White Witch Doctor

WHITE WITCH DOCTOR conjured up 96 minutes of hokum in 1953, putting Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward into safari togs for an adventure set in the Belgian Congo of 1907. Though critics were unmoved (how many facial muscles does smirking require?), audiences made it #31 in a year bulging with matinee escapism. The pulpy plotline has animal trapper Mitchum taking nurse Hayward to a remote Congolese village. There she will work healing juju on the natives, if local wildlife and irate tribesmen don’t separate her pluck and altruism into edible portions. Walter Slezak plays Mitchum’s business partner, who has motives more monetary than medicinal. While the stars manage to keep straight faces (Hayward mercifully a tad less histrionic than usual), easily the best feature is Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack, launching things with excitement: he crafted two more excellent adventure scores that year, for King Of The Khyber Rifles and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef.

It was torn from a novel by Louise A. Stinetorf, who’d been a missionary before turning to writing. Her book was about an old missionary woman—the saintly type—and her young novice, tending  tribes in Central Africa. Upon nabbing the rights, Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck informed producer Otto Lang: “We do not want a picture based on the ‘exploits of a woman missionary’ struggling for courage in the African jungle. We want a picture about two interesting people, a woman missionary and a white hunter, a story full of physical excitement, physical violence, and sex. We do not  want a picture about a woman struggling with…locusts and other depressing things.”  Veteran studio scribes Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts got the word: turn celibate religious humanitarians into Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward.

Roy Ward Baker was on to direct, but he contracted a debilitating fever when shooting 2nd-unit footage in the pestilential recesses of the Congo, so Henry Hathaway was then assigned the safe stateside shooting at the Fox studio ranch in Calabasas, California, and on sound stages back in L.A. The obviously phony sets clash with the authentic footage, further sending up the enterprise as a goof. Things get furiously furry with a full-on sample of silliness in an early scene when Mitchum has to face down a dude in a gorilla suit, played by legendary “get-the-ape-guy” Charles Gemora.

Hayward had already “been” to Africa the year before, on The Snows Of Kilimanjaro, and Mitchum would return, on actual locations, a decade later, for Mister Moses. A production diagnosis of $2,020,000 (covering Scotch for Bob, makeup for Susan and bruise damage to Mr. Gemora and his Kongster costume) was doctored and cured by a gross of $7,600,000. With Mashood Ajala, Timothy Carey and Michael Ansara.




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