Singapore (1947)

Singapore (1947) is a romantic smuggler exotic amnesia noir with Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner.

Directed by John Brahm Singapore is an enjoyable mix of movie exotica — the style which clichéd the best of the rest of the globe and brought it to Hollywood, minced it, encoded various messages concerning foreign policy and international relations — and presented it on the screen

Despite being a post-World War II drama set in Singapore, there isn't much that one can learn about the Fall of Singapore and the rebuilding of the island country and city-state in maritime Southeast Asia, which took place after 1945.

The story inside is about one man's efforts to rebuild his pre-War bliss. Before the Japanese invasion, Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray) was not only a happy-go-lucky smooth-as-you like pearl smuggler who had just met a super-sultry Ava Gardner, and embarked on the romance of his life. 

Fred MacMurray in Singapore (1947)

After this lovely flashback has concluded, we bypass World War II entirely — this will be dealt with in other movies — and transplant to the post-War Singapore which is evoked through a variety of lobbies, characters and street signs — as well as a substantial aerial establishing shot.

Now the War is over and Fred MacMurray is back for his half a million bucks worth of smuggled pearls and discovered that his wife-to-be is alive and quite well, he has several obstacles to overcome — being an intelligent and observant post-colonial British official played by Richard Haydn — the new husband of his amnesiac lover — and a small criminal gang headed by Thomas Gomez, also keen to get his hands on the pearls.

Ava Gardner and Fred MacMurray in Singapore (1947)

To escape the rise of Nazism in Germany, John Brahm moved to England in the early 1930s, where he worked as a film production supervisor. In 1936, he got his first opportunity to direct a movie, Broken Blossoms, and the moved to Hollywood, where he joined an increasing number of European directors fleeing Nazi misery. 

Ava Gardner in Singapore (1947)

In the coming years, this group of film makers would be instrumental in generating the style that came to be known as film noir. In no time at all John Brahm established himself as a competent and versatile director, with a quite distinct affinity for moody melodramas and suspense thrillers.

Ava Gardner and Fred MacMurray in Singapore (1947)

There is a fascinating aspect to the initial couple's courting in Singapore — for they are apparently so keen to bed that that after nine days of courtship, that they can't wait three weeks for the bans to be posted.

If there is one thing that we can say about film noir is that it is moral — not that there are any shortage of amoral characters — but their immortality is their interest.

The morality of the proposed wedding between Ava Gardner and Fred MacMurray in Singapore (1947) is fascinating and has to be one of the more extreme moral movie statements of 1947. For consider — the couple have met and fallen in love and clearly wish to sleep with each other, and are likely unable to wait. 

Christmas time in Singapore (1947)

But being moral actors of the highest order, the poor couple know that this will have to wait until they are married.

Hence, early into the movie's pre-War flashback, and nine days into a romance, the couple turn up at church seeking to get married, somewhat excited and anxious — only to be told that they must wait three more weeks because of the issuing of the banns of marriage. 

This is unthinkable to the horny couple played by Ava and Fred — three weeks is over twice as long as the period they have even known each other and it's unthinkable — and so they beg the minister to break the rules and wed them sooner. The minister and his guid-wife are in the process of relenting with a cheery chuckle and a warm smile — when the Japanese invasion begins.

Japanese bombing raid in Singapore (1947)

And so the marriage never happens and the consummation must also be abandoned. It's a terrible thing to be honourable to the dictates of the church — but there can be no sex before marriage it appears, not even in this film noir.

As an odd noir tip of the hat or afterthought, Singapore (1947) features a mini voice-over. You'll find in the film, one sentence of voice-over, as if the film had been scheduled and written with more of the noir style in mind — only to have it edited out for stylistic or other reasons. The result is most odd. One scene then, as Fred MacMurray's character Matt Gordon heads through the Japanese threatened Singapore, we hear his thoughts in the film noir custom — audibly imposed over the action.

Certainly it is not necessary, although at the same time it does add a split second of motivational character — a moment in the tenor of noir in the midst of an overseas adventure — a trope familiar to the audience but perhaps included here as an oversight that flicks the switch into the characteristic mode of the wold-weary narrator.

Ava Gardner in Singapore (1947)

The magic of amnesia in film noir allows virtually any plot point to be settled. For example — in Singapore, Ava Gardener's character Linda loses her memory after a bomb hits the building she is in — and regains it after being beaten up by the movie's villain — Thomas Gomez as Mr Mauribus.

The film noir Singapore (1947) being an item of Golden Age Hollywood exotica, there are racial and geographical clichés and representations that ......

How film noir and the larger body of Hollywood's cinema of the 1940s represents people from other places who are different from Americans, is an ever pertinent issue.

Difference is a compelling theme in film noir, which emphasis the difference between men and women, with firm social roles designated for both — but the representation of difference is something that tends to make us uncomfortable today, whereas it did not in 1947. 

It appears to be fairly common for actors of one ethnicity to perform as a character of another. Thomas Gomez, as a Euro-American, appears to be playing Spanish on his father (Sabino Tomás Gómez)'s side (Gibraltar and Santander, Spain) and French-Irish on his mother's side (Alsace and County Cork), Gomez's parents migrated to New York City shortly before his birth in 1905 as Sabino Tomás Gómez (or Sabino Tomas Gomez or Thomas Sabino Gomez).

