erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1930s posts

Thursday May 16, 2019

Movie Review: The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s got a great premise—particularly for early 1930s Warner Bros.

A mild-mannered clerk, Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson), turns out to be a doppelganger for Public Enemy No. 1, Killer Mannion (also Edward G. Robinson), and antics ensue.

If Hollywood made it today, it would become a “worm turns” movie. That’s what I assumed this would be. Maybe Jones is mistaken for Mannion, or maybe Mannion threatens him and menaces his family and friends; and that’s when Jones finally develops courage and initiative and shows the world what he’s made of.

Well...

  • Jones is mistaken for Mannion
  • Mannion menaces his family and friends
  • The worm never turns, he just lucks out

This is particularly odd given that the female lead, Miss Clark (Jean Arthur), the gum-crackin’, wise-talkin’ gal in the office, thinks he’s more than a mild-mannered clerk. Later in the movie, she’ll tell the others in her office, “I always told you that rabbit had something.” Except he doesn’t. 

The police don’t come off well, either. A patron at a restaurant fingers Jones as Mannion, and cops show up and haul both him and Miss Clark away. They interrogate both. He’s nervous, she’s cracking wise. When they realize they’ve got the wrong man, and that they might keep getting the wrong man—i.e., others might finger Jones as Mannion—the D.A. (Arthur Byron) gives him a signed letter to show to any police officer, saying, in effect, “Don’t worry; this man isn’t Mannion. 

(Fingerprinting? No mention of it. Even though it had been around for decades. See: “Pudd’nhead Wilson” by Mark Twain.)

Of course, Mannion gets wind of the exculpatory letter and shows up at Jones’ apartment and takes it. Now he can move around town at his leisure—and in broad daylight, too.

Jones has also been writing columns for the local newspaper about his experiences; but now Mannion is dictating them. He’s telling his story, see? He also uses the letter/resemblance to get into local prison and murder a rival, “Slugs” Martin (Edward Brophy), who was ready to squeal on him. Then when Miss Clark visits Jones and figures out it’s Mannion, they nab her. To where? Both she and Jones’ aunt are locked up in the gang’s basement hideout, but we don’t find that out until the final reel. She just disappears from the film. Our best character.

How does Jones win? Luck. He shows up at the gang’s hideout, they think he’s Mannion, and when the real Mannion comes through the door he orders the gang to plug him. They do. They kill Mannion thinking it’s Jones. Then cops, etc.

Arthur is good, of course, but it’s Robinson’s movie. He plays ineffectual fine but it’s when he shows up as Mannion, with those dead, killer eyes staring at his doppelganger, that you realize just how good he is.

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Posted at 05:28 PM on May 16, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Monday May 13, 2019

Movie Review: Winner Take All (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s 66 minutes long, seems longer, and Cagney isn’t really Cagney in it. He’s dopier, his voice register lower. And his face? Ain’t pretty no more. That’s a key plot point, actually.

He plays Jimmy Kane, a middleweight boxer who begins the film on the outs. He’s been boozing and broading too much, so his manager, Pop Slavin (character actor Guy Kibbee, who made 18(!) movies that year, including five in which he played someone named “Pop”) sends him to recuperate at a ranch/hot springs in San Rosario, New Mexico. Kane doesn’t want to go. He’s a New York guy. But on the first night, he meets Peggy (Marian Nixon), a chirpy single mom, and her saccharine son, Dickie (Dickie Moore, a ’30s child star), and the three become inseparable. 

Mother and son are there for Dickie’s health, or something, and they’re about to get the boot unless someone coughs up $600. So Kane, though ordered to rest, fights a contender in Tijuana (then called “Tia Juana”) in a winner-take-all match. He wins, gets the dough, gives it to Peggy, tries to deflect credit. At this point, the boozing-and broading guy is nowhere in sight; he’s a hero. So much so I was wondering if he was being played—if Peggy and Dickie were grifters who bilked good-hearted souls. That might’ve made a better movie.

Instead, the Tia Juana fight demonstrates he’s back in the game, Pop sets up more fights, and he’s a contender and back in New York again.

Got that? For the first 15 minutes, the drama is “Can he get back to boxing?” And he does. So what’s the drama for the rest of the movie?

Well, he falls for a society dame, Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce).

And?

And that’s it.

