Carole Lombard And Pre-Code Charles Laughton: ‘White Woman’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Try as Judith (Carole Lombard) might to put the past behind her, bad reputations tend to stick, so when she catches the eye of wealthy landowner, Horace Prin (Charles Laughton), Judith decides to make the most of it.

Like most pre-code movies with short runtimes, Stuart Walker’s White Woman moves fast. One minute Judith is contemplating Horace’s proposition, the next she’s deep in the tropics at Horace’s plantation where it’s revealed they got married off-screen and are going to live in a houseboat.

In many ways White Woman feels like a precursor to one of Klaus Kinski and Warner Herzog’s collaborations, minus the location shooting (namely Fitzcarraldo, which also featured a boat, and Aguirre, The Wrath of God, where there’s some overlap with the ending).

There’s also a double feature to be made of White Woman and Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls, which both showcase Laughton at his nastiest and are exactly the kinds of movies the Hays Code would later target. Horace might not be a mad scientist like Dr. Moreau, but he does take sick pleasure out of holding information over people and forcing them to stay in his employ. Control, not love, is key to his relationship with Judith as well, and when she starts to develop feelings for one of his workers (Kent Taylor), it only enables him to be crueller.

Lombard hadn’t yet broken out as a screwball comedy star when White Woman was released (the term “screwball comedy” would be coined after her performance in My Man Godfrey, as explained by author, Olympia Kiriakou, in this tweet), but that’s what makes her performance in White Woman so exciting. Sure, it’s a departure from her comedies and as filmmaker, Allan Arkush, and filmmaker/film historian, Daniel Kremer, bring up in their commentary, it’s much more in line with the roles Marlene Dietrich would star in for Paramount, down to having Lombard “sing” (IMDB credits Mona Lowe for the dubbing) and the exotic setting, but while Judith could’ve easily been a damsel in distress, Lombard makes her defiant. She never loses her edge, like when Horace orders the flowers she just complimented away, but Judith snags one first.

She’s not entirely sympathetic, either, especially in the beginning when she’s being chastised for working at a “native” café, only to pick up the racist baton her questioner (Claude King) drops. It’s unusual to see Lombard unlikable, yet Samuel Hoffenstein and Gladys Lehman’s screenplay gives her a chance to play those notes.

Arkush and Kremer’s commentary is more critical of the film, yet despite often disagreeing with their assessments (like Walker not giving Laughton a grand, Mae West entrance – to me, by not playing to his star power, Walker kept Laughton a menacing, shadowy figure), they back up their arguments and are able to consider the film from the perspective of being directors.

Final thoughts:

  • Charles Bickford makes a great late addition to the cast as an overseer who’s a match for Laughton.
  • Movies love to throw in a monkey but this monkey comes with a payoff at the end.
  • White Women would later be remade as Island of Lost Men starring Anna May Wong (which will be included in Kino Lorber’s Anna May Wong box set, currently scheduled for May).

If you’re a Carole Lombard fan, or are curious to see one of her dramatic roles, or love pre-code films or seeing Laughton in his element, White Woman is available on Blu-Ray starting February 14th from Kino Lorber.

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