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After living abroad for several years, journalist John Royer returns to the United States just after the U.S. enters World War II. His boast that he could easily smuggle rubber, a key wartime natural resource, out of Malaya has him tasked with doing just that. He manages to get someone from his past, Carnaghan, sprung from Alactraz and together they head off to South East Asia posing as Irishmen. Once there, Carnaghan lines up some of his old cronies and with Royer and a few plantation owners plans to smuggle the rubber out from under the Japanese army's watchful eye. Written by
Malaya may seem a fantastic tale, but the story actually has quite a bit of truth to it. When World War II broke out the Japanese quickly conquered most of the rubber producing areas of the world. The modern mechanized army does run on rubber and both the USA and Germany developed types of synthetic rubber to be used.
My mother told me during World War II there were all kinds of drives for recyclable material and among the most valuable was rubber. People contributed all kinds of old tires for the war effort.
Lionel Barrymore plays the real life Manchester Boddy who was publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News who was the prime mover in the scheme you see portrayed here in Malaya. Though this story is fictional, the need for rubber in the USA was critical at the time and there was in fact a rubber smuggling operation going on.
Spencer Tracy before he came to MGM played just the kind of two fisted action heroes at Fox which was his original studio. He expressed an interest in doing this kind of film for old time sake and got cast in it. He really isn't poaching on Humphrey Bogart's territory these were the kind of roles he originally did in film while Bogey was playing hoods over at Warner Brothers.
Because the script called for a buddy team of heroes, James Stewart was approached and he even conceded top billing to Tracy. According to the Films of James Stewart, he admired Tracy as an actor so much that he was grateful just for the opportunity to work with him again. In fact Stewart's first film role was in Murder Man, a film that starred Spencer Tracy back in 1935.
With the two of these big stars in the leads, MGM was able to recruit a really outstanding group of players like John Hodiak, Valentina Cortese, Roland Winters, Richard Loo, the aforementioned Lionel Barrymore and my two favorites Gilbert Roland and Sydney Greenstreet.
Roland was shortchanged though. Watching Malaya I could tell his role as Tracy's adventurous friend was left on the cutting room floor. But even a little Gilbert Roland is always a pleasure to watch.
This was Sydney Greenstreet's last film and in it he essentially reprises the part of Ferrari in Casablanca. He's got the best lines in the film and his scenes with his cockatoo are classic. As he says, he's just a saloon keeper with an access to gossip. Which gets put to very good use.
Stewart the idealist, Tracy the cynical realist. Too bad they didn't work together more.
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