International Settlement DVD Review: A Forgotten, Forgettable Film That Has Its Pleasures

Fox Cinema Archives continues to release nearly everything from their extensive vault whether or not anyone actually cares for them to, or if the films are even worth the effort. Case in point is the 1938 film International Settlement. I can’t imagine anyone really pushing for it to come out on DVD. I did a little searching for information about the film and found very little. Most of the websites that come up are various stores wanting to sell it to you, with little information about the film itself or even the DVD. Leonard Maltin dedicates two sentences to it (and one is nothing but the cast list) on the TCM site. A grand total of 19 people have rated it on IMDb (for comparison Bringing Up Baby from the same year has over 40,000 ratings.) I found but one other review of the film in the whole of the Internet. All of which indicates how little anyone cares about this film.

It is a B-movie all the way through, directed by Eugene Forde whose probably best known for a string of Charlie Chan movies and stars Dolores del Rio, John Carradine, and George Sanders (who we’ll get to in a minute.) It was made fast and cheap. Though its name might give you hopes for some exotic locations (as well as its Shanghai setting), except for some stock footage of bombing raids and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of the Bund, it was obviously shot entirely on a soundstage. The story is typical for low-budget flicks of the time – an exotic, foreign locale sets the stage for adventure and romance and is hardly handled well. All in all, it’s exactly the sort of thing nobody misses and would hardly be noticed if it was lost forever.

And yet despite the fact that its been largely forgotten, and those that remember it don’t remember it fondly, and that it really isn’t particularly well made, I really rather liked it. This is largely due to George Sanders. As the film began, I turned to my wife and said, “He’s really rather handsome, isn’t he?” As the film progressed, I wondered why he never became a star. After the movie, I checked him out on IMDb and quickly realized he was a star. He had been in some 135 films included Rebecca, All About Eve, The Black Swan, and even voiced Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. He’s just young here so I didn’t recognize him. But even in this early, B-grade film he’s electric. He lights up the stage and makes it worth watching.

The rest of the film, not so much, but it’s fun and went down easy enough to keep me entertained. It’s like a bit of cotton candy – not something I eat often, nor even something I particularly like, but at a certain time in a certain place I find I can enjoy it enough. At least for a moment.

The plot is pretty ridiculous, but lively just the same. Sanders plays Del Forbes an adventurer on a cruise ship headed towards Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war. Just why a pleasure boat would be headed towards war is not explained. Presumably, it left before war broke out and before it lands, the captain does advise that all passengers should jump on a passing boat and head home. Neither Forbes nor the beautiful Joyce Parker (June Lang), who got the cruise for free providing she’ll write a story for it, take that other boat and both quickly land in Shanghai.

Before they exit, Forbes meets Zabello (Pedro de Cordoba), who is some kind of gangster, and dying. Zabello talks Forbes into impersonating him at a meeting with a couple of other gangsters trading information about a shipment of goods for a big wad of cash. Of course, things go bad. Of course, there is all sorts of mistaken identity. Of course, there is romance and adventure and varying amounts of racist characters.

It is all a bit ridiculous and not very good, but still rather entertaining. It also looks quite good for such an old film of so little consideration. There is no information on how or even if they cleaned the print up, but it’s surprisingly clean for such a film. There’s some grain and the darker scenes look a bit muddled, but all things considered it really looks quite good. There are no extras.

You just have to wonder why Fox continues to go through the trouble of putting out films such as International Settlement on DVD. I don’t imagine anyone but the biggest of old movie buffs will notice. And yet it is really quite spectacular that they do. I’d never of heard of this one, let alone sat and watched it if they hadn’t. While certainly this doesn’t compare with many of the classics from the same period, I found it kind of delightful and at least entertaining enough to be glad I did.

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Mat Brewster

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