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Film buffs, and even some movie historians, have a tendency to guild thelily when it comes to Hollywood's golden era. Actors like James Stewart andSpencer Tracy, though enormously gifted, were part of the cinematic assemblyline, just like everyone else. Their best films are so iconic, we tend toignore the ones that seem somewhat beneath their abilities.
Malaya (1949), which, along with Tracy and Stewart, features a surprisinglystrong supporting cast, qualifies as one of those movies. Though based on atrue story, you may find yourself rolling your eyes over the script. Butit's worth watching for the rare teaming of two great, casually commandingactors. As a reviewer for The New York Times put it back in 1950:"Succeeding developments put a heavy strain on continuing belief in thisfilm as a reliable document, but that should not dim its luster as aslambang melodrama."
Stewart plays a former newspaper reporter who's recruited by the governmentto smuggle rubber out of Japanese-occupied Malaya. Tracy is a professionalsmuggler who's released from Alcatraz when he agrees to help Stewart withthe dangerous mission. Before it's over, one of the stars will make theultimate sacrifice for his country, one will profit from his experience,and the American military will be up to its neck in rubber.
The story's origins hardly scream "major motion picture". During the war, apatriotic newspaperman named Manchester Boddy wrote a letter to FranklinRoosevelt, suggesting a scheme in which rubber could be readily smuggled outof occupied territory. Roosevelt responded to Boddy, saying that the U.S.was already moving in that direction. Later, Boddy sold his story to RKOproduction chief, Dore Schary, who thought he could turn it into anadventure story. When Schary left RKO for MGM, he made sure to take FrankFenton's script with him.
In retrospect, Schary's enduring faith in Fenton's work seems a tadmisguided. But he still managed to lure a crew of terrific actors to theproject, at a time when the industry , due to the newfangled pressures oftelevision, was shying away from big budgets. Stewart signed up simplybecause he wanted another chance to work with Tracy, who was in Stewart'svery first film, The Murder Man (1935). Withheavyweights like Stewart and Tracy on board, other notables such asSydney Greenstreet, Lionel Barrymore, and Gilbert Roland also signed onto the project.
But director Richard Thorpe was hardly thetype to rescue a weak storyline, since he was well-known within the industryfor printing the first take of virtually every scene he shot. Actors wereopenly leery of him. He did, however, bring all of his pictures in underbudget, which endeared him to MGM management like Dore Schary.
Stewart, for his part, did his best to keep Tracy's legendary drinkingbinges at bay during filming. In order to keep Tracy on the set and awayfrom the bottle, Stewart concocted a plan in which the two of them wouldtake a trip around the world when the shoot was finished. Every day, hebombarded Tracy with brochures describing the exotic locales that they couldvisit. "He'd pore over the brochures and talk with great excitement aboutGreece and Rome and the Taj Mahal," Stewart said. "Anyway, the strategyseemed to work, and Spence showed up every day and did his usual finejob."
But, like so many other people, Stewart couldn't catch Tracy acting. Whenfilming wrapped, Stewart asked his co-star if he had his passport ready."What passport?" Tracy asked. "For our trip to Europe and Asia," Stewartreplied. "Europe and Asia?" Tracy said. "Why, I wouldn't go across thestreet with you, you son-of-a-bitch."
Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Frank Fenton (based on an original story by ManchesterBoddy)
Cinematography: George Folsey
Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Malcolm Brown
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Music Conductor: Andre Previn
Sound: Douglas Shearer
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Carnahan), James Stewart (John Royer),Valentina Cortese (Luana), Sydney Greenstreet (The Dutchman), JohnHodiak (Kellar), Lionel Barrymore (John Manchester), Gilbert Roland (Romano).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara