Charles Laughton is extravagantly loathsome as a Cockney vulgarian lording it over his native workforce (with a handful of white outcasts as backup) on his rubber plantation in the jungle. But once he marries scandal-ridden beauty Carole Lombard, saving her from deportation, this self-proclaimed ‘King of the River’ starts to lose control of his coarse kingdom even as he piles on sadistic cruelties. Taken from what must have been a very rum B’way play (11 performances, with Laughton’s part taken by Montagu Love who brought similar terrors to Lillian Gish in the silent classic THE WIND/’28), the stage origins are plain to see in this sub-Somerset Maugham/Joseph Conrad piece. Yet, some real power-mad creepiness oozes out of the sweaty story tropes as trapped men try to pull Lombard into their personal orbit against the boss. And you can’t be sure which of the guys (Charles Bickford, Kent Taylor, Percy Kilbride) will be left standing. Atmospherically shot by Harry Fischbeck and directed in workmanlike fashion by Stuart Walker (he encourages a few OTT close-up reactions from his leads), the film holds you even when at its most ridiculous. What a Mr. Kurtz Laughton might have made in HEART OF DARKNESS. And Lombard, in spite of her bad early rep, is already making a mark, and exceptionally well-dubbed on her vocals by Mona Lowe.
DOUBLE-BILL: Maugham’s great novel in this vein is THE PAINTED VEIL, filmed twice: carefully cleaned up for Garbo/Herbert Marshall/George Brent in ‘34; and more realistic/faithful in 2006 for Naomi Watts/Ed Norton/Liev Schreiber. OR: Don’t forget the looniest of these mad island overseer films, EAST OF BORNEO/’31, also with Charles Bickford and available on YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GluxQ62t4QA