Captain China (1950) stars Payne as skilled freighter captain Chinnough, a hard taskmaster (common thread in all four of these movies) who, during a typhoon, is locked up below by hateful mates Lon Chaney Jr. and John Qualen. Payne survives, and since his first mate Jeffrey Lynn falsely testified that the sinking was caused by Payne’s drunken negligence, Payne is disgraced and locked up for months. After his release he shows up as a passenger on Captain Jeffrey Lynn’s ship, where the crew includes Qualen and Chaney. Also aboard is Gail Russell, who’s on her way to her fiancé in Manila, but she becomes the object of rivalry between Payne and Lynn. For Payne and Russell it’s instant attraction and lots of smouldering gazes, but she bristles when she suspects Payne is just using her to make Lynn jealous. Payne and Chaney have a terrific, nearly unstoppable fistfight, after which Chaney and Qualen stew and plot their next murder attempt, and in the meantime we get to know the other passengers: missionaries Edgar Bergen and Ilka Gruning, mystery writer Ellen Corby and alcoholic officer Michael O’Shea. They’re all in place for this movie’s big attraction, the typhoon that tosses the vessel and its cargo about and tests all the characters. It’s a long and gripping struggle (with a grisly end for one of the bad guys) far beyond Lynn’s capabilities, so he admits he needs Payne’s help. Payne wrings the most humiliation out of the moment by making Lynn beg, but that disgusts Russell, so Captain China may win back his ship but lose the woman. Fun note for Canadian music fans (and fans of patio lanterns everywhere), Russell’s character is named Kim Mitchell.
In Tripoli (1950), Payne is U.S. Marine Commander on a mission to capture a Barbary pirate stronghold in support of a Naval assault. Philip Reed is the shrewd Shiek whose help they need, and he’s engaged to fiery Countess Maureen O’Hara. However, once O’Hara lays eyes on Payne, she’s smitten (another common theme in all these movies). She reconsiders her allegiances, tags along on the gruelling desert trek, applies her manipulative and seductive powers, plays the men against each other and tries to squeak out of her arrangement with the Shiek. Her position makes her privy to some key info on decoy artillery, which helps Payne win the battle, but he has a hard time convincing the brass to trust him.
Payne and O’Hara both play stubborn, proud characters in a schoolyard-type courtship where the more they fight the closer they’re getting, so there are plenty of enjoyable kicks, glares and insults. Howard da Silva is fabulous as the jolly, keen leader of a band of mercenaries who help Payne; his running gag is frequently, and with a big grin, interrupting intimate Payne-O’Hara moments, but he also gets in lots of great zingers on matters of loyalty and fighting for money, like this gem: “always glad to help a young country get started!” Tripoli was my favourite of this bunch, for the great cast, clever writing, nice production quality, from costumes to sandstorms and grand battles. Supporting cast includes Grant Withers, Alan Napier, and Connie Gilchrist, and the director was O’Hara’s husband at the time, Will Price.
Crosswinds (1951) puts Payne on the water once more, this time as a loner skipper whose beautiful boat is his pride and joy, his job, home and sweetheart. Until he meets Rhonda Fleming. She’s an alcoholic trying to get sober, and biding her time in the company of shady characters Forrest Tucker and pilot Robert Lowery. She’s also a big fan of the sea and beautiful boats like Payne’s, so she and skipper hit it off quick, but Payne ends up boat-less and in jail thanks to Tucker’s swindling. Once he’s out, Payne reluctantly joins crooks Alan Mowbray and John Abbott in a search for the gold that vanished along with Lowery and Fleming’s plane in an area full of headhunters and crocodiles. Everyone here is likably unlikable, so the fun is watching them all lust after that gold and try to cheat, double-cross, drown or feed each other to the crocs. They pull together just long enough to sail past a flurry of arrows and spears, and in a great bit, cut through the cannibals’ rope bridges and river traps. Even then their acts of decency need some “encouragement” at gunpoint. Both Crosswinds and Captain China were directed by Lewis R. Foster, and if I’m not mistaken the ship in Captain China was called the Crosswinds.
The Blazing Forest (1952) starts with Agnes Moorehead’s desire to make her miserable niece Susan Morrow happy. The young woman hates the idea of spending the rest of her life in remote woods where her aunt and uncle raised her, so widowed Moorehead calls in a favour from her old sweetheart William Demarest. To raise money off their land, they hire Payne, the most efficient, and apparently most hated, timber-clearing expert around. He seems to be a mean grump, who brings trouble and tragedy wherever he goes, but he’s just misunderstood. It’s actually his no-good, thieving, drinking brother Richard Arlen who makes the spectacular messes that Payne spends years cleaning up and working to pay for. Of course, the young lady Morrow falls for Arlen’s charms before she figures out the other brother is the good one. Another of the wrong assumptions in this plot leads to Arlen and Demarest crashing their truck and starting a massive forest fire. That, and a devastating multi-log rollaway earlier in the film, give us some very exciting looks at the perils of logging. Luckily both Morrow and Moorehead end up finding love and a happy future in that forest.
All four of these movies were Pine-Thomas productions.