Edwina Booth and the Trials of “Trader Horn”

Edwina Booth (1904-1991) was indeed a movie star — technically — though I’ll be very impressed if you’ve seen her in anything, for her time in the sun was brief. And, as we shall see, it was her time in the sun that was the problem.

Her name of course is a feminized twist on that of one of the greatest 19th century stage actors. Her real name was Josephine Woodruff, which makes her our second Woodruff in as many days. Booth was from a family of Utah Mormons who’d moved to Southern California for her father’s health. Discovered while sunbathing by a movie scout, she was cast in walk-ons in the silent films Manhattan Cocktail (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929). From here she was cast as the leading lady in the adventure film Trader Horn (1931) opposite Harry Carey, and that was her crowning moment (and it did last only a moment).

Trader Horn gained its place in the cinematic annals for numerous reasons. It was the first non-documentary Hollywood movie shot on location in Africa. The script was based on the writings of ivory trader Alfred Aloysius Horn (1961-1931) about his adventures, including an effort to free a captive princess (Booth). The film was originally to have been silent, which would have been difficult enough, but talkies were rapidly becoming the standard, so the decision was made to make a sound production at the last moment. (I’ve always felt the original King Kong captures this transitional time so well. Merian Cooper had previously shot silent films in far-off locations. The characters in the film are shown shooting with silent equipment, but the movie itself is a talkie). Trader Horn‘s director W.S. Van Dyke was theoretically the best man for the job. His previous two movies had been White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and The Pagan (1929), both shot in Tahiti, and he would soon direct Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). But the African production was beset with numerous technical problems and the shoot went on for months longer than had been planned. Booth suffered sun stroke and other injuries and discomforts and finally contracted “jungle fever” (probably malaria).

At the time it was widely reported that she had died, whereas she was merely incapacitated. While Trader Horn did turn out to be a hit, and was even nominated for an Oscar, Booth and MGM parted ways and she sued the studio for over a million dollars. She claimed that the rigors of the shoot were over and beyond what she had been led to believe, and that she had been inappropriately exposed to the elements, and expected to undergo extraordinary hardships for her role. It is said that she didn’t recover for many years, but somehow in the interim, she did manage to appear in 4 additional B movie serials for Mascot Pictures, The Vanishing Legion (1931) and The Last of the Mohicans (1932) with Carey, Midnight Patrol (1932) with Regis Toomey, and Trapped in Tia Juana (1932) with Duncan Renaldo. After this, she retired due to her lingering illness, and saw a number of specialists in America and abroad. Her matter with MGM was settled out of court for a sum much smaller than she was asking. She devoted the rest of her life to working with the church.

Trader Horn was remade in 1973 starring Rod Taylor.