The Road to Singapore (1931)

Toronto Film Society presented The Road to Singapore (1931) on Sunday, July 22, 2018 in a double bill with Burglars as part of the Season 71 Sunday Afternoon Special Screening.

Production Company: Warner Bros.  Director: Alfred E. Green.  Screenplay and Dialogue: J. Grubb Alexander, based on the novel by Denise Robins and the play by Roland Pertwee, “Heat Wave”.  Cinematography: Robert Kurrle.  Film Editing: William Holmes.  Art Direction: Anton Grot.  Costume Design: Earl Luick.  Music Conductor: Leo F. Forbstein—Vitaphone Orchestra.  Release Date: October 10, 1931.

Cast: William Powell (Hugh Dawltry), Doris Kenyon (Phillippa Crosby March), Marian Marsh (Rene March), Alison Skipworth (Mrs. Wey-Smith), Lumsden Hare (Mr. Wey-Smith), Louis Calhern (Dr. George March), Arthur Clayton (Mr. Everard), A.E. Anson (Dr. Muir), Douglas Gerrard (Simpson), Harrington Reynolds (Duckworth), Colin Campbell (Reginald), Amar N. Sharma (Khan, Dawltry`s Servant), Huspin Ansari (Ali, March`s Servant), Tyrrell Davis (Nikki), Margarita Martin (Ayah).

The Road to Singapore is not a classic film.  It’s fairly light, but a fun pre-Code which takes place in the jungle.  And what does the jungle motif equate in early films but sex—who’s getting it, who isn’t, and from whom.  Consider other pre-Code jungle-themed films such as the first two Tarzan films with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, the 1929 Dangerous Woman with Clive Brook and Olga Baclanova, the 1932 Panama Flo with Helen Twelvetrees and Charles Bickford, 1932s Red Dust with Clark Gable and Mary Astor and the 1930 Bright Lights with Dorothy Mackaill singing songs that reference the jungle including I’m Crazy for Cannibal Love.  Jungle is spelled S-E-X!

The Road to Singapore stars one of movie buffs’ favourite actors—William Powell.    This was his first film after leaving Paramount to join Warners and a number of critics wondered why he was cast in his typical early talkie “Ladies’ Man” roles, which also happened to be the title of the last film he did at Paramount.  With his voice and his acting chops, it was what the studios already knew he was good at and perhaps Warners decided to faze him into films starting out with what Powell was already good at.  Still, in the reviews of the day, there were all sorts of opinions regarding Powell and the film.

It also stars a very young Louis Calhern, later cast in many films as a suave villain.  It also features the lovely Marian Marsh who previous to this film was heartbreaking in her role in Five Star Final.  But the main female star of The Road to Singapore is someone whose name isn’t well-known to most contemporary audiences compared to the actors just mentioned, and that is Doris Kenyon.  Yet Kenyon had a film career from 1915 until 1939, starring in the well-known 1933 Counsellor-at-Law alongside John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels. She was in Paramount Pictures first dramatic talkie, 1928s Interference, acted on the stage and appeared in television shows into the mid-1960s.  As well, Kenyon acted in slient film with silent star Milton Sills and was married to him from 1926 until his death at 48 on September 15, 1930.

So, with that bit of info, I hope you enjoy the film!

Introduction by Caren Feldman

Powell’s professional move to Warner Bros.—made at about the same time as his marriage to Carole Lombard—came with The Road to Singapore (no relation to the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope picture of the same name, released nine years later). He had moved to a new studio but was given the same type of role of which he had complained—essentially, a ladies’ man. The film in its early stages of preparation was known as Heat Wave, the name of the Roland Pertwee play on which it was based. At another point, the project was called Co-respondent. It becomes clear from our first glimpse of Powell (as Hugh Dawltry) that Warners hasn’t made radical changes in his image. Tuxedo-clad, he is in a ship’s dining room waiting for Phillippa (Doris Kenyon). Before his appearance, we have found out that Dawltry is persona non grata in the British community at Khota, where he is believed to have broken up a marriage.

