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Part romantic comedy, part crime drama, Trade Winds (1938) was in the works since 1936, according to the Hollywood Reporter, when producer-director Tay Garnett planned to make it at Columbia with Cary Grant, based on a script by Gene Towne and Graham Baker. At another point it was reported that Garnett went to England to produce the film there but abandoned the idea. At any rate, back in the USA, he secured the considerable writing services of famous Algonquin "Round Table" wit Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell, along with Frank R. Adams, a former news reporter who wrapped up his screenwriting career with this project. Garnett teamed with independent producer Walter Wanger, who saw to it that his protg -- and future wife -- Joan Bennett got the female lead opposite Fredric March.
Bennett plays Kay Kerrigan, a San Francisco socialite wanted for the murder of a millionaire playboy responsible for her sister's suicide. Faking her own death and dying her hair, Kerrigan takes off for the Orient, pursued by bumbling city detective Ben "Homer" Blodgett (Ralph Bellamy) and former policeman turned private eye Sam Wye (March) who specializes in tracking and romancing women. Kerrigan meets Wye on board a ship and, not knowing he's pursuing her, begins to fall for him.
The character's change of hair color proved to be more than a plot device for Bennett. Known as a blonde for the first decade of her career (like her older sister, thirties star Constance Bennett), Joan's change to brunette impressed Wanger, who had been guiding her career since she signed a personal contract with him some five years before Trade Winds. Wanger thought the new look bore a striking resemblance to another young actress just then making a big splash in Hollywood, Hedy Lamarr; her American premiere, Algiers (1938), was produced by Wanger. He insisted Bennett stay brunette from this point on. He wasn't the only one who noticed the similarities; songwriter Cole Porter penned this line in his song, "Let's Not Talk About Love": "Let's speak of Lamarr, that Hedy so fair; why does she let Joan Bennett wear all her old hair?" The success of Bennett's long career has been credited at least in part to this change in look, altering her image from fair-haired ingnue to sultry femme fatale.
Joan Bennett wasn't the only actress to get a professional boost from Trade Winds. Cast as March's wisecracking Gal Friday and would-be sweetheart, Ann Sothern, who had been languishing at RKO, showed considerable comic skills. Executives at MGM took notice, signed her to a long-term contract, and cast her in a similar role in Maisie (1939), a film originally meant for Jean Harlow before her early death. The success of that comedy led to eight sequels over the next eight years, all starring Sothern.
The two males in Trade Winds needed no help in their careers. March had just made two big hits, the drama A Star Is Born (1937) and the comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), as well as a turn as Jean Lafitte in Cecil B. DeMille's pirate adventure The Buccaneer (1938). Bellamy, the perennial "other man" in 1930s comedies and romances, had just cemented his reputation in that type of role as the guy who fails to come between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937) and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Carefree (1938).
Also in the cast is Linda Winters, who would change her name back to Dorothy Comingore in a few years. Under that name, she played the second wife of millionaire newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles's landmark film Citizen Kane (1941). A promising actress, Comingore's career was cut short by the Hollywood Blacklist in the early 1950s.
Several sources, including Garnett's autobiography, note that some background footage in Trade Winds was made by Garnett on an Asian tour prior to developing the story. It's not clear how much of Garnett's footage was used, since other craftsmen are credited with "foreign exterior" and process photography. Reviews at the time attributed the film with the most extensive use of the rear-projection process to that date. It even figured prominently in Frank S. Nugent's New York Times review: "Tay Garnett earned the distinction yesterday of being probably the first man in history with the temerity to invite 80,000,000 persons to pay to see the movies he took on a world cruise. Mr. Garnett went abroad a few seasons ago and, having a rough outline of a script, he shot doorways in Japan, barrooms in Indo-China, the race track at Singapore, a pier in Bombay, a fishing village in the Laccadives, a twisting street in pre-war Shanghai. ... The result of it all is Trade Winds, which blew gently into the Music Hall yesterday and may be remembered by posterity as the process shot that went 'round the world'.... Mr. Garnett must have had a grand trip."
Director: Tay Garnett
Producers: Tay Garnett, Walter Wanger
Screenplay: Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, Frank R. Adams
Cinematography: Rudolph Mat
Editing: Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Original Music: Alfred Newman (uncredited)
Cast: Fredric March (Sam Wye), Joan Bennett (Kay Kerrigan), Ralph Bellamy (Ben Blodgett), Ann Sothern (Jeanne Livingstone), Thomas Mitchell (Commissioner Blackton).
by Rob Nixon