Saturday, October 20, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Singapore Woman (1941)

SINGAPORE WOMAN is a very entertaining Warner Bros. potboiler which was the first feature film directed by Jean Negulesco.

The plot of this 64-minute film develops at breakneck speed. Dave Ritchie (David Bruce) had been attracted to Vicki Moore (Brenda Marshall) when he met her while doing business with her father (Gilbert Emery). Alas, a spurned lover chose that night to commit suicide in Vicki's bedroom and, after giving testimony in the matter, Dave moved on with his life.

Years later Dave owns a rubber plantation outside Singapore and he spots a haggard Vicki drinking in a dive called the Crow's Nest. Vicki's life hasn't gone well, what with her father losing his fortune and dying, not to mention her husband (Richard Ainley) being lost at sea. Dave takes Vicki to his plantation and tries to help her get back on her feet -- which doesn't sit well with Dave's fiancee Claire (Virginia Field), who with amazing timing arrives in Singapore to see Dave for the first time in two years.

I found this to be a very enjoyable hour. Given all that happens in a short period of time, it's rather soapy, but it's Grade A soap, with an intriguing performance by Brenda Marshall as a bad woman who'd like to be good again.

I have trouble taking David Bruce seriously as a leading man, but otherwise this film has an interesting cast, including one of my very favorite character actors, Jerome Cowan. Cowan plays Dave's loyal friend and turns a throwaway part into a man the viewer would like to know more about.

Rose Hobart, Heather Angel, and Ian Wolfe also turn up over the course of the film. And watch carefully when Cowan is dictating to his secretary; the scene is filmed at a distance, but the tall young lady who stands up to leave the room is none other than Alexis Smith, in one of several bit roles she played in 1940-41. She reappears later in the film, trying to keep Marshall out of Cowan's office.

Director Negulesco did an excellent job with a slight property, turning out a stylish, well-paced film with an atmospheric tropical feel, despite the fact the company surely never left the Warner Bros. back lot. Negulesco went on to direct THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (1944), NOBODY LIVES FOREVER (1946), HUMORESQUE (1946), JOHNNY BELINDA (1948), ROAD HOUSE (1948), and many more excellent films across a variety of genres.

I've always had a soft spot for Brenda Marshall, though at one time I found her a bit bland; I was particularly dissatisfied with her casting in THE SEA HAWK (1940), wishing that an actress with more spark, preferably Olivia de Havilland, had been cast instead. However, now having seen about half of Marshall's 19 feature films, her acting ability has risen in my estimation. I still find her a bit off in a couple films, but I was particularly impressed with her performances in movies such as ESPIONAGE AGENT (1939), EAST OF THE RIVER (1940), and STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1946), along with SINGAPORE WOMAN. With the right script and director, she was a very compelling actress. Marshall, always known to her friends by her real name, Ardis, was Mrs. William Holden for three decades. She retired from the screen in 1950.

Brenda Marshall films previously reviewed at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: ESPIONAGE AGENT (1939), EAST OF THE RIVER (1940), FOOTSTEPS IN THE DARK (1941), CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS (1942), THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943), STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1946), and WHISPERING SMITH (1948).

SINGAPORE WOMAN is not available on DVD or VHS. It has been shown on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer on its website.


Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Hey, I just saw this too--recent TCM screening, right? We watched it the next night after recording it. I really liked it, very stylish film--I'm used to Brenda Marshall being cast as a bland good girl and she must have been glad to get this role and did very well in it.

I'll say it again, Laura, why use the words "potboiler" and "soapy" when you could simply and very accurately identify it objectively as a "melodrama" and then say pretty much what you did say about it, because it holds its own in that genre? Well, just a thought when others melodramas come along here.

Speaking of which, I'm a fan of Jean Negulesco, my main motivation for watching this, not only the movies you mentioned but later ones in his CinemaScope period when he seems to be defined by that "three girls" formula. It was actually in this vein that he made what I consider his masterpiece THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959), one of the great 50s melodramas and, even though I guess it was popular in its day, waiting to rediscovered. Laura, I'd love to see you write on this.

12:49 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Yes, exactly right, Blake, I just recorded it off TCM within the last couple weeks. In fact you've reminded me that I neglected to include that information so I'll update my post with it today.

I suppose the words "potboiler" and "soapy" to me convey a certain style of florid and/or somewhat improbable storytelling -- but perhaps melodrama is a good choice of description because it sounds less critical, for I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. (I was musing last night how much more I enjoyed SINGAPORE WOMAN than THE BIRDS...)

Have you seen Marshall in EAST OF THE RIVER? That's another I thoroughly enjoyed recently.

THE BEST OF EVERYTHING is definitely on my "to watch" list -- recorded it from TCM not that long ago. Thanks for the recommendation!

Best wishes,

8:29 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I know just what you mean when you say "potboiler" or "soapy" and know you didn't mean it negatively talking about this movie. It's just that traditionally these words have a negative connotation.
But melodrama as a genre is now respected, and one of its aspects is that so much of what happens is "improbable" as you say. It's supposed to be like that and not bad in a melodrama.

You'll recall this first came up when you described as a "soap" or "soap opera" WRITTEN ON THE WIND
--one of the greatest movies ever made. Melodramas deserve to be watched as seriously as anything else, and can as easily be works of art.

I will look forward to your review of THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, even if you call it "soapy" which you might easily be tempted to do!

9:49 AM  
Blogger i am a noir fan said...

I have been trying to find this film for quite a while. Do you have any tips on how to stream it or purchase the VHS or DVD? It does not seem available, but just wanted to throw it out there. I indeed saw it a few years ago on TCM, but it has not resurfaced since. Thanks for your piece.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi, I'm sorry to say we're kind of at the mercy of waiting on TCM or the Warner Archive for this film! It's a Warner Bros. film so it's possible it will one day turn up on DVD from the Warner Archive. You might want to visit their Facebook page and request it, or if you're not on FB you could inquire of them on Twitter as well.

And periodically search the TCM site to see if it's coming up in the next couple months...

Glad you enjoyed the post!

Best wishes,

7:43 PM  

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