Monday, February 6, 2012

The Road to Singapore (Warner Bros., 1931)

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

I picked a film from our backlog of TCM recordings called The Road to Singapore, not the 1940 musical with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope that kicked off the “Road” series (and is quite entertaining and funny even though the second one in the series, The Road to Zanzibar — the second and last one directed by frame-breaker Victor Schertzinger — is even better) but a 1931 Warners white-imperialists-in-the-tropics melodrama starring William Powell. He plays Hugh Dawltry (though spelled differently, the last name is pronounced the same as that of the Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, and the American Film Institute Catalog for some reason misspells the name as “Dawltrey”), who as the film opens is returning to his plantation on the Pacific island of Khota. The plantation is being foreclosed on — at least I thought that was the meaning of the sign on its front gate announcing an auction (and incidentally giving the correct spelling of Dawltry’s last name), though later on Hugh moves back onto the plantation and seemingly doesn’t have any trouble staying there (maybe he returned with enough money to get himself out of hock) — and Hugh is thrown out of the Gymkhana Club in absentia because he shamed the members by running off in the first place with another man’s wife.

This time he’s pursuing Philippa March (Doris Kenyon), wife of local doctor George March (Louis Calhern, two years before he played the principal bad guy, Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania, in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup), while George’s sister Rene (Marian Marsh) — “Renée” would be the usual form of that name for a woman — is pursuing Hugh. Worried that his sister is going to get mixed up with that rotter Hugh Dawltry, George insists that she accompany him as he goes out of town to treat a patient — only that leaves the field open for Hugh to seduce, or at least attempt to seduce, George’s wife Philippa. They end up … well, even in the relatively liberal “pre-Code” era of 1931, the filmmakers (director Alfred E. Green and writer J. Grubb Alexander, adapting a novel called Heat Wave by Denise Robins via a previous stage version by Roland Pertwee) can’t spell it out that they actually made it to the bedroom, but they might as well have because when George returns he naturally assumes they did, especially after he finds the note Hugh wrote Philippa inviting her over to his place. (The note is shown in three separate inserts at different stages of the film, reflecting its importance to the plot.) In the end, in a resolution that makes this (at least briefly) seem more like a movie from the second-wave feminist era of the 1970’s than the 1930’s, Philippa gets on a boat for Singapore (that’s the only “road” there we’re going to see!) and walks out on both her husband and her lover, and George confronts Hugh and tries to shoot him but can’t bring himself to do so. The End.

The Road to Singapore is a pretty silly and meaningless movie plot-wise, and Doris Kenyon and Marian Marsh look so much alike it’s almost impossible to figure out why William Powell’s character is attracted to one but not the other, but as Charles pointed out it’s a good example of how far Hollywood’s directors and writers could push the envelope of traditional morality as long as they twisted the story’s logic enough to remain in at least technical compliance with the Production Code. What’s more, it’s a stunningly atmospheric movie (and it was nice to see a good-quality print of something after having suffered through those scratched, grainy, washed-out things we’ve been downloading from!), beautifully photographed by Robert Kurrle (Gloria Swanson’s dissatisfaction with him during the making of her 1927 film Sadie Thompson, also a film about the Pacific Islands, is hard to understand from his great work here) and directed by Green with far more of a visual sense than he usually showed even though they probably went no further west than Catalina, Hollywood’s all-purpose stand-in for the South Pacific back then. The Road to Singapore is also one of those early sound films that didn’t have a background score; instead source music supposedly being played by native musicians is used to heighten certain scenes, much the way Hawai’ian music was used in the 1931 Charlie Chan film The Black Camel — pounding native drums add to the emotional power of the confrontations between the leads and one early scene features a native band playing some odd-looking plucked string instruments. A lot of this film actually gains from not being drenched in the big, expansive Hollywood scores that eventually became de rigueur in films like this!