Is Mamba the first talkie shot entirely in early Technicolor? Filmed in 1929, literally while the stock market was crashing and interrupting the production, this 1930 release proved a sensation at the box office and then vanished utterly from film history. We can now consider its place thanks to its out-of-the-blue rediscovery, as evidenced on this Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
Let’s begin with the film. In a bid for prestige and box office, Tiffany Pictures blew an astounding half a million dollars on this project, using four cameras equipped for two-strip Technicolor as well as a recording system that required the soundtrack to be played separately on discs. They rented a large backlot at Universal and populated it with hundreds of African-American extras, for the story takes place in German East Africa just before it was taken over by the British in WWI. This jockeying for power and booty between colonial nations is one of Mamba‘s main themes.
Showing off production value, one of the first shots is an elaborately staged track that travels forward through a group of Africans lugging ivory tusks while a white man with a whip oversees them. The camera pushes forward into the street where we see dozens of locals, some with zebras (painted mules) and one with an ostrich just for more local color, and then the camera pans left and crosses a bridge as we’re treated to more pageantry designed to instill an exotic atmosphere where white colonists are running the joint.
Two groups of African children are playing “war” in the street. One group is playing the British and one plays the Germans. In other words, they’re taking a cue from what they see around them. Their game is broken up by a British and a German soldier. With what the audience understood as heavy irony, the Brit declares that they never fight the Germans and never will because they’re friends. The German calls him scheisskopf and other endearments.
Taking the irony one bitter step further, the Brit explains to the German that the children must be raised as pacifists because “there are too many blacks and not enough of us whites” and he doesn’t want them (the “blacks”) to get ideas. This comment is a valid insight into the colonial mind, as well as a foreshadowing of the rebellion that will take up the last reel.
The film establishes that Britain and Germany are two armies sharing a border and that they exist to protect the wealth being exported by the foreign ivory hunters and plantation owners who have organized the local populace to do the heavy lifting. Colonial capitalism is embodied and allegorized by August Bolte (Jean Hersholt), the whip-wielding Simon Legree of Africa, a crude fatcat who brags “I have 2,000 blacks working for me” and “I can buy anything I want.”
He bitterly resents that his fellow Europeans dislike him, partly through class prejudice and partly a feeling that he’s spoiling “respect for the white man”. In their eyes, his greatest crime may be – and this is indeed a strong and eye-opening detail – that he sleeps with native women. This theme is introduced when, as he’s drawn in a rickshaw, he pushes away a crying woman with a baby. The baby needs food, says the woman, “your baby, my baby.” She’s identified only as Hassim’s daughter (Hazel Jones), and Hassim is played by Noble Johnson.
Johnson is one of the most important and under-appreciated figures in cinema. His viewing of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1914) convinced him that African-Americans needed to make their own films, so he founded the first black-owned studio, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. His on-screen career is a multi-ethnic festival of minor character roles, like the African chief in King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933).
Hassim spends his time in Mamba hovering in the background wearing a red fez and full-length white outfit, glowering and comforting his daughter. This is until an even more shocking development with his daughter causes his transformation into a rabble-rouser who pulls off his civilized clothes and leads the big uprising that fills the last reel.
This final sequence is shot and edited in by far the film’s most vigorous and modern style, and I speculate that most of this footage was shot silent and the noisy soundtrack added later. These are the sequences where Bolte, who’s been identified as a snake and a swine and by the crocodile hide hanging in his living room, meets his fate in the crowd led by Hassim, for the rule of Hollywood melodrama is that big social ideas are enacted by individuals on a personal level. Meanwhile, war among the white colonial “friends” has also broken out, which is partly what encouraged the native rebellion (as per the prediction about the children in the opening scene), and that’s resolved in five minutes with a gentlemanly substitution of flags in a visual gesture that implies “new boss, same as the old boss.”
If I’m making Mamba sound like a progressive critique of the colonial agenda and mindset, yes, that’s there. Bear in mind that in order to perceive it, however, you must look through the patronizing and stereotyped depictions of the Africans as set decoration, with their quaint native dances leading to savage fury in the jungle.
Another element is the white romantic triangle. In a canny parallel to his “2000 blacks”, the resentful, social-climbing Bolte decides to buy the aristocratic daughter from an impoverished count and parade her as his trophy wife. As he makes this plan, another African woman, the replacement of Hassim’s daughter, lounges and smirks behind him, seen and not heard. This is definitely pre-Code material.
Bolte’s trophy is winsome Helen (Eleanor Boardman), and half of the drama is the sexual threat he presents to her as a beastly boor. He’s been uncommonly and unconvincingly patient with her skittishness. Will he finally soil her with his vile miscegenating hands? Or will she be rescued by the dashing German officer with dueling scar, Karl von Reiden (Ralph Forbes), whose ace is simply that he’s handsome and of a more appropriate class? You probably know.
Germany banned Mamba for alleged anti-German sentiment, but it seems to have played in plenty of other places. The world’s last print was found in Australia, where a private collector preserved it for decades, unbeknownst to anyone. Australian censors removed one honeymoon scene where Helen expresses her squeamishness, but we have the sound record. We’re lucky they didn’t remove more. Some scenes, like those with Josef Swickard as Helen’s father, were left on the cutting-room floor prior to release, so that material was never going to be found.
Mamba film was restored to its current shape by UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in 2012, and here it is on Blu-ray with some background material on its rediscovery and restoration, plus a commentary by Aussie filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith. He offers useful information; at one point he fails to recognize Johnson in a fez and thinks he may be a white actor but identifies him later.
So now we can see that Mamba offers a colonial critique that’s sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, and sometimes contradictory. Director Albert S. Rogell and his photographer, Charles P. Boyle, stage several very pretty moments in what’s essentially a spectacle with provocative sex elements. The dialogue has sonic limits, and turning on the subtitles is advisable, although the preparers didn’t recognize all the words.
The writers are Ferdinand Schumann-Heink, John Reinhardt, Tim Miranda and Winifred Dunn. Trenchard-Smith speculates on their individual contributions. According to Wikipedia, Dunn ghost-wrote Osa Johnson’s bestselling 1940 memoir I Married Adventure: The Lives and Adventures of Martin and Osa Johnson, on those prominent and self-promoting explorers of Africa.
Mamba belongs to a vogue in early talkies about African exploration and exploitation. Some were documentaries by and about people like the Johnsons and Frank “Bring ’em Back Alive” Buck, or the phony Ingagi (1930). Some were lavish tales like Trader Horn (W.S. Van Dyke, 1931), actually shot in Africa, and the above-named King Kong. Paul Robeson starred in the British Sanders of the River (Zoltan Korda, 1935).
These form a fascinating galaxy of colonial cinema worth exploring, not least for traces leading to later films like Tamango (John Berry, 1959, also from Kino Lorber), Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Oscar-winning Black and White in Color (La Victoire en chantant, 1976), Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley (La Rue Cases-Nègres, 1983), Claire Denis’ Chocolat (1988) and Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988).
Who knows what will next be brought back to life? The wonders of rediscovered film history never cease.