Wednesday, May 18, 2011
On May 18, 1991, actress Edwina Booth died. She was an American leading actress of the early talkie period, she was born Josephine Constance Woodruff, the daughter of a doctor, in Provo, Utah, Booth's brief film career began in 1928 with the Dorothy Arzner-directed Manhattan Cocktail, which also featured Nancy Carroll and Richard Arlen. She was on vacation following a 1927 stage appearance when film director E. Mason Hopper saw her and offered her a part in a Marie Prevost picture. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was impressed with her, and cast Booth in supporting roles. Her chance for stardom came when the studio cast her in its new jungle epic Trader Horn opposite Harry Carey. MGM gave the production a fairly large budget, and sent cast and crew on location in East Africa. Up until 1929, the only films shot in Africa were travelogues, but MGM was hoping that the idea of "location shooting" might increase the film's commercial appeal. The crew was inexperienced and ill-equipped for filming in Africa, a problem exacerbated by MGM's last-minute decision to shoot the film with sound.
During production of the film she contracted an infection (most often referred to as 'jungle fever'). Her role in the film as "The White Goddess" required that she be very scantily clad, likely increasing her susceptibility. Production went on for several months (much longer than average production time in those days), and the film wasn't released until 1931. Despite many problems with the film's production, Trader Horn was a success, securing an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.
Booth, however, fared much worse; it took her six years to fully recover physically. She sued MGM for over a million dollars, claiming she had been provided with inadequate protection and inadequate clothing during the African shoot. She also claimed she had been forced to sunbathe nude for extended periods during filming. The case received a lot of attention in the tabloids and was eventually settled out of court. According to some sources, the terms were not disclosed.
Booth's acting career never recovered from the MGM debacle. Neither MGM nor the other major studios had any intentions of employing her, which created an opportunity for producer Nat Levine of the low-budget Mascot Pictures. Levine saw a chance to capitalize on the success of Trader Horn by reuniting its stars Harry Carey and Edwina Booth for two adventure serials, The Vanishing Legion and The Last of the Mohicans. The films were successful within their limited market, but failed to propel Edwina Booth's movie career forward. By the time MGM reissued Trader Horn in 1938, Edwina Booth had been forgotten by the movie going public. She spent part of her later years working at the Los Angeles Mormon Temple. She died on May 18, 1991 at 86 in a Los Angeles nursing home. She is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, California.
www.michaelthomasbarry.com Author of “Fade to Black: Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950”