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William Powell - 8/9
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,The Road to Singapore

The Road to Singapore (1931)

1931 was a year of personal and professional change for William Powell. After years of estrangement from his first wife, he got a divorce and married fellow Paramount contract player Carole Lombard; and he left Paramount and signed a new contract with Warner Bros.

Powell had been at Paramount since 1924, and his stage-trained voice assured a successful transition to talking pictures. But he had been typecast as villains early in his film career, and even after he became a leading man, his characters were at best suave sophisticates, or at worst philanderers or con men, like the one he played in Man of the World (1931), his first film with Lombard. Powell was looking for a change, and his legendary agent Myron Selznick got him a contract at Warner Bros. that made him one of the highest-paid contract players in Hollywood, at a rumored six thousand dollars a week. By comparison, the salary of Marie Dressler, then one of MGM's top stars, was only five thousand.

What Powell didn't get at first was a different character to play. 1931's The Road to Singapore (no relation to the 1940 Bing Crosby-Bob Hope film of the same name) was his first film at Warners. In this steamy tale of lust and infidelity in the tropics, Powell plays a British expat with a scandalous past who romances a married woman. In his New York Times review titled "A Gallant Cad," Mordaunt Hall noted that "Mr. Powell is a bit more melodramatic than he is suave," but added, "As Mr. Powell's first starring vehicle for Warner Brothers, The Road to Singapore leaves him an opportunity to shine." The Los Angeles Evening Herald critic was disappointed that the film offered nothing new from Powell: "Although Powell has trod over this same ground innumerable times before he still makes the character interesting. But I believe his followers would welcome something new from him."

In his second Warners film, High Pressure (1932), Powell finally offered something new. Powell biographer Roger Bryant calls it "A landmark--the first time Powell starred in a comedy, and his first outright comedy of the sound era." Unfortunately, few of Powell's Warner Bros. films gave him much of a chance to show his comedy skills. With the exception the romantic melodrama One Way Passage (1932), his films at the studio were unremarkable. By 1934, he had moved on to MGM, where he remained for nearly two decades, and where he finally found his niche as an impeccable leading man in sophisticated comedies.

Like his association with Warners, Powell's marriage to Carole Lombard did not last, perhaps because of the couple's 16-year age difference, and their different temperaments--she was outgoing, he was private and shy. But they remained close friends, and later co-starred in one of the great screwball comedies, My Man Godfrey (1936), which showed that their onscreen chemistry, at least, was intact.

Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: J. Grubb Alexander, based on the novel Heat Wave by Denise Robins and the play adaptation by Roland Pertwee
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Cast: William Powell (Hugh Dawltry), Doris Kenyon (Philippa Crosby March), Marian Marsh (Rene March), Louis Calhern (Dr. George March), Alison Skipworth (Mrs. Wey-Smith), Lumsden Hare (Mr. Wey-Smith).

by Margarita Landazuri



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