Thursday, 9 September 2010

Stamboul Quest (1934)

For the first 20 minutes or so, “Stamboul Train” is quite a promising film. Myrna Loy is the Fräulein Doktor, the most important female spy working for Germany during World War I. And then George Brent appears – in fairness to him, it’s not (entirely) his fault; it’s his character and what he stands for. Falling in love at first sight with Loy, he proceeds to follow her across Europe to Istanbul and interfering with her mission simply because he’s “in love with her”. I really hate this ill-conceived idea that a man is all that is necessary for a woman to fulfil herself, even if that means putting her own country at risk – and recently several films I have seen emphasise this premise (“Lady in the Dark”, “More than a Secretary” also with Brent and “They All Kissed the Bride”). For contrast, having finished a short 19th Century Portuguese novel where the main character fulfils herself through work, refusing to get married, was somewhat refreshing.

But back to the film and what it is its main problem: the script. This looks the most routine of routine jobs – I’d go as far as wonder if this wasn’t conceived as a B picture and got changed as it developed. Or maybe it didn't change at all - this was release only a couple of months after "The Thin Man" and "Manhattan Melodrama". It’s not just Brent’s character that is a cardboard cutout, there’s also a badly explained ending, tying in with the first scene (the film is a shown to us in flashback, without no apparent reason). So what started so well, goes on, and on, constantly finding a new low until it hits rock bottom at the very end.

The film has an interesting connection with Mata Hari – and more the Garbo film than the actual story. It winks at the audience referring to the plot of the early film. The two films (both produced by MGM) would overlap in the “real” timescale. This, and Loy’s performance before Brent follows her to Istanbul, are two of the main interest points of the film. A third aspect of interest is the openness about Loy’s sexual behaviour which is surprisingly not toned down: if IMDb is correct the film was released two weeks after the enforcement of the Hays Code.


Evangeline Holland said...

I'm going to assume this was intended to be a sort of B-movie--another one of Myrna Loy's bland "exotic" roles--until Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man made her an accidental star.

I get chewed out by classic film fans frequently when I say this, but truthfully, Myrna made a number of very bad films when she was paired with William Powell or when she was expected to carry the film on her shoulders. I don't blame her at all (except that she didn't fight for roles the way her contemporaries did) but it seems like MGM made no attempt to build films around her on-screen personality.

She was comparable to Ann Sheridan over at Warner Brothers: wildly popular, beautiful, and talented, but stuck in a bunch of terribly-written programmers that only made money because audiences loved them.

Evangeline Holland said...

when she wasn't paired with William Powell!