At first she’s flirty and then isn’t. One moment she’s interested and then not at all. Half the time she looks at him with disgust. She tells him he might be handsome if not for his busted nose and cauliflower ear, so he gets plastic surgery and winds up looking like how Jimmy Cagney usually looks. But she’s disappointed in this, too. It takes the edge off him, she says—all the more because he becomes a “powder puff” boxer who turns down title fights to dance around with lesser talents to protect his pretty face. Even though it gets him nowhere with the society dame:

Now he lost all the things that made him colorful and different. He’s just ordinary now, like any other man. And one thing I can’t stand is bad grammar spoken through a perfect, Grecian nose.

You know how early Cagney was always slapping around women or pushing a grapefruit in their face? This one deserves it. And she gets away. Well, nearly.

What happens? He finally takes the title fight, hears mid-fight she’s about to board a cruise ship, so he finishes the champ off quickly to get to the ship on time, finds her with another man, decks that guy, kicks her in the can, then runs off the boat laughing like a schoolboy. He runs all the way back into the arms of Peggy—with his new busted nose. “Look out for the schnozzle,” he says, repeating a line he said after the Tia Juana fight; “it’s full a firecrackers.” 

The end.

Not good. Jimmy is stuck between two women, chirpy and bitchy, and too stupid to realize those are his only choices. There’s nobody to root for here. I don’t even know if I wanted him to win that final fight.

Virginia Bruce (born: Minneapolis, 1909) makes a great villain, though. You really do hate her.

Who do we root for? Pop maybe. Also the trainer, Rosebud, who is played by African-American actor Clarence Muse, and seems a real person rather than stereotype. My father interviewed him once in 1976, when Muse was 87 and visiting the Twin Cities. It’s a good read.

Hey, Kane and Rosebud. In the same movie. Coincidence?

For all that, we still get our racist moments. There’s a recurring bit where society folks are talking lofty world politics and Kane keeps bringing it back to the plebian. They express admiration for Russia’s five-year plan, for example, but Kane thinks they’re talking installment plans, which he thinks is a sucker’s game: “I pay cash for everything.” They also talk the rumblings of the second Sino-Japanese war, and when they mention how the Japanese are real fighters Kane takes umbrage. He calls them “brown babies” and says they have trouble with punches to the gut. “Can’t take it downstairs,” he says. 

We get some good bits. Kane takes Joan dancing, she’s wearing a fancy, backless dress and he puts his hand on her upper, naked back—then looks confused. He moves it down. Still skin. Then further. Finally he looks around to see where the clothing starts again: “You had me worried for a minute.”

I also like Pop telling post-surgery Jimmy he’s getting the “high hat.” The Coens knew what they were doing in “Miller’s Crossing.”

But the movie that’s truly prefigured is “Rocky II.” In that Tia Juana fight, both boxers are going at it pretty good. Then they both land a blow and both go down, but it’s Jimmy who claws his way back up before the 10 count to win. Is this where Sylvester Stallone got the idea for the climactic ending of “Rocky II”?

SLIDESHOW


  • The opening. Cagney's the lead but not by much. He's the main player among the players; he doesn't even get his own title card.

  • The “Tia Juana” fight, and the double blow that fells both boxers. 

  • Our man wins. “Rocky II” anyone? See video here

  • Kane/Cagney leaves for other fights, promising to write the girl and the boy; but he's got a short memory. Nice shot here by Roy Del Ruth. 

  • High society. Despite all looks, it's the woman on the right that's the problem. 

  • Or you could say Cagney is. He gets plastic surgey to please her, then worries about losing his looks. 

  • As a result, pilloried in the press. 

  • And ringside. 

  • Another boo bird. 

  • This series of shots is my favorite part of the movie. 

  • “The high hat.” *FIN*
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Posted at 07:28 AM on May 13, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Thursday May 09, 2019

Movie Review: Shanghai (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Loretta Young falls in love with a Chinese man! Wow. What a forward-looking movie by Paramount.

OK, so the Chinese man is half Chinese.

OK, so he’s played by French actor Charles Boyer, the great romantic lead of the time.

Who sounds French. And looks French.

Movie review: Shanghai with Loretta Young and Charles BoyerAnd the Chinese themselves think their relationship is a bad idea. (So it’s not just us.)

