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The Road to Singapore

Dullsville

Road to Singapore (1931)

     Before you get ahead of yourself I must warn that this is not a post about the Bing CrosbyBob Hope road movie. This unsavory William Powell romance has nothing to do with the string of movies that all but trademarked the title “Road to …” . This flick came nine years prior to the comedic film of the same name that was the first in the duo’s series. If you find yourself inadvertently watching this movie, you’re sure to be displeased as not only does this Road to Singapore lack laughs, but it might be the least desirable character Powell has played.

     On the boat to British-occupied Khota, a drunken Powell as Hugh Dawltry has been attempting to court Phillipa (Doris Kenyon) not knowing her travels are driven by a pending marriage to a doctor at the tropical locale, George March, played by a young Louis Calhern. Upon departure from the vessel, Dawltry escorts the young woman to what she thinks is her fiancée’s home only to discover she has actually been lured to the man’s own home. She resists his advances at this point and never tells her husband of it.

     As the story goes along, Phillipa and George are married and live with George’s younger sister Rene (Marian Marsh). George hates Dawltry because gossip continues about how he broke up another woman’s marriage and the man is a notorious philanderer. Rene is openly fascinated by the man but Phillipa hides her growing interest. When both George and Rene are scheduled to leave town to deliver a patient, Phillipa accepts an invitation to Dawltry’s home where the two seemingly copulate. The patient, however, dies before the ship leaves, so George returns home to find his wife missing and a note from her lover on the dresser.

     We are meant to feel pity for Phillipa and her unhappy marriage to a man who is far more interested in his career than his wife. The trouble is, Powell does not come off as the dashing answer to the woman’s woes. He is dishonest and offers no indication he will supply the love Phillipa’s life lacks, merely the passion. The ending gets a bit confusing as Dawltry is both confessing and denying his involvement in the notorious case of the other woman’s divorce. We cannot determine from either character’s emotions if they will flee together or if one or the other is not that interested. This therefore makes the ending not terribly satisfying as we think neither person is really that into the relationship.

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20,000 Years in Sing Sing

Gasser

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

     The year was 1932. The Production Code was only starting to strangle the contents of films, Bette Davis was still sporting the platinum blonde look and playing sleazy roles, and Spencer Tracy was kind of young-looking. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was one of those films that like many of those to come under the iron fist of the Code would have no choice but to punish the criminal, no matter how likeable he was.

     I learned about this code restriction from reading about the struggles Alfred Hitchcock had with several of his films. He often wanted villains or anti-heroes to get of scott free, but the big wigs in the Hayes Office required those who commit a serious crime to be punished for it, whether through the penal system or via suicide. For that reason, several Hitchcock bad guys kill themselves or get a comeuppance the director would rather have avoided.

     In 20,000 Years in Sing Sing we have a criminal serving his time, but he ultimately pays a mortal price for another crime he did not commit. As Tommy Connors, Tracy is some sort of hoodlum with pull in New York, but when he moves into Sing Sing for armed robbery, he is surprised to find his lawyer Joe Finn (Louis Calhern) is unable to secure either a release or at least a comfy stay. When issued an oversized uniform, Connors gets riled and starts throwing his fists around. The warden (Arthur Byron) agrees to let him off on the uniform requirement, allows him to wander around in long underwear, then assigns him to the ice house.

     When a small group of inmates plan an escape, Connors is all for it until he realizes the bust will go down on a Saturday –his jinx. He backs out at the last minute and the plan goes awry, resulting in two dead inmates and one who eventually gets the chair. The warden knows Connors had the option of trying for the escape and their relationship improves knowing he opted not to.

     Throughout his time in prison –a stint of five to 30 years– Connors has been visited by his girlfriend Fay, played by Davis. She has been allowing the lawyer to flirt with her in the hopes she can motivate him to get Connors set free. Fay and lawyer Finn get into a bad car accident and the girl thinks she is going to die. The warden learns of this and allows Connors to go see her provided he return to the prison that night. Connors has every intention of doing so until he runs into Finn at Fay’s place and the two get into a tussle. Fay shoots Finn from her bed but Connors absconds with the weapon. The incident might not have been a problem had not a curious cop been following Connors and heard the whole thing. It takes a couple weeks, but Connors does return to prison, stands trial and is convicted of the crime.

     Tracy gives a great performance. He had a wide range of personalities he could play and did a great job of presenting the tough guy with enough sense to know when to stop fighting. His character undergoes a bit of a transformation away from the arrogance the outside world laid upon him and toward the humble status of an every man no better than the next. Davis, too, gives a swell portrayal of a loyal girlfriend truly in love with her inmate beau. Never have I seen so much smooching in a film from this era. The character was not one we would see Davis play starting a few years hence, but she certainly proves there was no role she could not master.

  • 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is set for 12:45 p.m. ET Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

Cinematic Shorts: High Society

Wowza!

High Society (1956)

     I have always considered myself a fan of musicals, but in recent years I have discovered I am a bit choosy on that front. For instance, I cannot stand The Sound of Music or South Pacific and was fairly bored with The King and I. If Kathryn Grayson is singing in a picture, forget it. I really enjoyed Show Boat, but I literally fast-forwarded through her songs.

     High Society, however, was the perfect combination of elements for me. Not only does it feature some of my favorite singer-actors, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but offers Cole Porter songs (my favorite songwriter) and the glorious Grace Kelly in her final role before becoming Princess Grace and in her only on-screen singing spot. Add in Louis Armstrong as himself, and this had no choice but to be a favorite.

     The story is a musical version of The Philadelphia Story that transplants the action to Newport News, New Jersey. The dialogue is identical in many cases, yet the roles seem to fit the respective actors perfectly. I understand that many people will side with Philadelphia Story when presented with this adaptation, but I saw High Society first, so I am biased. I definitely enjoy the original that transformed Katharine Hepburn from box office poison to gold, but why not go for the version with songs?

"Well did you eva?"

  • High Society is set for 6 p.m. ET Nov. 21 on TCM
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