Just after WWII the customary leading studio in Hollywood, MGM, was overtaken by Paramount, Fox and Warners in revenues. Parent company Loew’s of New York panicked, and in 1948 kicked out production head Louis B Mayer and brought in a new boss from RKO. Dory Schary kept MGM’s focus on its popular musicals for the most part, starring Judy Garland, Jane Powell, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire but right away added a new hard-hitting realism to its bow too — gritty war films like Battleground, film noir Force of Evil and Act of Violence, challenging social/racial mores in Intruder in the Dust, even a truthful western seen from the Red Man’s point of view, Devil’s Doorway, containing probably Robert Taylor’s outstanding career performance…
So what category to put Malaya into? Why even make it? Postwar audiences tended to cut down on the hokum, but for two highly lucrative sub-genres: Bing Crosby & Bob Hope comedies at Paramount, and Abbott & Costello comedies at Universal. Women’s pictures were still going strong with Greer Garson at MGM, Hollywood sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine feelancing, Ingrid Bergman under contract to David Selznick, Irene Dunne at RKO, and Bette Davis, Joan Crawford & Barbara Stanwyck at Warners.
But Malaya starred Spencer Tracy and James Stewart, neither very funny, and paired for once in their life. The superstars (both in the box-office top 10 at the time) play a pair of Americans — not much of a stretch — in an exotic land where the women wear sarongs. But there is no Dorothy Lamour, Maria Montez, Yvonne De Carlo or even Carmen Miranda in sight. The only woman in it is visiting continental femme fatale Valentina Cortese, here playing it straight as Tracy’s old flame but getting limited screen time. Spence and Jimmy (or in his own parlance, Jummy Shtoourt) are up against it with the local authorities. Beginning to sound familiar? — the premise of just about every Abbott & Costello and Bing-and-Bob flick ever made. Only in this case the authority is the Japanese Empire’s wartime army, whose bushido warriors were playing pin-the-head-on-the-POW with samurai swords a mere three or four years before this flick was made. I wouldn’t draw the parallel with the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope-Dorothy Lamour “Road” movies if the action wasn’t so hokey and thereby disrespectful to literally millions of defenceless people who lost their lives to these butchers whom this movie treats like laughable incompetents. In one scene stupid to the ultimate Spence, an unathletic 49-year-old who takes tiny steps when he’s “running” like he’s wrapped in a kimono and doesn’t want to fall over, nonetheless takes on five armed Jap soldiers with nothing but his bare fists and a laughable, geriatric jiu-jitsu kicking ‘leap’, and almost gets the better of them.
I think maybe Schary was humoring Tracy, who had expressed the yen to play two-fisted roles like when he was young, at Fox in the early Thirties. Stewart, for his part, left for Universal straight after this — and you can’t blame him — to get into his celebrated series of gritty westerns directed by Anthony Mann, and made a bundle from his profit participation deals. Tracy, with Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon and other old timers stayed for years longer at MGM on reliable but much smaller salaries. For the record, Sydney Greenstreet borrowed from Warners did best on screen here, in the last year of his life, and talented star character actors Gilbert Roland, Lionel Barrymore and John Hodiak were wasted as minor support players.
The movie was made in monochrome, not color, so it was not intended to be a blockbuster. But just what was it? At about the same time, 1949, MGM-British in London was filming Calling Bulldog Drummond with Walter Pidgeon, Margaret Leighton, Robert Beatty as the heavy, David Tomlinson as Drummond’s sidekick Algie, and Bernard Lee as the arch villain. This was almost a B movie compared to the expensive “properties” in human form on show in Malaya. Yet, the “A” would have benefited immensely with deliciously talented Leighton (pictured) in it and comedic Tomlinson in place of Tracy — and Beatty instead of the Japs come to think of it.
Maybe one day we’ll be able to remake these movies digitally with just the right cast and retouches.