Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Oil for the Lamps of China (1935) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Today's viewing has had a "China" theme, beginning with ROAR OF THE DRAGON (1933) and continuing with OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA (1935).

OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA, like ROAR OF THE DRAGON, is available from the Warner Archive.

Laird Doyle's screenplay was based on a book by Alice Tisdale Hobart. In one of the film's more unusual touches, images of the book's pages turning forward are superimposed over the action when there are jumps forward in time.

Pat O'Brien, one of my most-seen actors in 2016, stars as Stephen Chase, a loyal oil company employee who makes great personal sacrifices while spending many years working for the company in China.

Stephen travels to Yokohama to meet his fiancee after three years apart, only to discover she's changed her mind at the last minute. At the hotel he meets Hester (Josephine Hutchinson of HAPPINESS AHEAD), a young woman from the U.S. whose father died during their trip. Stephen needs to save face by returning to his station with a bride, while Hester would benefit from having a home and financial support. Stephen proposes marriage, "You provide a home and I'll protect it."

At first it's just a marriage of convenience, but in time Stephen realizes Hester's the best thing that ever happened to him and the couple fall in love.

Stephen and Hester's loyalty is tested by hardships, including the loss of a child at birth, but over the years their devotion to one another only grows.

Whether the company will prove to be as loyal to the hard-working Stephen is another question.

This was a very good drama with an interesting setting and appealing lead actors. O'Brien and Hutchinson, who would team the following year in I MARRIED A DOCTOR (1936), have a sweet chemistry. The more I see of O'Brien's work, the more I appreciate him. At times his character is a bit of a lunkhead, placing the company ahead of relationships, but he's a fully rounded person with human imperfections. Similarly Hutchinson's character may be a bit too willing to take a backseat to work, at least by modern standards, but her determination to support her husband is admirable.

John Eldredge and Jean Muir play another couple stationed in China in the second half of the film, with Ronnie Cosby as their son. The cast also includes Donald Crisp, Lyle Talbot, Arthur Byron, Willie Fung, Keye Luke, Tetsu Komai, and Henry O'Neill.

OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and filmed in black and white by Tony Gaudio. The Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, California, stand in for China.

The running time is 97 minutes.

A few years later Warner Bros. very loosely reworked OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA as LAW OF THE TROPICS (1941), starring Jeffrey Lynn and Constance Bennett. There were numerous changes to the story, including the business being changed to rubber and Bennett's character being an entertainer hiding from law enforcement, rather than a proper professor's daughter. It's a fun movie, if different in tone from the serious drama of OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA.

The Warner Archive DVD picture is soft at times, with minor imperfections like a visible reel change cue, but it's perfectly watchable, with fine sound. The disc includes a trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.


Blogger Jerry E said...

Hi Laura!
I've been interested to read your last 3 Warner Archive reviews (this film plus 'Men Of America' & 'Roar Of The Dragon'). Each stars an interesting actor and I have never seen any of the three films. Must try to put that right (though the low pound is making purchases very expensive right now!!).

2:27 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's great, Jerry, thanks for letting me know! I love being able to call attention to some of the lesser-known films available from the Warner Archive, and of course the great thing about "MOD" discs is that they're always available!

I agree, some interesting actors in the last three films -- and I really have only come to appreciate O'Brien, Dix, and Boyd in the last couple years as I've gotten to know their work. I'm not sure I'd seen more than one or two films with Dix or Boyd until a couple years ago. The more classic-era films I see, the more I discover there is out there waiting to be enjoyed!

Would love to know your thoughts if you're able to catch up with any of these.

Best wishes,

2:51 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

This sounds like something I should actively seek out. I've always been fond of Pat O'Brien, but it is nothing compared to one of my sisters who is crazy about him. She's the sister who joins me in the Dennis O'Keefe love, so I reckon she is onto something.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'd love to know what you think if you see it! A couple movies like SECRET COMMAND (1944) and RIFFRAFF (1947) caused me to look at O'Brien with a fresh eye, as I really appreciated his performances in those films. I have especially enjoyed him in films such as this where he's the leading man, rather than backing up someone like Cagney. Been working my way steadily through his filmography -- along with Dennis O'Keefe's! :)

Best wishes,

7:42 PM  

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