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February 11, 2010

East of Borneo

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George Melford - 1931
Alpha Video Region 1 DVD

For a couple of years, since I was aware that this film was available on DVD, I've decided that it was time to think outside the box, or at least outside of one of Joseph Cornell's boxes. Like a lot of people, what I knew of East of Borneo was Joseph Cornell's short film, Rose Hobart, where footage of the original film was reedited to eliminate virtually all but shots of the star, with a musical soundtrack added by Cornell. While Cornell's film was part of the required viewing at NYU, the source film was unknown, essentially dismissed as some inconsequential work that needn't be seen by serious film scholars.

East of Borneo definitely is in the category of "old movie" rather than "classic", but it has some points of interest. While Joseph Cornell has kept the name of Rose Hobart alive, the first thing a viewer will notice is that the actress was the top billed star of East of Borneo. The somewhat stern looking Hobart has her name above that of Charles Bickford, a better remembered actor who would usually be cast as the strict patriarch or father figure. Director George Melford is more rightly famed for his Spanish language version of Dracula, shot on Tod Browning's sets. A bit of aside here - both Melford's Dracula and East of Borneo feature Lupita Tovar.

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I don't know if anyone on the production crew of East of Borneo could have found the actual country on a map. Certainly the film exploits the ignorance of the audience by cutting in nature footage of all sorts of animals that probably would not be found in the real Borneo. For all intents and purposes, Borneo is some kind of exotic jungle that's beyond the familiar confines of the United States or western Europe. In addition to the imaginative animal life, the Universal Pictures backlot version of Borneo is ethnically and culturally diverse as befitting a Hollywood production.

Rose Hobart plays Linda Randolph, a woman who shows up in Borneo in search of her husband, a doctor, played by Charles Bickford. The doctor is the permanent house guest of Hashim, Prince of Marudu. The doctor, taking the name of Allan Clark, is also perpetually sloshed, whiling away his time playing chess with his host. Hashim dresses like a maharaja in something like Wee Willie Winkie. Three hundred miles inland from the coast, Murudu is a remote paradise guarded by crocodiles, too close to an active volcano for Linda's comfort. When the jungle drums beat the news that a white woman is coming up the river, Allan gets nervous, while Hashim gets his hopes up for what is certain to be a beauty. The scene is basically just a couple of guys sitting at the chess board, drinking tea, but the dialogue has some wonderful howlers. First up is Clark's declaration. "White women are bad enough in their own environment, but when you get them into the jungle..." :Later, the Sorbonne (!) educated Hashim, ready to remind one and all of his superiority, mentions, "I am descended from the Aryan race, the oldest white race known to man." How civilized is Hashim? In this jungle paradise, formal evening wear is required for dinner.

There is one scene that may not have been intended as a visual joke, but given the context could be read as a sly commentary on the film's premise of white women in the jungle. While Linda is asleep, we see the shadow of a very large snake over her. Linda's good intentions come to nothing when she makes friends with a pet monkey, and sets it free, only to see it become a tiger's afternoon snack. Melford's film is a little slow at times, even with a running time of less than seventy-five minutes. The effect is almost as if the film crew was still trying to get the hang of making a talking picture. The obvious rear screen projection and the preposterous story give East of Borneo some antique charm. Whatever one thinks of East of Borneo, it should be studied along with Rose Hobart to compare not only what Joseph Cornell left in, and rearranged, but also what was left out.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 11, 2010 12:29 AM


Fascinating, Peter. I've often thought it would be interesting to go back to the source for Cornell's film, but never managed to actually see it. You can tell, even from *Rose Hobart*, that *East of Borneo* is probably a little slow and silly, but it would nonetheless be interesting to see firsthand what Cornell stripped away to focus on Hobart herself: it's like the film is a block of a marble that Cornell chipped away at to get his final sculpture.

Posted by: Ed Howard at February 11, 2010 09:08 AM

Last fall I watched this on VHS as part of a self-curated Noble Johnson retrospective. I like your line about it being an "old movie" and not a classic. But it's certainly of interest for all the reasons you cite. I'll just add Johnson as another reason to watch the film- what an interesting and under-discussed figure of early Hollywood.

Posted by: Brian at February 14, 2010 06:17 PM