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  • An earnest fellow struggles in the Orient for years as the employee of a huge corporation, trying to provide OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA. Never faltering in his devotion, even at the expense of family & friends, he is repeatedly mistreated or ignored by The Company...

    This intriguing film, based on the best-selling novel by Alice Tisdale Hobart, shows the eternal struggle between the Cog & the Wheel, the little man and the giant corporation. In this case, The Company is the epitome of every heartless bureaucracy, commercial or political, which controls the lives of its workers, demands unswerving obedience, and offers very little in return.

    The cast all do very well in their roles: Pat O'Brien, constantly called on to choose between The Company and his family; Josephine Hutchinson as his wife, who must become a tower of strength while blaming The Company for the death of her son; Lyle Talbot, John Eldredge, Henry O'Neill, William B. Davidson & George Meeker, as various Company functionaries & executives, who move through their lives for good or ill; and Jean Muir, as a young Company wife driven near to desperation.

    Christian Rub as an old doctor & Keye Luke as a young Communist officer both standout in key roles. Willie Fung, who appeared uncredited numerous times in tiny bit parts during Hollywood's Golden Age, here receives proper recognition in what was probably his finest performance, that of O'Brien's servant.

    Special nods should go to Arthur Byron & dour Donald Crisp, wonderful in small roles as bosses who make the ultimate sacrifice for The Company.

    Warners didn't stint on producing fine atmospherics for this film. The Chinese scenes are especially well mounted.
  • Pat O'Brien is magnificent as the loyal company man whose values are repeatedly called into question when it becomes obvious, even to him, that the company is costing both the Americans and the Chinese their lives in the name of maximizing profit. Even the death of his own son does not totally convince O'Brien. The supporting cast is marvelous, and the view of 1935 China is a special treat. This one is good for repeated viewings to understand the forces that drove a completely different world.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Wow...this is a very powerful film with a strong social message--one people of the day may have assumed espoused socialism. The story is about an insanely devoted employee of an oil company (Pat O'Brien). He's stationed in a miserable part of the world--and lives in the most primitive conditions in China. However, he does this without complaint and gives everything to the company without complaint. Through the course of the movie, he sacrifices his young child, his friendships and even nearly loses his life---yet, at every turn, the soulless corporation for whom he works shows absolutely no appreciation whatsoever....none. And through this, his wife (Josephine Hutchinson) steadfastly stands by his side and supports him--though it breaks her heart to see her man used horribly by a system that could really care less about what's right and which fails to reciprocate his loyalty.

    The film is a biting indictment of the corporate world--something Hollywood was loathe to do during the 1930s because of widespread fears of communism. The film's socialist leanings, therefore, come as a surprise--though the film clearly had a point. This made for an exciting and very interesting film. The only negatives were the somewhat blunted ending where the high muckity-mucks decided that O'Brien SHOULD be rewarded for his loyalty--making the film more like an indictment of middle and upper-middle management instead of the the entire corporate structure. While I am about as far from a socialist as you'd find, the film had a great point to make and I appreciated its risky (at the time) message.

    Very good acting and an inventive script make this one worth seeing.
  • The length and sweep of many novels that are brought to the screen often give the film an episodic quality: too many incidents, too many characters, too little time to do justice to any of it.

    Here is a picture that manages, for the most part, to avoid such pitfalls, and to tell a "big" story with skill and intensity. Like its excellent director, Mervyn LeRoy, it remains greatly underappreciated.

    The theme of personal responsibility being compromised by business obligations is one that movies have not often handled, and certainly never more effectively than here. Character conflicts are dealt with in a mature, understated manner. The "company" is portrayed as an impersonal, largely uncaring force, oblivious to the needs and personal fulfillment of its employees.

