STANLEY AND LIVINGSTONE, yet another entry from 1939’s fabled hoard, hasn’t held the cachet of the year’s better-remembered (and, well, better) offerings but it’s an enjoyable slab of historical adventure, and was one of the biggest audience draws, ninth out of the 365 features released that year. Spencer Tracy and Cedric Hardwicke lend naturalism and dignity and some vintage location footage provides needed scope.
The immortal greeting/question “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” provided fodder for decades of lazy jokes, but when uttered by journalist Henry Stanley on finding missionary David Livingstone in the village of Ujiji (on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania) on November 10th, 1871, it marked one of Adventure’s capstone moments and the news—Stanley was ‘presumed’ not just lost but dead—would circle the globe, fixing both men into history and legend.
Always keen for a good tale to exploit, 20th-Century Fox’s adventurous Darryl F. Zanuck began his $1,338,000 saga by dispatching 2nd-unit director Otto Brewer and a small crew to ‘British East Africa’, where they spent four arduous months trekking around Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and Uganda shooting 100,000 feet of film, capturing settings, tribal peoples and then-abundant wildlife. Doubles were used for long-shots that studio-based stars would later be matched with.
Tracy was cast as the dogged reporter, Hardwicke the devoted healer. Nancy Kelly was shoehorned in for some subdued romantic fiction (thankfully played down) and character color was added by Walter Brennan, Charles Coburn, Henry Hull and Henry Travers. The previously acquired location backgrounds were decently inserted into the studio work, Henry King directing, done in California (with a trip to Idaho’s Sun Valley to stand for Wyoming). The script by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson gets the thrust of the story across, with standard embellishments. *
The African footage includes a spectacular attack on Stanley’s caravan by thousands of warriors, blanketing hills into the far background like a giant swarm of bees, and some hairy shots of the caravan (or rather, Brewer’s 2nd unit) on the banks of a lake, outrunning a pride of disturbed hippos. Tracy and Hardwicke, underplaying beautifully, have a fine rapport, and Spence gets to deliver a wingding of a speech when Stanley, outraged, has to defend his findings to jeers from the Royal Geographical Society. It’s a bravura three-minute piece, 442 words, put over with the actor’s rock-honest conviction. This was Tracy’s only outing in 1939, while Hardwicke scored as another clergyman, much less kindly, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Critics applauded the star turns, and crowds gave it a gross of $8,000,000. With Richard Greene and Miles Mander. 101 minutes.
* The phony-baloney finale presents Stanley returning to Africa to do missionary work with the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers” ringing on the soundtrack: in reality he went for further exploration, truly audacious and heroic, followed by a good bit of blood-soaked empire building. For the former, check out “The Last Hero”, a terrific novel by Peter Forbath. For non-fiction, “Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone”, by Martin Dugard.
Hardwicke: “Hollywood may be thickly populated, but to me it’s still a bewilderness.”