…The Warner Bros. Archive at the University of Southern California, in its file on The Road to Singapore, has a copy of the play “Heat Wave” with handwritten comments, possibly from Warners executive and future mogul Darryl F. Zanuck: “Too wordy—dialogue fair, too long…too hokey treatment and old fashioned—needs modern slant to same situations.”  This criticism of the play is apt when discussing the film.

It is something of a mystery why Warners put Powell in the same type of role he had publicly decried while at Paramount. A review in the Los Angeles Evening Herald captured this viewpoint: “After an interlude, transferring activities from Paramount to Warner Brothers, William Powell emerges once more the sophisticate in The Road to Singapore…. 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 different from him.” Time magazine was scathing: “It is possibly William Powell’s worst picture and far below the standard which Warner Bros. have announced their intention to maintain by adopting a smaller and more select production schedule…. Powell, identified with less lush impersonations at Paramount, seems vapid, by contrast, in this picture….”

Warner Bros. sent exhibitors a tabloid-style promotional newspaper which includes advertising art and copy for the film. A drawing of Powell, one eyebrow raised and holding a pipe, accompanies the text: “The Man Men Remembered and Women Couldn’t Forget: William Powell at his dramatic best in his first big hit for WARNER BROS….. Suave gentleman—debonair lover! More intriguing than ever before! See him at the height of his dramatic power! A story of flaming love under a tropic moon! Finest screenplay of his career with DORIS KENYON, MARIAN MARSH.” Along with the poster art is a feature story recommended for submission to Sunday newspapers—and it seems an odd way to promote an actor whom Warners had recently signed to an expensive contract. The headline reads: “Powell Owes His Stardom to His Talkie Voice and Not To A Rather Sinister Physiognomy,” and the article begins: “The Ugly mugs have the best of things in motion pictures just now and the collar-ad boys are taking back seats or playing villain roles, according to William Powell, who is starred in Warner Bros. ‘The Road to Singapore’…. The article, though fascinating, reflects a poverty of ideas about how to promote Powell…talkies, after all, had been the norm for more than two years and only Charlie Chaplin could get away with making a silent film in 1931. The extensive quotes attributed to Powell reflect opinions he expressed elsewhere: “But for talking pictures, I would probably still be a first class ‘so-and-so’ in every silent picture in which I appeared. I was practically doomed by my face and my screen reputation to play the menace every time…. But when the public heard my voice, I had another chance to be different.”

William Powell: The Life and Films by Roger Bryant (2006)

An intelligent, well-educated actress, Doris Kenyon had little time for reminiscing about her career as a silent star. In fact, she had no recollection of her work in silent films. She was happy to look through her scrapbooks and report on what she found therein, but when it came to any personal commentary, there was little she chose to recall. “I have put all my films to one side, and forgotten about them,” she told me in 1977. Doris was happier remembering her first husband, Milton Sills (1882-1930), with whom she had co-starred in her first release film, The Rack, in 1915, and who, on October 12, 1926, became the first of her four husbands. She recalled that when she and Sills were visiting the redwood forests of Northern California, probably during the filming of Valley of the Giants (1927), they were spotted by a group of tourists and mobbed. Prophetically, Sills commented, “Don’t they realize that people will be coming to admire these trees long after I’m gone and forgotten? The silent stars won’t be remembered. Our fame is only brief.” Despite a strong and virile presence in silent films and handful of talkies, from 1914 through 1930, Milton Sills is very much forgotten today. It was that lack of permanence in the history of popular entertainment, plus the death of their only son, Kenyon, in 1971, that most distressed Doris Kenyon.

Born in Syracuse, New York, on September 5, 1897, Doris Kenyon began her career as a chorus girl in the 1915 New York production of Victor Herbert’s Princess Pat. She was spotted by producer William A. Brady and offered a contract with his World Film Corporation, located at Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was the start of a film career that ended with the role of the French queen in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and included some 60 screen appearances. In 1918, Doris had her own production company, DeLuxe Pictures, for which she starred in The Street of Seven Stars, The Inn of the Blue Moon, and Wild Honey. In 1928, she made her sound début in The Home Towners and, the following year, she was the star of Paramount’s first talkie, Interference. She was the favorite star of Alma Sophia Kappelhoff of Cincinnati, and when Alma gave birth to a daughter in 1924, she named her Doris in honor of Doris Kenyon. Doris Kappelhoff also made a name for herself on screen—as Doris Day.

