Sunday, February 19, 2012

Exiled to Shanghai (Republic, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the movie Exiled to Shanghai, a 1937 Republic “B” shown in a cut-down TV version from the 1950’s (53 minutes’ running time instead of the original 65) and with a reshot opening title for TV — ironic since the plot of the film is about TV, more or less. Ted Young (Wallace Ford) is a correspondent for the Worldwide Newsreel company, which is feeling the pressure of competition from wire photos as well as radio — both of which can cover the news faster than the newsreels can — when he’s assigned by his former cameraman Charlie Sears (Dean Jagger), who’s now his editor, to cover a million-dollar sweepstakes winner who’s taking a train to New York City. Only he shoots the wrong girl, Nancy Jones (the personable June Travis), who was on her way to New York after winning a contest, but a considerably less lucrative one sponsored by the Supreme Television Company, which picked her slogan, “Television: The Eyes and Ears of the World.” Fired from the newsreel company for his mistake, Ted decides to promote a TV newsreel and gets Supreme to back it (after a montage of the heads of all the other TV startups in New York shaking their heads at him), only unbeknownst to him the head of Supreme, Grant Powell (William Harrigan, who played Kemp in The Invisible Man), is a crook whose only interest in “TV newsreel” is to get buzz so he can raise his company’s stock price, then dump his own shares at the peak of the market and flee the country with his ill-gotten gains before the share price collapses again.

Ted catches on to the scheme when he’s assigned to cover the landing of a dirigible as his first TV newsreel story, and the shots they air show the dirigible landing perfectly while in fact it crashed and burned (needless to say, stock shots of the real crash and burn of the dirigible Hindenburg are used here — oh, the humanity! — making this a movie of Hindenburg ex machina); what was being shown on the “TV newsreel” was in fact a stock shot of a dirigible landing successfully from the previous year. Ted had previously interested his old company, Worldwide Newsreel, to provide footage for the TV newsreel, and had improvised an explanation for a reporter of how the TV waves could get across the Rocky Mountains, and now he finds himself blamed for the scam, arrested (he cornered Powell and started a fight to recover the money Powell was about to abscond with, but the police assumed they were both in on the scam and arrested both of them!), and though he’s ultimately exonerated he has to beg for his old Worldwide job back, while Charlie gets an assignment to cover the civil war in China. Ted gets Charlie drunk and has him arrested for dropping a bottle out of a tall building, then takes the plane to Shanghai (the film finally mentions the titular city with just about 10 minutes left to go!), only to bail out of it again when he sees Nancy’s train below, so they’re reunited.

Directed by Nick Grinde (who’d formerly worked at the major studios with the accent on his last name, “Grindé,” still attached, but was now pretty much a creature of the “B”’s for Republic and later Columbia, where he made three of the Boris Karloff mad-scientist films) and produced by Armand Schaefer from an “original” screenplay by Wellyn Totman that seems sometimes to sink under the weight of how many clichés Totman tried to cram into it, Exiled to Shanghai (shot under the working titles Crashing the Front Page and News in the Air, either of which would have given a far better idea of what the film was about) at first seems like it’s going to set up one of those best/worst comparisons I like to make (“Let’s see, at the top of films about the newsreel business there’s Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman … and at the bottom there’s Exiled to Shanghai”), but this film gets better as it progresses even though Wallace Ford is clearly modeling his performance on Lee Tracy’s in similar roles and he gets just as annoying as the actor he’s copying.