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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » International Settlement (Fox Cinema Archives)
International Settlement (Fox Cinema Archives)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // December 16, 2014
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted January 30, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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International tedium. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives' line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released International Settlement, the 1938 comedy/drama from Fox B-meister Sol Wurtzel, directed (barely) by Eugene Forde, and starring Dolores del Rio, George Sanders, June Lang, Dick Baldwin (oh, no...), Ruth Terry, John Carradine, Keye Luke, Harold Huber, Leon Ames, and Pedro de Cordoba. With romantic entanglements set down in the middle of the Sino-Japanese War, International Settlement isn't competent enough to be even mildly diverting, and not ridiculous enough to be unintentionally amusing. In other words, it commits the worst sin a B can: it's boring. No extras for this nice fullscreen black and white transfer.

The S.S. Santa Louisa, bound for the Orient. Amateur journalist Joyce Parker (June Lang), having won a contest to write a story on her trip to Shanghai, spies the two most mysterious men on board--dangerous-looking Maurice Zabello (Pedro de Cordoba) and handsome, suave Del Forbes (George Sanders)--and decides they're the two best subjects for her story. Meeting Forbes, she discovers he's a soldier of fortune, bound for war-torn Asia. A cablegram announcing the imminent invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese spurs Forbes to advise Joyce to take the next boat back to America--a suggestion the spunky American refuses. Meanwhile, Forbes meets Zabello, a notorious arms dealer, who proposes that Forbes impersonate him and collect 200,000 pounds for a shipment of weapons. Forbes, suspicious, agrees, and makes the deal with Joseph Lang (Harold Huber) and partner Murdock (John Carradine). Unfortunately, Forbes' impersonation of Zabello is too good: beautiful Nicaraguan singer Lenore Dixon (Dolores del Rio) tries to kill "Zabello" in his hotel room--a desperate act that the smooth Forbes apparently takes as foreplay, since he blackmails her into going to dinner with him. Meanwhile, Joyce, unable to secure a hotel room, makes friends with newsreel photographer Wally Burton (Dick Baldwin), a brash American who's also friends with Forbes. Soon, Wally and Joyce are dodging Japanese bombs while lovers Forbes and Lenore are battling deadly criminal Monte Silvers (Leon Ames)...who has a connection to Lenore that could prove fatal to Forbes.

In looking up production info on International Settlement, I found a quote from a Fox representative that was sent to head Hollywood censor Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration (who in turn was responding to concerned inquires from the Republic of China): "[W]e have no intention of making a picture based upon the controversy between China and Japan. Our story, in the main, deals with a group of people of various nationalities and temperaments who are caught in a hotel in Shanghai. I am sure that the resulting comedy-drama will be inoffensive to anyone." "Inoffensive" politically, perhaps...but aesthetically? Since it was almost pro forma during this period of Hollywood moviemaking to take a historical context and either alter it beyond recognition or ignore it completely, using it merely as colorful backdrop for generic romances and dramas and intrigues, I certainly wasn't expecting International Settlement to give me a meaningful take on the Japanese invasion of China. And I wasn't disappointed. Aside from a few newsreel clips of throngs of Chinese civilians running through the streets (which are repeated over and over again), the conflict is never discussed. International Settlement's gun-running, comedy-romance drama could be set down in 15th century Spain, 11th century England, or south of the border on horseback, circa 1870, with just a change of surnames and costumes to distinguish them.

It's a low bar, admittedly, but had International Settlement simply and confidently entertained me, regardless of its level of sophistication, I wouldn't have given two whits for any historical invention or obliteration. However, the movie's turgid pacing and lackluster scripting (...and let's throw in some iffy performances, while we're at it)--are offenses no B should ever commit. Written by Lou Breslow (Charlie Chan at the Racetrack, Murder, He Says, Bedtime for Bonzo) and John Patrick (Mr. Moto Takes a Chance, The Hasty Heart, Some Came Running), the screenwriters not only fail to make anything of their best story element--the "International Settlement" area itself (which I knew nothing about, but which sounds like a more-than-promising backdrop for B intrigue)--they can't even inject any juice into their cliched gun-running and romantic entanglement subplots. The script features only a modicum of action interrupting seemingly endless scenes of tedious expository dialogue and romantic sparring: goony and elliptical for del Rio and Sanders; and chirpy and loud for bantering, bickering "comedy" couple Lang and Baldwin. When the bombs start falling, interest is briefly piqued, but only by contrast with the deadly dull scenes that preceded--as action set piece, the assault on Shanghai is certainly no great shakes (as for the production design, the evocation of 1938 Shanghai is necessarily cramped, due to the studio-bound sets, but that's no excuse for utterly failing in creating a believably exotic, war-torn atmosphere).

The performances don't exactly help, either. Top-billed Dolores del Rio (fair play: never a favorite of mine) only has to look exotic and alluring here, considering her strictly two-dimensional character...and yet she can't even manage that, coming over as faintly ghoulish, rather than seductive (her severe Vampira make-up design is at least half the problem). Appearing in something as trivial and slipshod as International Settlement no doubt had to rattle del Rio, who must have seen the writing on the wall for her Hollywood leading lady career after seeing International Settlement's end result. Pretty, vivacious June Lang, however (perhaps unaware of her own imminent fall from grace in Hollywood), seems able to handle better lines than those given to her...but then again, even Vera Huber Ralston would come over like Carole Lombard if she had to play against Dick Baldwin, one of the worst ham-fisted lunkheads ever to flirt briefly with a movie career (no wonder he was chiefly known in town for marrying Andy Hardy's sister). As for George Sanders, it's always initially interesting (and quite entertaining) to watch him act like a supreme snot...but after awhile (particularly when he has a lead role), when you sense there really is nothing else beneath his surface contempt and superciliousness, then you begin to notice how stiff and affected he can be--a briefly, perversely attractive manner hiding little more than an unpleasant evasion of some sort. It's not surprising he never really made it into the major A-list league--the audience (particularly back then) wanted to like its leading men...although Sanders' sneering disdain here seems entirely appropriate, considering the material at hand.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for International Settlement is just okay, with a sometimes contrasty, soft image, and a little bit more print damage than I'd like.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track has some squelchy hiss, but the dialogue is relatively clear. No closed-captions or subtitles available.

The Extras:
No extras for International Settlement.

Final Thoughts:
"Intrigue" at its most banal. The elements are there to make a fast-paced, exciting B about gun-running and stolen passion amid the bombs falling on exotic, dangerous Shanghai...but instead we get far too many inane romantic interludes, drowned by excruciatingly dull exposition. Most of the cast fails under the weight of crappy writing and Eugene Forde's somnambulant direction. Skip International Settlement.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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