There is one film of Doris Kenyon’s that stands out, and that is Monsieur Beaucaire from 1924. It is generally dismissed as rather a weak vehicle for its star, Rudolph Valentino, who, unfortunately, looks more than a little effeminate in eighteenth century French garb. Doris co-stars as Lady Mary, and the screen positively sizzles in the love scenes between her and Valentino. They are arguably some of the most erotic moments captured on silent film—particularly with both players fully clothed.

In 1947, Doris Kenyon had married the Polish composer and conductor Bronislaw Mlynarksi (who died in 1971), and the marriage cemented her reputation at the time as one of the leaders of Los Angeles society. She had become close to director Jean Renoir and his wife, Dido, and it was through Jean and Dido that I came to view Monsieur Beaucaire with Doris. The actress had long refused to watch any of her films, but when Jean asked Robert Gitt and me if we would screen Monsieur Beaucaire for him on October 15, 1978—he had never seen Doris Kenyon on screen—she felt an obligation to be present at Jean’s Beverly Hills home. Once the screening was over, the memories were rekindled. Doris dismissed Sidney Olcott as a useless director. She admitted that Valentino was “a little flirty” but added that nothing could go too far because his wife, Natacha Rambova, was constantly seated at the side of her set, indicating with the movement of her hands how Valentino should act out a scene. Doris was cast for the role not because of her talent as an actress, but rather because the producers wanted an English-looking beauty with blonde hair to appear opposite Bebe Daniels, as Princess Henriette, with her dark hair and complexion.

When I first met Doris, she was living in a high-rise apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. When I last saw her, she had moved to a small and very expensive “cottage” a block south of Wilshire Boulevard, in Beverly Hills. With her at both locations was a closet-sized cage of doves, representing both her companions and her hobby. The last visit, August 11, 1979, Dido Renoir was with me, and the three of us walked to the Beverly Hills Brown Derby for dinner. Doris was not happy with the service, which had certainly deteriorated from the days when the restaurant was frequented by the community’s stars and socialites. Doris Kenyon died a few weeks later, on September 1, 1979.

Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses by Anthony Slide (2002)

The Road to Singapore, wherever Powell is popular, will be a sure-fire business getter; not because it is a marvelous picture—it isn’t—but because it has Powell plus a lot of feminine interest, both in story and acting. We expected a whole lot more from this first Warner/Powell vehicle and were disappointed when we found it just ordinary entertainment. The title possesses “box office” appeal; the story will be satisfactory, as we said before, providing they are great followers of the star; and with any sort of a worthwhile campaign to create and build up interest, there is no reason why you should not get some healthy returns at the box office.

When caught at the Strand, here in New York, the Powell “strut”, or better known as his “nonchalant” walk, drew a few snickers and giggles from the matinée audience. We had a tough time trying to keep a straight face ourselves but, apparently, the director was told that this was one of Bill’s assets and he used it as often as possible.

To get back to the possibilities of this picture at your box office; we mentioned previously that it had a lot of feminine appeal.  That’s the slant that you must not lose sight of for one moment in laying out or starting your campaign off on the right foot.  Dozens of good ad lines, directed at the ladies, will command their attention and probably get them to the box office as soon as they can. The men-folk will probably be bored at the whole proceedings, but if you’ve got a good Mickey Mouse on the same bill, they won’t kick because they came along with the ladies. Stressing the tropical background in your lobby or marquee displays will help convey the impression that the title implies, but over-emphasizing it would be poor judgment because its entire story could have been set in any other spot on the globe. You ought to do some nice business with The Road to Singapore despite the handicaps.

Motion Picture Herald, Passing in Review (1931)

 Notes compiled by Caren Feldman

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