OK, so “the Chinese,” in this instance, is Ambassador Lun Sing, who is played by Hollywood’s go-to Chinese star of the 1930s, Warner Oland, who is, of course, Swedish.

And though set in bustling Shanghai, we hardly meet anyone who's Chinese. Keye Luke and Willie Fung are given perfunctory scenes, but overall “Shanghai” is a drawing-room melodrama created by white writers (C. Graham Baker, Lynn Starling, and Gene Towne), a white director (James Flood) and a white producer (Walter Wanger), whose main message is that hopefully someday prejudice will die.

Got it.

Crossed strains
Sorry. Easy to poke fun 80 years later. The filmmakers were well-meaning people who were dealing with the prejudices of the day, and a production code that forbade “miscegenation,” while still trying to sell wish-fulfillment fantasy to the masses. So ... this. 

New York socialite Barbara Howard (Loretta Young) travels by ship to Shanghai because her Aunt Jane (Alison Skipworth) is ill; but it’s all a ruse. Aunt Jane is worried Barbara is too much in the gossip rags and wants to save the family name; but Barbara is feisty and about to take the next steamer back when she meets Dimitri Koslov (Charles Boyer), a banker.

She’d met him once before. Or eyed him. When she first arrives, he’s among the rickshaw drivers crowding the gangplank begging for work. So how did he become a banker so quickly? Connections. 关系。Also, he’d been a banker. Then he starts his own financial advisory business. In a flash, he’s the talk of Shanghai. Plus he’s with Loretta Young. Not a bad deal.

Until Ambassador Lun Sing obliquely reminds him of his place.

Lun Sing: In Shanghai, one may defy all the conventions but one. It matters not how noble the strains, if they have been crossed—as yours have been—a man becomes an outcast. You are in grave danger, my son. Your features are those of your father. It would have been better for you had your saintly mother predominated. Even I must sometimes remind myself that you came from her. Many women of your father's race will love you. That you cannot prevent. But you can, you must, keep yourself from loving them. [Sips his tea] I often say, next to myself, no one in Shanghai serves such tea as Dimitri Koslov.
Koslov: Clever tea makers—we Chinese.

“Crossed strains”: Don’t hear that much anymore.

For a time, as his fortunes rise, Koslov heeds Lun Sing and avoids Barbara. She keeps phoning, generally lounging on a chaise, but he’s never available. Finally she just shows up. He’s distant, and she assumes he’s interested in power, since he’s not interested in her. But just before Lun Sing walks in, they kiss and she melts.

Now the question becomes: How will she take it once she finds out? Koslov has confidence; Lun Sing is not so sure. Also, how to tell her? Quietly? Privately? Just the two of them?

Of course not. Koslov throws a costume party and wears his rickshaw outfit. Barbara comes dressed in the same outfit that the Chinese princess wears in the giant painting on his wall. And before a large crowd of well-wishers, he thanks the two women to whom he owes his success: Barbara, and, indicating the painting, “my beloved mother.”

Everyone resists letting that other shoe drop.

Aunt: Your mother, Mr. Koslov? But she is a ...
Koslov: A Manchurian princess, who condescended to marry my distinguished father, who was only a Russian general.

Amid murmurs, people slowly drift away. Aunt Jane doesn’t murmur at all; she calls loudly for Barbara, who holds her drink and stares sadly at Koslov. She takes a sip and stares again. Then she sets down the drink and walks away. 

End scene.

Guess what? In 10 minutes, this will be the good family.

Apocalypse Now Predux
Koslov leaves Shanghai and Barbara decides to go look for him—she loves him even with the crossed strains. Her younger brother Tommy backs her. So does their black servant, Coretta (Libby Taylor), who is going along because she knows Mandarin. It’s the older generation that’s the problem. Except ... Aunt Jane gives Barbara her mink coat to keep her warm. She’s suddenly cool with it, too? Yep. And that’s how they become the good family. That’s how Hollywood pats itself (and us) on the back. We’re OK, they’re awful.

Chartering a boat up the river, Barbara witnesses backbreaking Chinese laborers with sad eyes in very expensive outfits. At one point they refuse to go further so she surrenders her mink. Eventually she reaches Koslov. She wants to make it work now, and this is her argument: “Should I hate the man I love because he falls ill or becomes a cripple or goes blind?” Imagine the metaphors if he’d been 100 percent Chinese.

