The Road to Singapore features a memorable tracking shot. It’s night. Cross-fade from natives pounding jungle drums to a woman gazing out her bedroom window. The camera pulls back and up, away from her window and over acres of dark jungle to settle behind a man standing on his porch, gazing at the woman’s bungalow in the distance.
Granted, the shot’s tracking over an obvious paper-mâché model, but kudos to director Alfred Green for trying. This is a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp.
The man in the shot is Hugh, played by William Powell. The woman is Phillipa, played by Doris Kenyon.
The film opens with them en route to Khota, a small tropical island in the Pacific. Hugh has returned alone after supposedly running off with another man’s wife. Phillipa has come to marry the local doctor, a man she hardly knows. Hugh pursues Phillipa, but she rebukes his advances.
After they arrive in Khota, Phillipa gets married. The marriage goes south fast. She wants him to sweep her off her feet, he wants her to find his socks.
Hugh and Phillipa flirt. Her resolve weakens. Things come to a head when Phillipa, believing her husband to be out of town, accepts Hugh’s invitation to dine at his bungalow.
The film tries for passionate drama but falls short. Too many characters deliver their lines while staring off at nothing in particular. At least the pre-code script delivers a satisfying, and plausible, ending.
What makes The Road to Singapore worth watching is William Powell’s performance. Despite the tropical locale, Powell exudes the urbane wit and charm that would become his trademark. He ambles through the film, impervious to the mediocre melodrama. Powell doesn’t so much carry the movie as rise above it.