Archive for Anna May Wong

The Sunday Intertitle: Quake Thinking

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by dcairns

OldSanFrancisco

Censored scene, via GoneMovie.com.

OLD SAN FRANCISCO is what I call an epic. Also, it’s a bit racist. Not as much as BIRTH OF A NATION, but every time you find some kind of excuse for it, it redoubles its efforts to freak you out. In the end, it’s too melodramatic and silly to offend seriously, but you do feel very glad it couldn’t have been made more recently. We’re not necessarily better people, but our sensibilities are more attuned to the symptoms of certain kinds of racism.

Screenplay is co-authored by Darryl Zanuck, whose sins against Chinese-Americans also include THE BOWERY.

And it’s a Vitaphone soundie! The odd pistol shot, and a really nice music score by Hugo Riesenfeld (SUNRISE).

The movie begins with a prologue, which seems pointless but isn’t really. We see the settling of San Francisco, and how an important rancho is threatened by the gold rush. We meet the rancher’s brother, and see his gallant (and somewhat murderous) old-world Spanish nobility in action. But now we forget about most of this, because we’re flashing forward to 1906! Does that date mean anything to you? It ought to…

A title reading “The Story” appears, to cries of “About time!” from me and Fiona.

vlcsnap-2013-06-02-09h37m03s111

The rancho is now fallen on hard times. Josef Swickard, playing Don Hernandez de Vasquez, sits brooding, as spectral figures from the past whirl about him in a gay dance. It takes me a minute to notice that they’re see-through products of double exposure.

“He’s remembering the good old days,” I say.

“- when people were translucent,” finishes Fiona.

The intertitles in this movie are pretty spectacular, and so is the photography (and later, the special effects).

vlcsnap-2013-06-02-09h53m00s203

Hernandez has a pretty daughter, Dolores, played by Dolores Costello, of MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and marrying John Barrymore fame. She’s rather anodyne here. An Irish businessman wants to buy the rancho but Don Hernandez won’t sell. The Irishman has a son (Charles Emmett Mack), leading to romance angle. He also has an evil associate, played by Warner Oland. Perplexingly, at first, Oland doesn’t seem to be playing Chinese. But he always played Chinese! And we’ve been promised hot Chinatown action!

In addition to apparently not being Chinese, the Swedish actor is playing a man with the uninspiring name of Chris Buckland. It’s a name which fails to conjure images of swaggering oriental villainy. To me it suggests a man with a beer gut in a rugby shirt holding a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Fiona suggests he might run a corner shop with a name like that.

vlcsnap-2013-06-02-09h41m23s155

Fortunately, Oland is soon revealed to be Chinese after all. He’s a self-hating “mongol” who campaigns against his own kind. The land-grab plot and self-hating villain basically turn this into the original of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. (Incidentally, Richard Williams is coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — yay!)

This is all revealed when Oland descends to his secret cellar where he has a hidden Buddha shrine, a withered twin (tiny Angelo Rossitto, another Barrymore associate) in a cage (“This is basically BASKET CASE,” observes Fiona) and also Anna May Wong as a spy. The racial politics are screwy as heck here. Oland is an evil oriental whose “Mongol” side is exposed when he tries to ravish Costello. But Rossitto is an agreeable little guy, and Sojin turns up as a scary but honorable Chinatown businessman. I have mixed feelings about the Chinese villain who hates the Chinese trope. It seems rather like a way of being racist against the Chinese without coming out and saying it. We always project on to others the sins we fear we might be guilty of.

vlcsnap-2013-06-02-09h40m02s89

The plot convolutes and inverts until we wind up with the following scenario: Oland has kidnapped Costello to the depths of Chinatown, where he and a gang of filthy yellow scum are about to add her to their harem of slaves. Rossitto is leading Mack to the rescue, but he can’t make it in time. Costello prays for deliverance. Is that a rumble of reply from the Divine Maker?

Earthquake!

vlcsnap-2013-06-02-09h46m50s49

I’m sure the 3,000 victims of the earthquake and fire would be delighted to know that their painful and terrifying deaths had been worthwhile, saving as they did Dolores Costello’s pristine caucasian virginity. I mean, I did want her to be rescued, I just wonder if a truly benevolent God might have found a less destructive way to do it? Still, the effects, both full-scale and miniature, are truly impressive — they were subsequently reused as stock footage in THE SISTERS (1938).

Third Barrymore connection: JB is supposed to have drunkenly slept through the Great Earthquake, awakening the next day, stepping into the rubble, and presumably thinking “Man, I must have really tied one on last night.”

The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by dcairns

Actually, we don’t bother with this “Mothering Sunday” stuff in Scotland, we prefer plain old “Mother’s Day.” And I can well recall my mother’s irritation when European Union interference caused Mother’s Day and daylight saving time to fall on the same day, resulting in a pitiful 23 hour Mother’s Day.