Even so, they plan to get married ... until back in Shanghai, Lun Sing tells Koslov he’s financially ruined. He also tells Koslov the real lesson of his parents:

The world beat them down—humiliation, poverty, despair for them both. For your mother, death.  ... She killed herself. Those who commit folly must someday pay for it.

Emphasis mine.

Anyway that’s why they call it off, to not commit such folly, and it leads to our end: the intertwined lovers, cheeks pressed against each other, agreeing not to go on, because the world is just too awful.

What was the world’s reaction to “Shanghai”? I couldn’t find much. One wonders if it even played in the South. The New York Times praised Boyer for displaying “the twin virtues of restraint and understatement” but felt the film simply wandered to its conclusion, which the reviewer, like Lun Sing, felt was inevitably “a tragic one.”

To which our Chinese hero might add: Mais bien sur.

“Someday, darling, the world won't be as awful as I was when I first found out.”

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Posted at 07:27 AM on May 09, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Tuesday May 07, 2019

Movie Review: Taxi (1932)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It begins great. No fanfare, just right to it. We got a shot of New York City in the early 1930s with an absolutely gorgeous Loews Theater in the background. Then we get the stars’ names: 

featuring
James Cagney
and
Loretta Young

It’s so New York. A Jewish man is trying to explain his dilemma in Yiddish to an Irish cop. Something about kinder and Ellis Island. I assume meeting kids at Ellis Island? The cop’s not understanding, scratching his head, so Matt Dolan (Cagney), a cabbie who’s been listening amused to the whole back-and-forth, speaks to the Jewish man in Yiddish. (Apparently Cagney was fluent.) Guy gets into the cab while the cop eyes Cagney’s driver’s license on the dashboard:

Cop: [Sarcastic] Nolan? What part of Ireland did your folks come from?
Nolan: [Yiddish accent] Delancey Street, tenk you.

Then the plot. We’ve already seen a cab company, Consolidated, muscling out other independent and freelance cabbies. They try to do the same to Nolan, boxing him in so he can’t take the guy to Ellis Island. So he gets out of his cab, and with that dancer’s lightness Cagney always had, punches one mug, then the other. The Yiddish man cheers him on. 

Temper temper
We think that’s the story: Cagney and the other indies vs. Consolidated. Indeed, one of the indies, nice guy Pop Riley (Guy Kibbee), who’s been servicing the same neighborhood for years, is threatened by Consolidated’s leader, Buck Gerard (David Landau). Pop is obviously frightened but stands his ground. Then one of Landau’s men (Nat Pendleton, who played Goliath the strong man in the Marx Bros.’ “At the Circus”), rams his truck into Pop’s cab, totaling it. In a scuffle, Pop shoots him dead. The judge is lenient, given the circumstance, but Pop still gets 10 years. He serves hardly any of it. He kills himself.

Since his daughter, Sue Riley, is played by the film’s other star, Loretta Young, we figure, “Yes, that’s the story: these two battle the Consolidated bad guys and win the day for the independents.” Hell, IMDb still thinks that’s the story:

Independent cab drivers struggling against a taxi company consortium find a leader in Matt Nolan.

But that’s not the story. 

Dolan is giving a fiery speech to other indies when he has Sue step up to speak in Pop’s stead. And she ... counsels peace. She says enough blood has been shed. She says work out a deal with Consolidated.

And they do! Fifteen minutes into the picture, we get this headline:

Dolan isn’t having any of it. “Yeah?” he says to his fellow cabbies. “How long is that peace gonna last? Six months. And then they start getting tough again. ... We shoulda done the job right in the first place—drove their cabs right into the East River.”

Except he’s wrong: The peace lasts the entire movie. The cabbie war is never brought up again. 

So if the movie isn’t about independent cabbies fighting against a corrupt behemoth, what’s it about?

It’s about how Cagney needs to control his temper. I’m not kidding.

Dolan is totally pissed at Sue for brokering the peace. The next night, when he meets her outside her stoop and they squabble, he says, “I’ll knock the ears off ya.” Instead, she slaps him, runs inside, while he tells his friends, “I wouldn’t go out with that dame if she was the last woman on earth—and I just got out of the Navy.”

