As the title of this article references, Trade Winds, released by United Artist in 1938, owes much of its success to two attractive blondes, Joan Bennett and Ann Sothern. However, Bennett and Sothern arguably owe much more to the film for the career boosting turn it gave each of them respectively. This light mystery-comedy-suspense yarn is fun on more than one level and both of its female stars made the most of what it offered them.
San Francisco, 1938. Kay Kerrigan (Bennett), a beautiful, blonde socialite, confronts and shoots her dead sister's lover when he proves to be a cad supreme, by admitting he practically put her sis in the morgue. Realizing what a pickle she's in, the blonde cutie dyes her hair black, changes her name and takes it on the lam across southeast Asia. Close on her heels is detective Sam Wye (Fredric March), a skirt chasing gumshoe who's out to collect the $100K reward for Kerrigan's capture. Also in tow is Wye's fast talking, wise cracking dame of a secretary Jean (Sothern), who is out to collect a wedding ring from her boss. Along for the crazy ride is police detective Ben Blodgett (Ralph Bellamy), a long legged, dull witted flat foot who likes to flash his badge at the drop of a hat. As Wye pursues and catches up with his beautiful prey incognito, he falls hard for her and she for him, which makes their pickle a double dill..er..um..deal. The globe trotting continues and Wye is faced with a choice, turn his lady love in or face a life on the run with her.
Joan Bennett had been a popular blonde about Hollywood for years when she made Trade Winds. The script called for her to darken her hair in order to skirt the law and change her appearance. The film's producer and Bennett's future husband, Walter Wanger, was taken with the striking resemblance his muse had to new hot property Hedy Lamarr, in her scenes as a brunette. As a result, Joan kept the look, both personally and professionally and began to get better parts. The change was so noticeable that it even elicited a musical response from none other than Cole Porter, who penned this line in his song, "Let's Not Talk About Love": "Let's speak of Lamarr, that Hedy so fair; why does she let Joan Bennett wear all her old hair?" ( In a side note, Bennett divorced husband Gene Markey in 1937, the year before Trade Winds was released and eventually married Wanger. Wanger had produced Lamarr's American film debut Algiers earlier in 1938. Lamarr then married Markey the next year, 1939....oh the Golden Age of Hollywood!) The change made Joan appear more sultry and combined with the exotic locales presented in Trade Winds ~ via back screen projection ~ her days as a sweet blonde ingenue were numbered and the femme fatale Bennett of 40's film noir was soon to emerge.
Ann Sothern had also suffered a rather lackluster career, leaving a none too promising stint at Columbia Pictures and RKO respectively. When independent producer Wanger offered her the second female part in Trade Winds, she showed promise as a comedic gem. Meanwhile, over at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a script originally intended for blonde bombshell Jean Harlow had been shelved due to Harlow's untimely death in 1937. When Metro producer J. Walter Rubin saw Sothern in Wanger's film, he thought she'd fit the Harlow role well and she was subsequently cast. The film was titled Maisie and it not only made Sothern a star in her own right, but won her a long term contract with prestigious MGM. She graced all ten films in the popular Maisie series, with her showgirl charm and wise-cracking wit.
The film's leading man, Fredric March on the other hand was riding a career high. The previous year March had great successes with the David O. Selznick productions Nothing Sacred and the original A Star is Born, the latter for which the actor received an Oscar nomination. Though better in heavy drama, March handled himself well in the light comedy. Still it must be noted that he seemed more at ease during the dramatic moments of Trade Winds. Rounding out the frantic foursome, Ralph Bellamy had also just come out of 1937 quite successfully with his unforgettable appearance as the wealthy rube in Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, for which he too was Oscar nominated. The perennial second lead, Bellamy doesn't come off nearly as good in this film as he did in Truth, but gave a worthy performance nonetheless. A quick mention must be made for a quick appearance by the terrific Joyce Compton, blink and you might miss her. Though she doesn't use her comic skills in this film, just knowing what great personality she has bottled up as evidence of her other great film bits, is a pleasure.
No heavy drama here, but it is fun to watch the ultra chic Bennett gadding about the remote islands and isolated areas of pre-war Asia in elegant garb created for her by designer Irene, while speaking in her most polished finishing school way. One would think she just stepped out of a Manhattan salon instead of a native hut. Lucky she was having the smart and savvy Wanger guiding her career and luckier still donning that dark wig.