of them is the eponymous White Woman who fuels a bizarre tale of obsession, sadism, and infidelity on a Malayan rubber plantation. Though parallels can be drawn between this disjointed, pre-Code debacle and such acclaimed W. Somerset Maugham adaptations as Rain and The Letter, White Woman lacks the substance that made those films so fascinating, relying instead on violence and titillation to keep its audience involved.
The title alone raises eyebrows, but race doesn't play much of a role in White Woman. A shady reputation and scandal surrounding her husband's death make nightclub singer Judith Denning (Lombard) persona non grata in the Indonesian town of Baya. To avoid deportation, she enters into a marriage of convenience with slimy plantation owner Horace Prin (Charles Laughton), who leers at her like a dirty old man. Judith is the first white woman to set foot on Prin's remote estate in quite some time and instantly catches the eye of his handsome foreman David von Elst (Kent Taylor).
The tyrannical, barbarous Prin, who abuses his native workers and treats his staff like prisoners, keeps Judith on a tight leash, and when sparks begin to fly between her and David he flies into a jealous rage. The illicit lovers fear Prin's wrath, but fleeing his fortress is a dangerous prospect. Others have tried and met a grisly demise. The plantation's hot, humid climate gets even steamier when a new overseer (Charles Bickford) arrives and also becomes enamored of Judith.
White Woman wallows in histrionic melodrama throughout its plodding 68-minute running time, yet all the sturm und drang doesn't rev the film's engine. Director Stuart Walker, who did a much better job helming his previous film with Lombard, the stirring World War I drama The Eagle and the Hawk, seems as bored by the material as his leading lady, who mopes around with a perpetually blank expression. Lombard, who sings a couple of tunes early in the picture, is beautiful but lifeless, and her lack of interest and largely monotonic portrayal drain the movie of energy.
Laughton tries to pick up the slack, but goes overboard, filing an overcooked, cartoonish performance that's enhanced by his mangy mustache and maniacal giggling. Having just played Emperor Nero in The Sign of the Cross, a mad doctor in The Island of Lost Souls, and a gluttonous British king in The Private Life of Henry VIII, Laughton continues in crazed potentate mode here, but White Woman's preposterous story and the second-rate script just make him look foolish. Lucky for him, this misbegotten film proved to be a blip on his career radar and he would quickly bounce back with The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Rembrandt over the next three years, cementing his reputation as one of the screen's finest character actors.
We all remember Bickford in his later years playing memorable supporting parts in The Farmer's Daughter, Johnny Belinda, and the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born, so it's a treat to see him here as a cocky, macho rascal who tries to seduce Lombard with his brusque charm. It's just a shame he doesn't arrive on the scene until the movie is more than half over because he really enlivens the proceedings. Fans of Ma and Pa Kettle will also recognize a young-ish Percy Kilbride making his film debut in White Woman as a mild-mannered plantation worker with a doomed pet monkey.
An outlandish story, low-energy Lombard, flat direction, and a wild climax that's sure to provoke a few titters all conspire to sully White Woman's reputation. Though watching Laughton devour the scenery is always entertaining, even his considerable talents aren't enough to prevent this pre-Code calamity from succumbing to jungle fever. Classic junkies will surely get a kick out of this rare curio, but its stars would probably rue its rediscovery.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
White Woman arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 2K master spawns a pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Noticeable, but not overwhelming grain preserves the feel of celluloid while enhanced clarity and contrast produce a vibrant image...sometimes a little too vibrant. A few scenes look a tad overexposed and the bright whites occasionally bloom. Blacks are rich, shadow delineation is good, and though some faint vertical lines and errant print damage crop up from time to time, the instances are brief and only fleetingly distract from the on-screen action. Background elements are easy to discern and detailed close-ups showcase Lombard's alabaster skin, Laughton's scraggly mustache, and the sweaty complexions of all the men. Though hardly a dazzler, this transfer is certainly the best home video rendering of this 90-year-old film and will please fans of Lombard and Laughton.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that's devoid of any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle. Sonic accents like the native drums possess plenty of weight, subtleties like footsteps come through cleanly, and the foreboding main title music fills the room with ease. Laughton's cockney drawl renders some of his lines unintelligible, but the rest of the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Much of the audio sounds a bit thin, but that's fairly typical for a film of this vintage.
In addition to trailers for other Kino releases starring Lombard and Laughton (but not one for White Woman, sadly), the only extra is an audio commentary by the duo of filmmaker Allan Arkush and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer. The two enjoy a lively rapport and don't shy away from criticizing this oh-so-strange film. Kremer says many regard White Woman as "the campiest film that Carole [Lombard] ever made" and "there may be some other contenders, but when it comes to pure, unadulterated sleaze, White Woman is hard to beat." Arkush calls the film "uninvolving" and often pans the uninspired direction. He also goes on a rant about two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Luise Rainer, who doesn't even appear in the movie! I'm not sure White Woman really deserves an audio commentary, but these two make the track entertaining.
White Woman is one weird film. The pre-Code drama mixes violence, sadism, and sex and sets it in a steamy, exotic atmosphere, but the campy final product is more of a mess than a masterpiece. Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton valiantly try to put over the outrageous material, but can't overcome its ludicrous nature. Though Kino's new 2K master perks up this 90-year-old antique, it can't salvage it. And yet, if you're a devotee of Lombard, Laughton, and/or pre-Code films, how can you resist this crazy curio? For Fans Only.