But in the very next scene, with no real exposition on what changed, they’re cozy and on a double date with his friend Skeets (George E. Stone) and her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett—the Julie Kavner of the 1930s). There’s a rocky courtship, then they get engaged, then married, and on their wedding night, at “The Cotton-Pickin’ Club” in Harlem, they—and Skeets and Ruby—run into Buck Gerard. He’s drunk. His girl, Marie (Dorothy Burgess), talks Sue into getting Dolan out of the joint before things go south. Sue agrees. But things go south. Gerard makes a sloppy drunken comment about Sue, Dolan decks him, and Gerard comes at him with a knife ... just as Matt’s brother, Danny (Ray Cooke), comes between them. He dies.

And Sue still counsels peace. She actually helps Gerard. He’s on the lam, Marie asks for dough to get him out of the area, and Sue gives it to her. And it’s the money Matt had saved for Danny’s tombstone! Wow.

Matt finds out anyway, there’s a mad rush to Jersey where Gerard is holed up, and Cagney nearly utters the line that every impressionist/comedian/kid used for the next 50 years to do their Cagney:

Come out and take it, you dirty yella-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to ya through the door!

But the cops arrive and Sue gives up ... Matt. Her husband. Wow again. Except Matt still plugs the closet door. By then, though, Gerard had scrambled out the window and fell to his death. That's that. And in the final minutes of this 66-minute movie, Matt and Sue make up. They don’t change but they’re back together. World without end.

One of these days, Alice
Anyway, I loved all this stuff. I loved the meandering nature of the film. I loved that Donald Cook, Cagney’s co-star in “Public Enemy,” is the star of the fictional film they see on their double date, and that Dolan dismisses him with the movie studio comment, “His ears are too big.” I loved the George Raft cameo (Cagney got him the part; he wasn’t a star yet) and the Lil Dagover reference (I had to look her up).

I loved the pre-code naughtiness: Loretta Young stripping down to her slip to change into her waitress costume, while Leila Bennett drones on in front of an ALL EMPLOYEES MUST WASH THEIR HANDS sign—meaning those things have been around for at least 90 years. I loved Skeets watching Sue run up the steps of her stoop and saying, almost with a Groucho cadence, “Anyway, she’s got a nice pair of pins.”

Bennett has some of the movie’s best lines:

  • I wish I could meet some big Spaniard with a lot of money.
  • You know, I'm getting to the point where I ain’t as particular as I used to be. I’ll marry any guy that's got a collar and shirt, and if it comes to a pinch, marry him without the shirt.
  • [to Skeets] C’mon, I feel like bein' bored, and you can do the job better than anyone I know. 

Watching, I began thinking about the difference between Warner’s big stars of the ’30s and ‘40s: Cagney and Bogie.

Bogart was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could break his heart. Cagney was the toughest guy in the room but a woman could ... nothing. He mostly looked at them with lust; and once they were no longer of us, he’d just as soon mash a grapefruit in their face. The sensation that scene caused in “Public Enemy” meant it had to be repeated throughout his early films. Here, for example, he keeps threatening Loretta Young with a fist under the chin and the line, “If I thought you meant that...” It’s his catchphrase. It’s “One of these days, Alice” 20 years before Gleason. 

Directed by Roy Del Ruth, from “The Blind Spot,” a play by Kenyon Nicholson, “Taxi” is raw. They still don’t have this stuff down—they’re just throwing things up and seeing what sticks. I think that’s why I like it so much. It’s Hollywood, and the movies, becoming.

SLIDESHOW


  • This is the open: Right into it. And look at that theater! According to cinematreasures.org, it was part of a blockwide amusement center in midtown Manhattan created by Oscar Hammerstein in 1895, then broken into parts. Marcus Loew bought two of them and that's this. New movies showed daily, or thrice-weekly, at 10-15 cents a pop, from 1915 to 1935; then it was torn down in favor of a newer theater, the Criterion. Now it's a Gap. That's both fact and metaphor. 

  • Cagney talking Yiddish—half mensch, half gonif. 

  • The girl. She loses a kindly father, gains a quick-tempered husband, counsels peace throughout. 

  • She also loses her clothes periodically. This was before Hollywood had a code. Or before the code had teeth.  

  • Bennett—the Julie Kavner of the 1930s. 

  • The faux film. In a faux theater? Did the Winter Garden ever show movies? Randy?

  • Cagney loses the dance but wins the fight. “You dirty Raft...”

  • The ride home. Great shot. Tells its own story. 

  • Getting the marriage license. “We‘re not saying marriage is a prison, but ...”  

  • Wedding night: Enjoying the show at the “Cotton Pickin’ Club” in Harlem.

  • Was Loretta Young ever lovelier? She needed to play working class more often. 

  • “If I thought you meant that...” It's Cagney's “to the moon, Alice!” Odd seeing today. Cf., Louis CK's riff on “wife beater” T-shirts

  • But it all works out in the end.  

  • Kinda. “Honey, I know he killed my father and your brother. But you've got to learn to control that temper!” *FIN*
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Posted at 08:08 AM on May 07, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Saturday May 04, 2019

Movie Review: Oil for the Lamps of China (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Remember Boxer, the strong, dedicated horse from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” who, despite all evidence, never loses faith in Comrade Napoleon and the other pig leaders, and who, after years of service, finally collapses, sick, and instead of being nursed he’s tossed away—sold to a horse slaughterer and glue boiler? That betrayal and off-screen death traumatized me as a kid; it haunts me to this day. 

Well, imagine a movie in which a capitalist version of Boxer never loses faith in the company he works for—despite all evidence—until a final betrayal. Then, unbeknownst, his wife stands up for him, gets him the job he deserves, and restores his faith:

He: You see, honey? The company does take care of its own.
She (hugs him happily): Yes, dear.

Those are the last lines of “Oil for the Lamps of China,” a 1935 Warner Bros./Cosmopolitan production starring Pat O’Brien, which was based on a 1933 bestseller by Alice Tisdale Hobart.

Basically our hero is a Boxer for whom the scales never fall.

That’s pretty fucked up. 

Boxer rebellion
Oil for the Lamps of China movie reviewThe movie, sadly, isn’t good. It’s a soap opera: melodramatic and episodic. I could imagine it being made into a miniseries in the 1980s starring Richard Chamberlain.

That said, you get a real sense of Hollywood’s respect for books and literature in the early days of sound. The transition between episodes is pages turning in a book—Hobart’s book—while the poster is not only dominated by Hobart’s novel but include Hobart’s name on the spine. The stars aren’t even mentioned.

If the movie feels like a warped, capitalist precursor to “Animal Farm,” it begins with a kind of warped, capitalist precursor to Chaplin’s dance with the globe in “Great Dictator.” Here, in town hall setting, around a giant globe, an oil company executive with a professorial pointer lectures his new recruits:

Gentlemen, these are the last words I will address to you. Attend them well and remember them long. The company is sending you out to China to dispel the darkness of centuries with the light of a new era. Oil for the lamps of China, gentlemen. American oil. Helping to build a great corporation, helping to expand the frontier of civilization, is a great ideal, gentlemen. The ideal of a man.

You will have hardships. You will encounter dangers. And you will be thwarted time and time again by foreign traditions and the logic of the Orient. But you have the youth, the vision and the courage to follow that ideal with the unfounded faith of Galahads going into a strange land. And believe me, gentlemen, you may work, believe, and live knowing the company always takes care of its own.

As it transitions, those words echo in the ear of idealistic engineer Stephen Chase (Pat O’Brien): ...the company always takes care of its own. So we know where this is going.

Chase is sent to Manchuria, windswept and dusty, where, along with his other work, he comes up with an idea for an oil lamp that will be longer lasting for the consumer and good for the company (it will use the company's oil). Then he goes to Japan to meet his bride, who’s arriving from the states via Honolulu. Instead, he gets a Dear John telegram. The first betrayal is a woman.

This leads to the oddest part of the movie. He meets Hester Adams (Josephine Hutchinson), thoughtful with a far-off look, and his earnestness and loneliness convinces her to go to dinner with him. She, too, has been abandoned—or something. Long story short: Because he’ll lose face if he doesn’t bring back a bride, she agrees to go with him as that bride. Why? Everyone has to have faith in something, she says: for men it’s a job and for women it’s a man. “I don’t need love because I’ve never had it,” she says, “I have faith in you because you have faith in something. What that something is doesn’t matter. I think I can be useful and happy with you.”

That's pretty fucked up. 

At first they’re pretending to be in love; then they’re not; then she gets pregnant. Are they married? I’m kind of shocked the Hays Office allowed this.

