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Film buffs, and even some movie historians, have a tendency to guild the lily when it comes to Hollywood's golden era. Actors like James Stewart and Spencer Tracy, though enormously gifted, were part of the cinematic assembly line, just like everyone else. Their best films are so iconic, we tend to ignore the ones that seem somewhat beneath their abilities.
Malaya (1949), which, along with Tracy and Stewart, features a surprisingly strong supporting cast, qualifies as one of those movies. Though based on a true story, you may find yourself rolling your eyes over the script. But it's worth watching for the rare teaming of two great, casually commanding actors. As a reviewer for The New York Times put it back in 1950: "Succeeding developments put a heavy strain on continuing belief in this film as a reliable document, but that should not dim its luster as a slambang melodrama."
Stewart plays a former newspaper reporter who's recruited by the government to smuggle rubber out of Japanese-occupied Malaya. Tracy is a professional smuggler who's released from Alcatraz when he agrees to help Stewart with the dangerous mission. Before it's over, one of the stars will make the ultimate 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, a patriotic newspaperman named Manchester Boddy wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, suggesting a scheme in which rubber could be readily smuggled out of occupied territory. Roosevelt responded to Boddy, saying that the U.S. was already moving in that direction. Later, Boddy sold his story to RKO production chief, Dore Schary, who thought he could turn it into an adventure story. When Schary left RKO for MGM, he made sure to take Frank Fenton's script with him.
In retrospect, Schary's enduring faith in Fenton's work seems a tad misguided. But he still managed to lure a crew of terrific actors to the project, at a time when the industry , due to the newfangled pressures of television, was shying away from big budgets. Stewart signed up simply because he wanted another chance to work with Tracy, who was in Stewart's very first film, The Murder Man (1935). With heavyweights like Stewart and Tracy on board, other notables such as Sydney Greenstreet, Lionel Barrymore, and Gilbert Roland also signed onto the project.
But director Richard Thorpe was hardly the type to rescue a weak storyline, since he was well-known within the industry for printing the first take of virtually every scene he shot. Actors were openly leery of him. He did, however, bring all of his pictures in under budget, which endeared him to MGM management like Dore Schary.
Stewart, for his part, did his best to keep Tracy's legendary drinking binges at bay during filming. In order to keep Tracy on the set and away from the bottle, Stewart concocted a plan in which the two of them would take a trip around the world when the shoot was finished. Every day, he bombarded Tracy with brochures describing the exotic locales that they could visit. "He'd pore over the brochures and talk with great excitement about Greece and Rome and the Taj Mahal," Stewart said. "Anyway, the strategy seemed to work, and Spence showed up every day and did his usual fine job."
But, like so many other people, Stewart couldn't catch Tracy acting. When filming wrapped, Stewart asked his co-star if he had his passport ready. "What passport?" Tracy asked. "For our trip to Europe and Asia," Stewart replied. "Europe and Asia?" Tracy said. "Why, I wouldn't go across the street with you, you son-of-a-bitch."
Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Frank Fenton (based on an original story by Manchester Boddy)
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), John Hodiak (Kellar), Lionel Barrymore (John Manchester), Gilbert Roland (Romano).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara