Friday, June 13, 2008

Law of the Tropics (Warners, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles and I got home I was already pretty dog-tired but I ended up running him another film: Law of the Tropics, which I’d stumbled on in the DVD collection wondering if I should bother recording the similarly titled Lady of the Tropics — and which turned out to be a 1941 Warners’ “B” that was an uncredited remake of Oil for the Lamps of China, with the setting moved from China to an unspecified South American country (probably Brazil), the oil changed to rubber, and Constance Bennett top-billed in the role of Joan Madison, a down-and-out woman who fled the U.S. because of a murder charge against her and ended up singing in a sleazy nightclub and looking over her shoulder for the detective who’s been sent down to Wherever, South America to apprehend her and bring her back for trial.

She sees a way out in the person of Jim Conway (Jeffrey Lynn), assistant manager of Station 3 of the King Rubber Company, who’s come to the coast city to meet his future wife — only said future wife, Laura, has sent him a telegram saying she’s had second thoughts and isn’t about to join him and live in a country she’s never been to and has no idea whether she could stand. Unwilling to face the teasing of his co-workers and the natives if he returns without a wife, he proposes a sexless marriage to Joan as long as she impersonates Laura and answers to that name. Meanwhile, the owner of the King Rubber Company, Alfred King, Sr. (Paul Harvey) has been concerned about the slow growth rate of production in this country and plans to solve the problem by sending his no-account son to take over Station 3 from the beloved old foreman who’s been running it for a quarter-century, Frank Davis (Hobart Bosworth).

For the most part Law of the Tropics is played for screwball comedy more than anything else, and it’s a real shock when something sad and dramatic happens (Davis, broken by the news that the boss has fired him and replaced him with the boss’s son, shoots himself) — an accidental disorientation almost as jarring as the intentional ones in Stay! There are a few shards of anti-corporatism (apparently these were more important in the original film and the Alice Tisdale Hobart novel on which it was based) but for the most part Law of the Tropics is agreeable light entertainment that nails the clichés but doesn’t really do anything dramatic with them — and the title makes no sense at all since the only “law” involved comes very much from outside the tropics.