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Oil for the Lamps of China (1935) provides a perfect example of how Hollywood could cut the guts out of a novel yet still come up with rousing entertainment by dint of sheer professionalism. Alice Tisdale Hobart's book had spent more than a year on the best-seller list while also attracting attention for its attack on the heartless management policies of U.S. oil companies. Some of that spirit was retained in Warner Bros.'s film version, in which Pat O'Brien is betrayed at almost every turn by the oil company that has sent him to supervise sales in China. But then they excused in a last minute happy ending that puts all the blame on middle management. The company's New York director, who's gotten rich from all this abuse, turns out to be a decent guy who makes everything right in the end.
The project originally was earmarked for dramatic actor Franchot Tone, but Warner's couldn't arrange a loan from his home studio, MGM. In a surprise move, they gave the role to Pat O'Brien, best known at the time for a series of buddy films with James Cagney. O'Brien was glad for a break from the formulaic films he'd made with his pal. Though he loved working with Cagney, he was happy to sink his teeth into a real dramatic role for a change. And there was still enough action to draw on his popularity from the Cagney films.
To guarantee the authenticity of this and several other China-set properties they had in the works, Warners sent director Robert Florey to China for background footage. To avoid paying high export fees, he had to work in secret, but he still managed to smuggle 20,000 feet of film out of the country. Then Warners canceled the other pictures and decided his background footage was too realistic. Not only didn't they use it, they never even paid him for his work. Instead, they sent the production crew to the Mojave Desert for location work.
For director Mervyn LeRoy, the most memorable thing about Oil for the Lamps of China was the fact that his first child was born during production. In fact, when word reached him that his wife had gone into labor, he dropped everything and left the set - and 300 Chinese extras - without telling anybody where he had gone. Studio head Jack Warner was frantic, convinced LeRoy had been kidnapped, until LeRoy came back from the hospital to finish the day's shooting.
Oil for the Lamps of China got respectable reviews and did good business, but LeRoy was hurt by a vicious pan in the San Francisco Examiner, one of the newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst. The director was weekending at San Simeon when he mentioned his disappointment to Hearst's mistress, film star Marion Davies. She immediately took the matter to "Poppy," as she called Hearst in kinder moments (when she wasn't calling him "Old Droopy Drawers"). Hearst summoned LeRoy to his room and advised him, "Just remember this - the newspaper of today is the toilet paper of tomorrow." LeRoy always called that some of the best advice he'd ever been given.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Robert Lord
Screenplay: Laird Doyle
Based on the novel by Alice Tisdale Hobart
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Score: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Pat O'Brien (Stephen Chase), Josephine Hutchinson (Hester Chase), Jean Muir (Alice Wellman), Lyle Talbot (Jim), Henry ONeill (Hartford), Donald Crisp (MacCargar), Keye Luke (Young Chinese)
by Frank Miller