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May 10, 2022


mamba production still.jpg
Production still with (from left) Albert Rogell, Ralph Forbes, Eleanor Boardman and Jean Hersholt.

Albert Rogell - 1930
Kino Classics BD Regions ABC

Kino opens their blu-ray version of Mamba with a disclaimer noting the racist nature of the film. This probably unnecessary for those most interested in seeing the film as they presumably have a longer view of film history, and history in general. At the same time, the supplements center around the discovery and restoration of what was the most complete print of a "lost" film. After my first pass at viewing Mamba, I wonder if contemporary audiences might have been better served with a commentary track or an essay by someone like Donald Bogle or Jacqueline Stewart to help place the film in perspective with the changes that have taken place in the past ninety-two years since the initial release. There is a bit to unpack here with the unquestioning white supremacy and colonialism of the time.

The story by itself is mind-boggling. The bulk of the film takes place in a German colony in East Africa in 1913. Jean Hersholt plays the part of the area's biggest landowner, boasting of a plantation with 2000 workers. Overweight and slovenly, he literally tries to push his weight around, bossing the German and British soldiers who are there to keep the natives in line. Hersholt more or less buys the aristocratic daughter played by Eleanor Boardman to be his wife. The two get married, but Boardman refuses to consummate the relationship. On board the ship from Germany to Africa, Boardman meets Ralph Forbes, appearing as an officer in charge of the German colony. World War I causes the Germans and British to fight each other, with the natives taking advantage with tribes joining up to rebel against the Germans. The British troops save the overwhelmed Germans because nothing could be worse than Africans in control of their own land.

Those last couple of reels are unintentionally humorous as they play like the like the most cliched Western with African "savages" instead of Native Americans, and a British cavalry complete with bugle charge coming to the rescue. It is also not enough to note that Mamba is a pre-Code film. In the opening few minutes it is suggested that Hersholt not only fathered a child with a native woman, but also has a black mistress. The theme of adultery is also significant here. The restored version is from an Australian print missing three minutes that were censored locally. Dialogue was preserved from a complete set of soundtrack discs. What apparently crossed the red-line for Australian censors was Hersholt's pawing of the uncooperative Boardman on their honeymoon voyage.

Kino Classics has emphasized the historical nature of Mamba. The film is noted as being the first drama to be filmed in the two-strip technicolor process. At a time when before there was an industry standard for sound film, the movie was projected with separate synchronized RCA discs. The film was produced by Tiffany, a poverty row studio that at that time was helmed by director John Stahl. Tiffany Pictures basically put all their eggs in one basket with a budget of $500,000. The film was a hit, but not enough of one to keep the studio from going under a couple years later. The opening shot is riposte to the myth of early talkies being static, with the camera traveling for about two and a half minutes through the port of the German colony. The supplements cover the recovery of the only known print in Australia, the subsequent restoration of Mamba as well as a brief history of Tiffany Pictures.

In spite of directing over one-hundred films, with a career that began as a teenager, there is very little written about Albert Rogell. What can be gleaned from his filmography and the available films is of a journeyman director of B films who continually went from assignment to assignment without distinguishing himself. John Stahl left Tiffany for Universal around the time of the release of Mamba, directing the first versions of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession, among his handful of highly regarded films.

The commentary track is by Ozploitation filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith. The more interesting points concern how the film was probably perceived by viewers at the time of release versus reading the film from a contemporary perspective. Even discussing Mamba as a product of its time, one can argue about the presentation of the Africans as savages in need of civilization while at the same time providing temporary employment for a large number of black actors and extras while the United States was feeling the effects of the Great Depression. My only dispute with Trenchard-Smith is in his characterization of the three top billed actors, all very recognizable names at the time of production. Still, Trenchard-Smith should get kudos for his research and insights.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 10, 2022 06:08 AM