Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ting tang walla walla bing bang

After the success of King Solomon's Mines in 1950, studios started making more movies set in Africa. Some, like King Solomon's Mines and The African Queen, did a lot of the shooting in Africa. Others were more restricted to the soundstages and back lots, such as White Witch Dcotor, which you can see tomorrow morning at 11:15 AM on FMC/FXM.

The titular "white witch doctor" is played by Susan Hayward, but we'll get to her in a minute. The movie actually starts with Robert Mitchum, playing "Lonnie" Douglas, a man in Belgian Congo in the first decade of the last century whose ostensible job is to wrangle big African wildlife for zoos in the west. But that's only the half of what he's doing. The other half has him involved with Huysman (Walter Slezak) in a search for the mineral wealth that the region holds -- specifically, gold. They've searched all the districts in the region, except for one, where the warlike Bakuba tribe holds sway. The Bakuba are notorious for their dislike of the white man, and this fierce protectiveness, combined with the fact that the gold isn't anywhere else, leads Huysman to believe the gold must be there.

Into all this walks Ellen Burton, played by Susan Hayward. She trained as a nurse, but after the death of her doctor husband -- something conviently not revealed until a couple of reels in so that we have the chance to get some conflict between her character and Mitchum's -- she wanted to fulfill his legacy of working in Africa to bring health to the uncivilized areas of the word. So she's come to this God-forsaken place since there's a white woman running a medical clinic near here.

Lonnie thinks this is no place for a white woman, especially one not accompanied by a man, and Ellen's naïveté only confirms Lonnie's suspicions. Still, he guides Ellen to the clinic, which is a good thing, since the woman running it is on her deathbed, fairly quickly dying and leading Ellen to run it herself. When Ellen saves the life of a local non-Bakuba woman who has an abscessed tooth, the locals finally give her respect, calling her "Little Mama" after the previous lady, whom they called "Big Mama".

It's all fairly standard and formulaic plot development, leading up to the climax. The son of a Bakuba chieftain is doing his "prove your manhood" ritual by hunting a lion, and gets attacked in the process, close enough to Ellen's clinic that she's the one who winds up treating the kid's serious wounds. (The clinic is between where Huysman has his office and the Bakuba country.) The Bakuba eventually come and take the kid back home to recover, although his condition was serious enough that he's still going to need modern medicine and can only survive if Ellen goes into Bakuba country to take care of him. The Bakuba are grudgingly willing to let her come alone, but Huysman sees an opportunity to get into Bakuba country and get the gold. The Bakuba, of course, aren't about to let a whole bunch of white folk in, so Huysman has Lonnie ostensibly play guide, but use this as aruse to scout out where the gold is. Ultimately, it's not just the chieftain's son whose life hangs in the balance....

White Witch Doctor is, I think, not as good as some of the other Africa movies from the early 1950s. The reason is not because Fox didn't go to Africa to make this; instead, it's more down to the plot. The movie is predictable and oftentimes rather slow in its development. Lonnie and Ellen seem almost ripoffs of the Bogart and Hepburn characters from The African Queen. Mitchum and Hayward both try, and are reasonably competent, but they are dragged down by the script. Walter Slezak is pretty good as usual playing a villain, but he too isn't helped by the script. White Witch Doctor is an OK enough movie to watch once, but it's not anything special. As far as I know, it hasn't been released to DVD, so you'll have to catch the infrequent FMC airing.

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