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Oil for the Lamps of China

(1935 b 98')

En: 6 Ed: 7

A man dedicates his life to a big oil company's work in China in this adaptation of the novel by Alice Tisdale Hobart.

Oil company executive Hartford (Henry O'Neill) sends men to China, promising the company will take care of them. Stephen Chase (Pat O'Brien) gets a contract in Manchuria and asks his boss (Arthur Byron) for leave to marry. He also has invented a better kerosene lamp. At Yokohama Stephen learns his fiancé changed her mind; but he meets Hester (Josephine Hutchinson) and invites her for dinner. He tells her he will "lose face" if he returns without a wife. Since her father died, she accepts. The boss opposes marriage, because wives there have to wait and tend to nag. He tells Stephen ten thousand lamps are coming; but it was named after Swaley. Transferred to the tanks in the Yukon, the boss commits suicide. Hester encourages Stephen. The new boss McCargan (Donald Crisp) sends Stephen to the tanks at Kin Nang even though his wife is pregnant. Hester insists on going with Stephen.

Stephen has to leave Hester and the doctor, because a fire threatens the tanks. He saves them by burning the huts; but the doctor says the baby died, because he needed Stephen's help. Hester tells Stephen that something burned out in her. Stephen is called to Shanghai to explain to Swaley, who tells him to be more efficient. Hester tells Stephen that she has become part of him even though he is not part of her.

Stephen is transferred to Chow Yang in southern China, where Don Wellman (John Eldredge) and his wife Alice (Jean Muir) welcome him and Hester. Stephen countermands Don's order to get the honored Ho's business. Don resents losing face but later apologizes. Famine and cholera devastate Chow Yang. Stephen and Don go out themselves to collect the quota. Alice's boy gets sick, but Hester takes care of him. Ho tells Stephen he must fire Don to keep the merchants' contracts. Hester argues with Stephen for Don; but Don doesn't blame him. McCargan is sent to work under Stephen. When Communists become active, an officer demands the company's gold from Stephen. He puts Hester on a boat, but Ho is killed by soldiers. Stephen persuades McCargan to help him carry the gold through the marshes to save their career work. The army shoots McCargan and wounds Stephen; but he is picked up by a government boat.

Hartford offers Stephen a top position under him in China; but Kendall is appointed, because Stephen thinks like the Chinese. Seeing that Stephen is only hanging on for his pension, Hester goes to Hartford and argues for her husband, mentioning his patent on the lamp. The company's president calls Hartford and tells him to replace Kendall with Stephen. In the final scene Stephen tells Hester that the company does take care of its own.

This realistic drama explores the personal sacrifices made by employees of a transnational oil company and their families. Stephen is barely able to love his wife as much as his work; but she is expected to give all for him and his work. The unrealistic deus ex machina ending may have been designed to avoid offending powerful oil companies.

Copyright © 2000 by Sanderson Beck

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