We also get the first in a series of company betrayals. Ten thousand versions of the lamp Chase invented are being shipped to China. Yay! Except now they’re called the “Haley Lamp,” after the station chief in Shanghai, who took credit. Meanwhile, Steve’s kindly boss (Arthur Byron, the judge in “The Mayor of Hell”), who is two years from retirement, is being sent to “the tanks,” a demotion. Everyone is upset but he continues to defend the company ... right up until the point when he kills himself. A self-immolating Boxer.

That's pretty fucked up. 

He’s replaced by an asshole, McCarger (Donald Crisp), who sends Stephen to the tanks. There, he’s given a kind of Sophie’s Choice: stay with his wife giving birth or drive to the tanks, which are on fire, to save the town and the oil and everything. He opts for the latter, the child dies (“I needed you,” the doc tells him plaintively), and the company chastises him for acting without orders. More, Hester is cold-eyed and unforgiving. “What kind of man are you?” she demands. Until, like a light switch, she returns to her old self. “My ambition, my emotions, mustn’t be mine—but yours,” she says.

That's ... Yeah, you get the idea. 

Onto Chow Yang, where, as station chief, he goes through a series of crises.

  • The former head man there, Don (John Eldredge), feels like he’s been passed over, so Steve has to mollify him
  • Then he has to mollify the local bigwig, Ho (Tetus Komai), because Don was a jerk to him
  • This makes Don mad, since he feels you should never stand up for the Chinese in front of a white man; but Don and Steve become friends
  • Then there’s drought, and Don’s boy nearly dies of cholera
  • Then local businessmen won’t work with the company unless Steve fires Don
  • Then there’s a communist revolt, and ransom demands come from a communist officer (Keye Luke) 

As chaos reigns (apparently based on the Nanking Incident of 1927), Steve manages to get company workers to safety even as he’s shot. He wakes up in a hospital, where, from the main office, Hartford (Henry O’Neill) greets him and promises him a promotion. Nope. His old pal Bill Kendall gets the job instead because, as he explains, “You think more like a Chinaman than a white man.” They demote him to clerk. They’re trying to force him out. 

He’s trying to hang on when Hester leaps into action. She goes to Hartford, mentions her husband’s service, and the oil lamp he invented but never got credit for. Then she says Stephen still holds a patent on it. That gets the company’s attention. So Chase gets the job he deserves, and we get our cynical, happy ending: “You see, honey? The company does take care of its own.”

Yes, dear.

Taking care of its own
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy (“Quo Vadis,” “Mister Roberts,” “No Time for Sergeants”), “Oil Lamps” has a chance to be a good cynical movie about American multinationals in the first part of the 20th century; but it’s just too odd (the way he meets Hester) and melodramatic (the Sophie’s choices he’s given). More, since he remains a company man despite the countless company betrayals, we get frustrated with him. Bored with him, too. We want to slap sense into him.

If you’re curious about Hobart: She lived in China for 16 years with her husband, who worked for Standard Oil. They left after the 1927 Nanking Incident because they felt, as she said in a 1951 Times interview, “that it was only the beginning of the trouble.” In her lifetime, she sold 4 million books, which were translated into 12 languages, and died in Oakland in 1967, age 85.

Laird Doyle, the man who adapted her novel for the screen, had a quicker end. In three years, from 1934 to 1936, 15 of his screenplays for Warner Bros. were made into movies, and three more in ’37. He died in November 1936, age 29. I can’t find the causes. But I’m sure it wasn’t overwork. I’m sure the company took care of its own.

SLIDESHOW


  • Someone in marketing didn't get the message. The movie may take place in China but its stars were white, not white actors in yellowface.

  • Pat O‘Brien plays the man who believes in that company; Josephine Hutchinson plays the woman who believes in the man. 

  • Except the company keeps screwing over the man. 

  • At least they got the Chinese correct. It’s right to left, and the last three characters are “oil company,” while the first is “an”: calm, peace. So maybe the first three characters are an attempt to sound out “Atlantis,” the name of the oil company? Anyone? 

  • We gome nice period shots of Shanghai. 

  • Along with what I assume is a Hollywood back lot. 

  • Seattle's own Keye Luke, the first on-screen Kato, playing the communist officer shaking down our company man. 

  • Still believing, against all facts and common sense. 

  • “Yes, dear.” *FIN*
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Posted at 08:35 AM on May 04, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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