Today is Monday, and I’m going to begin this week with a 100 New Code Films article. In all but four weeks of 2020, I will write two articles in this series. Each article is a review of an American Breen Era (1934-1954) film which I have seen for the first time recently. I call these movies “new Code films.” I usually wait to write my first review of the week until Friday or Saturday, but I am publishing it early this week because it corresponds with a blogathon.
Today’s topic is Malaya from 1949. This film has been on our Amazon Prime Watchlist for a month or two, so I decided that it would be a good choice for my second entry in this year’s Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon. The cast of Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Lionel Barrymore sounded excellent. I decided I had to watch my Spencer Tracy film for the blogathon with dinner last night so that I could write my review today. I considered changing my topic at the last minute, since I wasn’t sure my family would want to watch a war film. However, after considering a couple of other Spencer Tracy films, we decided that this sounded the best and watched it.
A poor newspaperman returns to the United States soon after the beginning of World War II. He has had an eventful and slightly dishonest career all over the world, leading him to be thrown out of multiple countries. Now, an old editor friend of his in San Francisco summoned him for a special purpose. Wars are won on rubber, and he is in charge of local rubber drives. He wants the keen newsman’s help, but the cynic doesn’t want to just write simple copy to encourage people to recycle rubber scraps. He tells the editor that he thinks the United States should get rubber directly from where it is produced, Malaya. The editor is shocked by this statement, since the jungle island is occupied by the Japanese. However, he quickly acts on this hint, getting the government involved. Uncle Sam likes the idea so much that the FBI and rubber experts quickly get involved. The newspaperman tells his plan, which would involve another man and himself smuggling rubber out of Malaya in exchange for American gold. It would be difficult, but it could be done if he had the help of a friend of his, who happens to be in Alcatraz right now. The savvy smuggler is released from prison, and the two men head to Malaya. There, they find themselves in a tropical web of interesting characters, include a wise saloon keeper, a beautiful Italian singer, a powerful Japanese general, and a lot of useful brave “riff raff.”
This movie stars Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, and Valentine Cortese (credited as Cortesa). Supporting actors include Sydney Greenstreet, John Hodiak, Lionel Barrymore, Gilbert Roland, and Richard Loo.
This movie was directed by Richard Thorpe. It was produced by Edwin H. Knopf. The production company was MGM. The screenplay was written by Frank Fenton, based on a story by Manchester Boddy about his plan to get rubber out of Malaya. Lionel Barrymore’s character, John Manchester, was based on Mr. Boddy himself.
This is a perfect Code film. This film deserves this classification because of its excellent handling of difficult topics, its patriotic message, and its glorification of selfless bravery. The theme of an adventurous if unscrupulous newspaperman (James Stewart) and a cocky smuggler (Spencer Tracy) risking their own safety to help their country’s war effort is a very inspiring one. Mind you, they both begin the adventure for different reasons. John Royer (Stewart) wants to do it in memory of his brother, who was killed in the war; it also is his tribute to serving the ideals his mother taught him. Carnahan (Tracy) gladly accepts the assignment simply to get out of prison; once released, he looks forward to the excitement of Malaya and the chance to see his Italian sweetheart there, Luana (Valentina Cortese). There are other very difficult elements, such as a lot of conflicts and fighting, which could have been very violent. However, it is handled properly. Ultimately, this film reminds the audience that the only things which are worth doing in this life are things which help others or serve a good cause.
I highly recommend this film. It is a war film as well as a tropical adventure story. It also is a tale about smuggling. This is a very male-dominated story; Valentina Cortese is the only credited female, and only a few other women are seen as extras. However, this feels natural in a story about such danger. Each actor is perfectly cast in his part. Spencer Tracy gets a whole section for his excellent performance. James Stewart carries the opening minutes of the film, which focus on the self-centered, cavalier Royer. However, once he gets involved with the patriotic plan to harvest rubber, he is extremely devoted to the cause. Unlike Carnahan, who is also looking out for himself and is hoping for personal gain, he is willing to put himself in great danger to accomplish this goal and defeat the enemy. Sydney Greenstreet makes his final film appearance as The Dutchman, a saloon keeper who is all-wise and willing to help the Americans even as he remains friends with the local Japanese soldiers. His pet parrot is also a very important supporting character, his moronic laugh being very memorable. Valentine Cortese is an Italian actress with whom I was not previously familiar, since she only made a few American films. However, she is very compelling in the role of Luana, the beautiful young Italian girl who is deeply in love with the worldly wise smuggler. Their May-September romance is charming in this film. The feeling of this film is very similar to Casablanca, including the tropical World War II setting, the frequent backdrop of the saloon, the savvy barkeep who is smart enough to be friends with the local enemy, whom he always allows to win at gambling, and even Mr. Greenstreet’s character owning a parrot. There is also a pretty female singer, although she plays a much more prominent part in this story. However, this is by no means an MGM knockoff of the Warner Bros. masterpiece. This film is a unique masterpiece in its own right. The actors are so good, and the setting is very different. If you like Casablanca, I bet that you will be a fan of this picture, too. It is a delightful different entry in a similar genre.
For the Blogathon
This is my second entry in The Third Spencer Tracy + Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, which is being hosted by Crystal Kalyana Pacey of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Since I have seen all of the duo’s Code collaborations, I decided to write about two solo films of theirs which I have never seen before.
Although Jimmy Stewart dominates the opening of this film, Spencer Tracy gives him a run for his money once he enters the picture. For the remainder of the movie, Spencer Tracy is the main star. Jimmy Stewart is far from a supporting character, yet Spence is really the main focus. Royer doesn’t even have a love interest, leaving Carnahan as the only romantic leading man in the story. I compared this film to Casablanca in the last section, and Carnahan is comparable to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. He is a smooth American who is in a foreign country, in love with a much-younger European girl he has known for several years, and self-declaredly out for himself, although he ends up being heroically patriotic. However, in many ways, Carnahan is different from Rick. He is not bitter and cynical when the story begins; in that respect, Royer is more like Rick. Carnahan seems to enjoy every day, even every moment of life. He loves a good fight, a good drink, and a good buck. He knows his life is a gamble, but he thinks he’s lucky. He is very confident in himself and his own abilities. His suave smuggler, so bold while simultaneously possessing great sang froid, is comparable to Han Solo (Harrison Ford) of the original Star Wars trilogy, particularly A New Hope (1977). I’ve compared this film to two different movies now, but it is truly original. If you want to see Spence looking very daring, adventurous, and suave, see him in Malaya.
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