    One could object to the contrived manner in which Steve and Hester meet at the start, and quickly arrange a marriage of convenience. And surely Pat O'Brien, with his limited range, was a less than ideal choice for the leading role. Overall, however, you will not find many pictures of its type that equal this one.
  • A lot of what you read about "Oil for the Lamps of China" focuses on the socialist, anti-big oil themes of the film's story. While this is a particularly fascinating aspect of the film, historically and philosophically, I can't help but feel the real crux of the story is much darker and more depressing. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most depressing films I've ever seen from the 1930's.

    This movie tells the story of a man profoundly lacking in the slightest shred of dignity. A man who has no self-respect and allows himself to be abused and mistreated by the company he works for. He allows his very soul to be raped by this company. Why, the complete and total devotion he shows to this company surpasses the reasonable and enters the realm of psychosis.

    This, to me, is why the movie is about more than just bashing the corporation and propping this guy up as some kind of hero through victimization. This man is no hero. He's pretty disgusting to me. He is complicit in many of the company's sins, as well as his own. He is the one who repeatedly chooses the company over his wife, his baby, his friends, his pride. This isn't some Steinbeck story about what a man will do to keep from starving. There is no indication Stephen Chase couldn't go back to the States and get another job. He refuses to do so. Refuses because he delusionally believes his job is a part of some greater calling and that there is some payoff at the end of all this. There could not be a reward to make it all worthwhile really. Any rational man or woman would know this. The film seems to say that it is Stephen's idealism that allows him to suffer and make others suffer. But I find that pretty hard to swallow. He doesn't just take it on the chin the whole time but he passes it on to those around him.

    It's certainly a highly interesting character study, as well as all it has to say about corporations and business practices. But it's also pretty bleak and soul-crushing. The actors are all superb and the direction is fine. It's a film that gives you quite a bit to chew over but be prepared to not like the taste of everything you're chewing.
  • You might recognize that title line from How To Succeed In Business as Robert Morse sings his philosophy of life in the business world. But that was from the safety of Madison Avenue in New York, not in the frontier atmosphere of Kuomintang China. Pat O'Brien endures all for the sake of the company which is never referred to by its actual name which is the Atlantis Oil Company. It is reverently and in semi-hushed tones always referred to in Oil For The Lamps Of China as "THE COMPANY", in the same way the Central Intelligence Agency is called that in much espionage fiction.

    From what I was able to gather the Atlantis Oil Company does what oil companies do. One of the byproducts of petroleum is kerosene and since China is hardly wired for electricity, they depend on oil lamps for illumination. So this company has a nice market there, drilling the oil from China and selling it back to them. And its all presented in such awe as spreading the benefits of civilization, western civilization that is.

    So Pat O'Brien goes to China with the zeal of a missionary. He gets dumped by the woman he was supposed to marry, but then meets up with Josephine Hutchinson who was on an oriental tour with her father who was a professor of oriental history, but who died on the boat. Two lonely people commiserate and fall in love.

    After they marry the film turns absolutely bizarre. O'Brien and Hutchinson endure so much for THE COMPANY, like the loss of a child, long separation, outright theft of an idea for a new type kerosene lamp O'Brien events. I hate to say this but Pat should have taken up a new career. Anyone else would have, but he carries on strong in his faith in THE COMPANY.

    The film was based on a novel by Alice Tisdale Hobart and the book was first and foremost a romance novel between two people in an exotic location, exotic for Americans of the time that is. As romance it's all right, the sociological implications are frightening however.

