' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Trade Winds (1938)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Trade Winds (1938)

“Trade Winds”, the 1938 film perhaps most famous for turning Joan Bennett from a blonde into a brunette, has, like pretty much every film before and after it, a beginning, a middle, and an end. The issue, however, is that three crucial pieces don’t quite seem to fit together. The open is surprisingly, interestingly somber before ceding to a delightful, globe-trotting middle and eventually wrapping up with an odorous dessert of red herring.

In the wake of her sister’s suicide, Kay Kerrigan (Bennett), blonde, confronts the millionaire in the finely woven robe whom she deems responsible. He seems so convinced of his immortality that he willingly gives her a gun and tells her to shoot. Oops. She does. He drops dead. This prologue, the way Bennett coolly mans the piano as she plays her precious Chopin tune in the build-up to the murder, provides an air that borders on noir. Even more so when Kay inevitably flees, is tracked by Detective Blodgett (Ralph Bellamy) and, in a fit of awesome hysteria, guns her car right off a ferry and into the ocean.

Detective Blodgett is emblematic of the film’s shift. Initially he comes across hard-nosed and quick-thinking. Until we realize he is the exact opposite, put-upon and a dolt. And so when it turns out Kay did not drown, because of course she didn’t, a Private Investigator is brought in to bring her in. This would be Sam Wye (Frederic March). He is much less a cynical gumshoe than a boozy playboy who tracks missing persons on the side. And although he is adept at tracking those missing persons, he also enjoys fraternizing with the femme fatales along the way, and so Blodgett is ordered to go along as his right-hand man to negate the possibility of any funny business (a task at which he inevitably fails). So, they follow the trail of Kay Kerrigan with the trade winds, from Hawaii to Japan to China.

Blodgett, of course, functions as comic relief, consistently three or four steps behind, even though Sam lets him think he’s one or two steps ahead just to be nice. This duo, however, quickly becomes a trio on account of Sam’s saucy secretary, Jean (Ann Sothern), whose crush Sam only requites at certain moments for his own personal gain. But, as mentioned, Jean is saucy, so she shutters the office and enlists herself in the Find Kay Kerrigan cause. And while the chemistry between March and Bennett is decent enough, the real jolt of energy in “Trade Winds” is delivered by the four principal characters winding their way across the Pacific, interacting, bantering, double-crossing, outsmarting, and so forth.

Perhaps the film’s best decision arrives when Sam and Blodgett and Jean catch up to Kay. This happens fairly early on in the film’s middle portion and despite changing her appearance by dying her blonde hair brunette, no one fails to recognize her. Well, Blodgett fails to recognize her but that’s because he’s the comic relief. Sam figures out who she is. Jean figures out who she is. In fact, for a moment “Trade Winds” seems intent to pit Kay and Jean, who is smarter than that saucy persona may imply, against Sam. That would have been a unique direction to take, but instead it opts for the more traditional route – the P.I. and the Fugitive falling in love.

This also suggests intriguing complications. After all, she is 1.) A Murderer and 2.) A Fugitive. Rather than give thought to these constraints, however, we are served the requisite red herring to get her off the hook. A detail not noticed initially is discovered, which is credible, I suppose, since Blodgett is eventually outed as an incompetent and probably would have missed it at the original crime scene but still……it’s the easy way out. Painting yourself into a corner and then suddenly (!!!) realizing you have an ejector seat. Why if “Trade Winds” was remade today you can envision this closing sequence stacked with all those trendy quick cut flashbacks to the earlier scene and seeing what we DIDN’T see (because how could we have?).

It’s the strangest movie, one that leaves you with a sour taste after a solid main course and a first course filled with curiosity. After going brunette in this film, Joan Bennett chose to stay a brunette. I kind of wonder what would have happened had she stayed a blonde.


Anonymous said...

I remember Joan Bennett for some of the things that she did later in her career including starring in the cult soap opera 'Dark Shadows' as well as head of a withces coven in Dario Argento's 'Suspiria'. Did you ever see that one?

Nick Prigge said...

I have not. I'm afraid I'm not much of a horror buff - it's just not my thing - so I'm really not familiar with Argento's work at all. I always mean to branch out more for these friday posts but.....it's hard for me to get out of old Hollywood. I just enjoy it too much.