This week’s subject is PETER PAN, Herbert Brenon’s faithful and elegant filming of JM Barrie’s play. All the pantomime artifice of the play is preserved, but augmented with charming movie tricks — thus, Tinkerbell is a flying light in longshot, but with dream-continuity becomes a tiny girl in a billowing gossamer dress when viewed more closely. Nana the dog is played by a human in dog drag, and the crocodile likewise. Anna Mae Wong is Tiger Lily, and looks happier than I’ve ever seen her. (She so often has an air of solemnity or melancholy about her.)  Everybody seems jolly, except maybe the pirates…

Leading the cutthroat crew is Edinburgh-born Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, a hissable villain with quite a scary face. A familiar one too — he played Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. He’s splendidly outfitted, with a domino ring on the finger of his good hand, and Torrence compensates for his genuinely disturbing face by doing a lot of mugging and sneering and generally letting us know that he’s in on the joke. This kind of thing works for the kids sophisticated enough to interpret, but I can imagine toddlers being terrified of him nonetheless.

In the best panto tradition, Peter is played by a girl, the disconcertingly sexy Betty Bronson (those thighs!). Mary Brian plays Wendy, a surprise to anybody whose seen her in 1930s roles like HARD TO HANDLE with Cagney or GIRL MISSING with Glenda Farrell.

It’s the gayest film there is.

Never Never Land is a sumptuous studio creation with giant mushrooms, underground dens, fake lions, and all manner of wonderment and make-believe. It’s a movie which should be revived more — any kid old enough to read the intertitles, or with someone handy to read them aloud, would get a kick out of it. Even if they couldn’t read, familiarity with the story via the Disney version or the 2003 CG-fest. The edge this one has over those later versions is that it isn’t irretrievably vulgar. (Actually, I like the Disney, but especially for the cobalt blue skies of its Edwardian London nightscapes.)

The movie is so faithful to the play, it even reproduces the famous audience participation moment where we’re all invited to clap and save Tinkerbell’s life. Betty Bronson’s appeal to camera (I mean her dramatic urging, not her pansexual attractiveness) is played with such conviction — stylised conviction, that is — it fair brings a tear to the eye.

Staying with the Scottish connection, one has to love Kelly MacDonald for saying that her favourite aspect of her own career is the outtakes from FINDING NEVERLAND in which her flying harness malfunctions as she careens through the air in a stage production of Peter Pan — she sails majestically out of shot, there’s an abrupt thud, and the camera readjusts to frame her flattened against the stage wall like Wile E. Coyote after an unsuccessful rocket-assisted lunge at the Road Runner.

Worth buying that DVD for the extras alone, but the movie itself is very sweet ~

UK: Finding Neverland [DVD] [2004]Finding Neverland [Blu-ray] [2004]

Johnny Depp’s accent? Well, I can recognize what it’s trying to sound like…

USA: Peter Pan

The Sunday Intertitle: A Wedding

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by dcairns

Our own upcoming royal wedding isn’t going to be this exciting, I can assure you.

The Raoul Walsh-directed Douglas Fairbanks yarn THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is quite a thing — it’s an early example of the principle of excess in Hollywood movie-making, a step beyond the gigantism of the earlier Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD. That movie proved that colossal sets could give Doug a stylish environment for his athleticism without upstaging him. In this one, the central idea is to surround him with massive and opulent settings at all times, a pageant of insane splendour that continually unfolds, not so much driven by plot requirements as pushing the plot along.

And so we get adventures in caverns, on the moon, under the sea, most of ‘em pretty quick. Like ROBIN HOOD, it’s a slightly odd-shaped film, with the first half confined to Bagdad, a towering series of sets by William Cameron Menzies and Anton Grot, and the second roving all over as Doug embarks on a quest for the ultimate treasure. One strange feature is the interiority of it — the sets are humongous, but all feel indoors, even the back-lot Bagdad, whose walls are so high they blot out everything else, so it always feels like we’re inside ‘em.

The first leg of Doug’s odyssey is a mountain defile, which allows Menzies & Grot to simply fill the screen with a sheer rock face, a lone stone egg at its centre.

The undersea grotto meshes art deco and art nouveau as if they were the same thing, which to a fish they probably are.

Then there’s the Cavern of the Enchanted Trees, which takes the idea of exteriors inside to a ridiculous extreme — the name alone cracked me up — but proves to be one of the snazziest settings.

Somewhat reminiscent of Walsh’s dubious ethnic humour in THE BOWERY, this movie in which all the characters are non-caucasian, casts real non-caucasians only as slaves and villains. We should be grateful to it for giving teenage Anna May Wong her shot at stardom (as a slave AND a villain), and Sojin (full name: Sojin Kamiyama) is very effective as the Mongol emperor baddie. He and his adjutant wind up dangling by their pony-tails, which seemed rather unpleasant (although most Hollywood epics KILL their bad guys, so I suppose that’s something. Anna escapes unpunished, as far as I could see).

Doug is particularly flamboyant in this one, pantomimic in a way he isn’t usually. I guess it’s a stylised approach designed to blend with the mind-boggling sets and effects and Mitchell Leisen’s ostentatious, campy costumes. It’s initially quite odd, and then I just stopped noticing it. Doug always waves his arms and strikes poses, it’s his thing, it just seemed ramped up to some odd new height here.

I’m making a study of William Cameron Menzies’ work at the moment, so this was an important point — his first really huge job. His style blends with Grot’s perfectly. Both are extremists, as you can see in Grot’s later work at Warners, from LITTLE CAESAR with its slashing zig-zags, to the glossy stonework of Elizabethan England in THE SEA HAWK, and both favour a kind of design that takes the camera position into consideration, arranging everything to make a striking composition…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 438 other followers