    Remember that How To Succeed In Business was a satire, this film was never meant to be that.
  • Pat O'Brien is dedicated to his job at the power company. He's trying to get ahead and get a name for himself and a little recognition. At a work seminar, the speaker says select workers are being sent to China to learn from them, to think like them, to be as efficient as them – to learn their work ethic. He is transferred but is told that the company frowns upon married men in China as the wives can't take the time alone there, as much is demanded on each man by the company. But Pat was engaged. He was, until he received a wire, saying she backed out from coming to a strange land. But he had to get someone to save face. Enter Josephine Hutchinson was traveling with her father, a lover and teacher of the Orient, who passed away while traveling. Their conversations lead to them being married and an understanding was made between them. What I consider a poor man's "The Good Earth," "Oil for the Lamps of China" is a story of two people finding themselves and understanding each other's roles in the world. I love the title, as it feels very old and yet very resourceful and inventive. Based on a novel, this was a captivating story of American people thrust in the Chinese world. Through their ups and downs, trials and tribulations, he is trying to ahead in the company, doing and dying for them, while she is trying to be a strong and devoted wife to her man. Josephine Hutchinson was a good actress who has virtually been forgotten, but a lot of that is due to the fact she was not cast as the female lead very often. This was probably her biggest and best role in Hollywood ever. She was also seen in Lana Turner's "Cass Timberlane" and Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" in a very small role. If you ever get a chance to see "Oil for the Lamps of China," a very rare, intelligent and engrossing film, please watch it and enjoy films the way they were years ago and were meant to be – entertaining while informative of a country, people, of a way of life, of a way to live, of a new perspective.
  • Pat O'Brien stars with Josephine Hutchinson in "Oil for the Lamps of China," a 1935 film, directed by Mervyn LeRoy. O'Brien plays Stephen Chase, who is transferred to China by the oil company for whom he works. After a time, he arranges for his fiancé to meet him in Yokahama so they can be married, though the company frowns against marriage because "women can't handle it" - meaning living in the Chinese outpost.

    Unfortunately or fortunately, Stephen's bride-to-be leaves him standing at the altar, or the boat dock, anyway; he receives a telegram saying she changed her mind. He walks into a hotel bar and sees a woman (Josephine Hutchinson) sitting alone at a table. Her name is Hester. They talk for a few minutes. He learns that she was traveling with her father, who taught Chinese history but had never been to China. On the boat over, he died. Stephen invites her to dinner. He later explains that to return without a wife means that he will lose face and be considered a fool. He proposes, asking for nothing but companionship. She accepts.

    Eventually they fall in love, and in many ways, Hester is the best thing that has ever happened to him. She's certainly a lot better than the company he deifies, which causes him both personal and professional losses after he makes great sacrifices in order to do right by them.

    The film seems to be making the statement that no sacrifice on behalf of "the company" is too great. Seeing the way a lot of companies act today, and the way "the company" behaved in this film, I wouldn't say that's the way to go.

    The original book, by Alice Tisdale Hobart, apparently concentrates on the romance in the exotic locale of China. I wish the film version had done the same, casting a romantic leading man like Errol Flynn, perhaps. As it stands, it doesn't hold up well today. Josephine Hutchinson was an interesting actress and it was good to see her. Pat O'Brien, usually likable, remains likable here but also a bit of a fool given his devotion to the company.

    Just okay.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Let's talk about the facile conclusion first. I suspect the telephone scene between Hartford (Henry O'Neill) and Gilbert was shot after the picture was previewed. For one thing, "Gilbert" is not listed in the official cast list at all; and for another, rather too much is made of the scene, with its elaborate build-up of phone operators in New York and Shanghai; and finally, the scene is dramatically rather pointless. The elimination of this whole finish would greatly improve the picture. So, assuming we have jettisoned that junky conclusion, what we have here is the engrossing translation of a dime-store novel into an uncompromising attack on Big Business.

    Directed with drive and pace (though nothing that follows quite matches the inventiveness of the introductory sequence with Willard Robertson lecturing the cadets as he struts back and forth in front of an enormous globe), "Oil for the Lamps of China" is chock full of memorable characters. Keye Luke provides a fine-etched cameo as a young Communist officer, while Arthur Byron is a stand-out as the boss who is transferred to a place "where I won't be boss any more." And it's a mighty pleasant change to find an older woman cast in the heroine spot. Despite the use of ancient stock footage as establishing shots, the Chinese atmosphere is created with careful and caring realism. Full credit to director LeRoy and his crew of able technicians.