Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Poor Edwina

Film starlet Edwina Booth was born Josephine Woodruff on this day in 1904 in Provo, Utah.

Around 1927, Josephine Woodruff was watching a movie being made in Venice Beach, California when she was noticed by the director and encouraged to take a screen test. A tall, striking blonde, Josephine got some bit roles in Hollywood films and changed her name to "Edwina Booth." Although the name happened to be similar to the name of one of the foremost American stage actors of the 19th century (Edwin Booth) and probably caused a few film critics to sneer and bite their lower lips, Josephine never meant to imply she had any particular thespian talent; "Edwina" was for her favorite granduncle Edwin, and "Booth" was for her grandfather John Edge Booth.

In 1929 she won the lead in W.S. Van Dyke's MGM production of Trader Horn (released 1931), with Harry Carey and Duncan Renaldo, in which she played the mysterious "white goddess" who lived at the heart of the African jungle. Van Dyke took his company on location, a rarity in those days, to film in places in Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya, the Sudan and the Belgian Congo. Perhaps predictably, the shoot was beset by disaster: the cast and crew continually faced sunstroke, dysentery, insects and a variety of dangerous wild animals, from a crocodile which killed one of the grips, to an angry rhinoceros. Van Dyke got into a romantic rivalry with cinematographer Clyde de Vinna over a script clerk, and as if that didn't create tension on the set, Duncan Renaldo went ga-ga for Edwina -- a fact of heart by which Renaldo eventually ended up receiving divorce papers and, through a tip from his angry wife, landed in prison for falsifying statements in his U.S. passport application (he was eventually pardoned by Franklin Roosevelt for the passport problem).

Meanwhile, Miss Booth clearly got the worst of it. Returning to the U.S. with an obscure infection, she was bedridden for almost six years and never worked in movies again. For many years, it was rumored that she had died on location; she sued MGM, however, claiming that her illness was caused in part by Van Dyke's insistence that she sunbathe in the nude, and received an out-of-court settlement. Smarting over the complications of exotic location shoots for Trader Horn and Harry Gerson's unreleased White Captive (1929, with Dorothy Janis), Hollywood put a clamp on long-distance travel which lasted for decades.

In later years, Miss Woodruff/Booth worked at the Mormon Temple in Los Angeles; she died on May 18, 1991 in Los Angeles.



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