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Oil for the Lamps of China

Oil for the Lamps of China(1935)


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Stephen Chase is employed by a large oil company that preaches that it always takes care of its own. The company sends Stephen to Manchuria, where he ends his three-year apprenticeship by inventing a lamp that burns kerosene cheaply. After he suggests to the company that they give his lamps free to the Chinese to encourage them to buy oil, he receives permission to marry from his boss and leaves for Yokohama where he is to meet his fiancée. Just before her boat is scheduled to land, however, Stephen receives a telegram from his intended, calling off the wedding. Distraught, he has a drink in the hotel bar, where he strikes up a conversation with a woman on her own. Learning that the woman, Hester Adams, had been traveling through the Orient with her father until he died on board ship, Stephen asks her to have dinner with him. After explaining that it is important to maintain face in China, he tells Hester that everyone expects him to return with a wife and proposes that they form a partnership in which she will marry him and he will take care of her. After some thought, she agrees. Upon their arrival in China, Hester is determined to meet her wifely obligations, although both she and Stephen are unsure about their feelings toward each other. The boss, meanwhile, tells Stephen that the company is shipping the lamp that he invented, but that another employee will receive credit for the invention. More bad news is forthcoming when the boss commits suicide after being replaced by a younger man. For the first time, Stephen feels that the company is unjust and unfair. As Hester comforts him, she and Stephen realize that they have fallen in love. The new boss, McCargar, orders Stephen to a post near the Siberian border. He tries to refuse the transfer because Hester is expecting a baby, but McCargar is firm. Feeling that her place is with Stephen, Hester insists on accompanying him. While she is in labor, one of the oil wells catches fire, and Stephen leaves her alone with the doctor. When he returns, he finds the baby dead. Hester blames him for the child's death and falls into a deep depression. Stephen is ordered to report to Shanghai to explain why he took certain actions during the fire without clearing them first with the company. He is released after a scolding and returns to find Hester reconciled to her life. They are transferred again to Southern China, where they become friendly with Don and Alice, the other couple assigned to the city. Don and Alice's small son Bunsy soon takes the place of her own child in Hester's heart. Facing slow sales because of drought and cholera, Stephen and Don go into the field to make the sales themselves. While they are gone, Bunsy develops cholera and Hester nurses him back to health. The leader of the Chinese community does not like Don and tells Stephen that they will renew their contract only if Don is fired. Hester begs him not to fire his best friend, but Stephen protests that his work is his identity and he cannot throw it away. The company sends McCargar to join Stephen, and together they face a new threat from the Communist rebels. The rebels demand all the money in the company safe, and Stephen agrees to give them the cash if they will allow Hester to board the ship first. As soon as Hester is on board, Stephen and McCargar try to escape through a swamp with the money. McCargar is killed, and Stephen is injured but saves the money for the company. While he is recuperating in the hospital, Stephen is asked to be second-in-command in charge of the Orient, but when he recovers, he finds that Bill Kendall has been appointed in his place because the company felt that Stephen was not progressive enough. Determined to hang on to the company until he can receive his pension, Stephen continues to work at a clerk's job. Furious, Hester informs the company that Stephen holds the patent on the lamp he invented and that she will sue for royalities unless they restore him to a good position. Finally, the company responds, leaving Stephen with the belief that the company does in fact take care of its own.