Where the tropes come from and how they become embedded is fascinating — and relevant because cinema may well have been the primary way such ideas were shared in the 1940s. 

Ava Gardner in Singapore (1947)

Singapore (1947) is a post-World-War II film which features a returning veteran, returning to the scene of the war, rather than returning home. Although enlisted in the War, Fred MacMurray's character Matt Gordon does not seem to be that invested ion the military, although he is patriotic and seems to have acquitted himself well — even though he was a smuggler before the War and he returns to being a smuggler after the War.

Deputy Commissioner Hewitt: Why'd you come back? Leave something behind?

Matt Gordon: Oh, I wanted to see Singapore again. Find out what happened to it. I always loved it.

Deputy Commissioner Hewitt: A one-sided love.

Ava Gardner in Singapore (1947)

The upshot of this is that Matt Gordon is not a veteran with PTSD or any surviving issues, and seems untroubled by the conflict and its results, even though its results included the death or disappearance of his fiancée, Linda, played by Ava Gardner.

During the Pacific War, the Japanese invasion of Malaya culminated in the Battle of Singapore. When the British force of 60,000 troops surrendered on 15 February 1942, British prime minister Winston Churchill called the defeat "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history". British and Empire losses during the fighting for Singapore were heavy, with a total of nearly 85,000 personnel captured. Being an American in the midst of this is in light of what is portrayed in Singapore (1947), the accident of the War is overlooked.

Much of Singapore's infrastructure had been destroyed during World War II, including those needed to supply utilities. A shortage of food led to malnutrition, disease, and rampant crime and violence. A series of strikes in 1947 caused massive stoppages in public transport and other services. This does therefore seem to be an odd place for American tourists to be landing — although the tourists are essential to this old smuggler's story.

Fred MacMurray in Singapore (1947)

The tourist in question is played by character actor Porter Hall, veteran of the Pre-Code era and noir co-star to many a better known name. Porter Hall has a distinguished film noir career. Also a minor player in Singapore is Christmas — Christmas in film noir being an often overlooked area of study. In the case of Singapore, while Christmas adds a touch of the over-arching morality which keeps Ava Gardner and Fred MacMurray's characters out of bed and within the Christian moral fold, the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942 — around which the film is set — did not occur until until the 8th of February.

A further peculiarity about Singapore (1947) is the way in which it seems to lean on Casablanca (1942). As well as the foreign location, the characters share odd moments of similarity with the classic — the somewhat seedy and slightly effete underling Sacha Barda might be reminiscent of Peter Lorre's character in the earlier classic.

The set up also — passionate love in an exotic wartime setting — is clearly similar to that in Casablanca, although the largest signal of all that we might be following in the great movie's trail, is the sight of the aeroplane, most especially at the end. The whole aeroplane on the runway thing has been done better elsewhere, you know it. In Singapore it's stretched out in a few directions and tugs, tugs at those heartstrings, or tries to.

The conclusion of Singapore is nearly ambivalent. While there is a build-up around the departure of the aeroplane, there are runway scenes when the vehicle leaves and another as it returns — where Ava Gardner's character Linda is waiting. It's unclear what has transpired regarding her amnesia and of course she married her husband in good faith.

Fred MacMurray in Singapore (1947)

Linda's husband — Michael Van Leyden played by Roland Culver — is also not the man that Victor Laszlo is in Casablanca (1942) — but then Linda has an excuse for abandoning her pre-War fiancé in the form of some film noir amnesia. 

Singapore is a profound copy-job, it is true. Consider all the Casablanca characters once more in an exotic setting, in a story about passionate lovers separated by war and later reunited, with a stiff local police commissioner and some characterful comic relief, as well as a villainous villain with a big belly.

Mr. Mauribus: There are two things I can rely on - my appetite and my instinct.

The similarities between the two films are there but there is still no match — and Singapore is its own film, with its own tendencies. On top of everything else, the couple are supposed to have been through a concentration camp together, which should be bond enough for any pair — compared to Fred MacMurray's horny and sexually frustrated nine-day whirlwind, it makes deeper sense, at least in respect of that.

Fred MacMurray in Singapore (1947)

As for the literal yellow-facing of Thomas Gomez, it is hard to say exactly what ethnicity the make-up department have gone for, but he is probably supposed to be a Singaporean. It can't be right to mix this into the already confused matter of exotica in golden age Hollywood, but it happened when the studios created these overseas environments — and it sometimes even happened when they made films about the United States as well — case in point being The Underworld Story (1950).

Mr Mauribus is a product of these studios and this time, and it does not look like anybody raised a perfumed eyebrow to any of this white-washing and yellow-facing, since it was still merrily going on throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s before anybody asked what the hell was going on. 

Linda: So let me ruin you fast.

Matt Gordon: How many have you ruined?

Linda: You're my last victim, darling.

Casablanca style ending? Singapore (1947)

Fly into Singapore (1947) at Wikipedia

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