Friday, May 13, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Trade Winds (1938)

I've wanted to see TRADE WINDS for a long time, so I was quite excited when it was shown for the first time last week on Turner Classic Movies. TRADE WINDS aired as part of an evening celebrating the work of actress Joan Bennett.

TRADE WINDS is the film famous for turning Bennett from a sweet blonde leading lady into a brunette temptress; for storyline reasons Bennett's character dyes her hair, and the new look was such a success that Bennett kept dark hair for the rest of her career. Thanks to her new look, Bennett went on to play film noir femme fatales in some memorable films of the '40s.

In TRADE WINDS Bennett plays Kay Kerrigan, who believes she has shot and killed the man she holds responsible for her sister's suicide. She goes on the lam, followed around the world by private detective Sam Wye (Fredric March) and police detective Ben Blodgett (Ralph Bellamy); in turn, Sam is pursued by his secretary Jean Livingstone (Ann Sothern), fondly referred to as "Doctor" by Blodgett. Sam falls in love with Kay on first sight, leading, of course, to all manner of complications.

The film is a mix of comedy and crime drama, with touches of pathos and deeply felt romance. At times the film veers close to tragedy, then immediately pulls back, and the tone near the end, as Sam works to clear Kay, reminded me a bit of the dinner party which concludes THE THIN MAN (1934).

I enjoyed the film very much, although truth to tell it wasn't quite as good as I had hoped. The film's biggest problem may be simply its look, as a huge percentage of the film is played against back projections; it must have set a record for the amount of screen time using process shots. Indeed, the original review in the New York Times said the film "may be remembered by posterity as the process shot that went 'round the world."

Apparently director-producer Tay Garnett, who also wrote the story, shot footage on a world tour and needed a way to use it. The process footage becomes extremely distracting; even the most basic shots, such as March in a hotel flower shop, were shot in front of process backgrounds. Although to some extent this makes the film a distinctive curiosity -- the Times said it was "extremely interesting technically" -- it also gives the film a strange, cheap look and distracts from the quartet of very appealing lead actors.

March is great as the rascally romantic who finds his cliched pickup lines desert him the minute he sets eyes on the ethereal Bennett. Few people were as convincing as March conveying deep, eternal love. One look at Bennett and it's certain there's no way the angelic Kay could be a murderess, even if Bennett did later play several femme fatales! Sam and Kay's shared love of the piano is a nice touch, particularly the way piano scenes frame their initial meeting and their final scene.

Sothern's career got a real boost from the film and induced MGM to sign her to a contract and launch her in the long-running MAISIE series. She's great as the energetic secretary constantly chasing down March for money to pay his creditors; she's also got a line about Bellamy's feet that's delightfully delivered. Watching her shift her affections from March to Bellamy is quite fun.

I always enjoy March, Bennett, and Sothern, but the actor who really steals the film is Bellamy, as the endearingly thick-headed but well-meaning detective. I think it's probably the funniest performance I've seen Bellamy give, and the film's well worth seeing for him alone. He's truly delightful.

Garnett's story was scripted by a trio including Dorothy Parker. It was filmed by cinematographer-director Rudolph Mate, with James Shackelford credited with foreign exterior photography. Bennett's gowns were by Irene, and the musical score was composed by Alfred Newman. A Class A production staff all the way.

The supporting cast includes Thomas Mitchell (who has just a couple of scenes), Joyce Compton, Sidney Blackmer, and Robert Elliott.

This movie, which was released by United Artists, runs 93 minutes. It's not available on DVD or VHS, but with this fine cast it should be, process shots and all!

2 Comments:

Blogger David said...

I was disappointed in the movie and give it a 5 on a 10-scale.

I agree with you on the process shots. Initially, it was interesting and I thought added to the film. Then the movie became bogged down with them and they became distracting. Also, there were some plot holes that and I thought would have been better spent filling those holes than the process shots.

The best thing about the movie is Ann Southern.

7:37 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Actually both women are compelling.

6:59 PM  

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