Two Wongs

“Punning on Chinese names is a low form of wit.” ~ Clive James (writer, broadcaster and low wit).

DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937) is one of two Anna May Wong films directed by French emigré Robert Florey in Hollywood. I saw the second collaboration, DANGEROUS TO KNOW, at the Museum of the Moving Image, I think, on a trip to New York, where it was playing as part of a Wong retrospective (AMW is being rediscovered and reappraised a fair bit these days). I remember it being decent enough, with a few imaginative directorial flourishes.  While DANGEROUS is a fairly sombre, noir-styled crime drama with Wong playing second banana to Akim Tamiroff, who was being seriously groomed as an exotic leading man (!), DAUGHTER is more in the way of a romp.

Wong is Lang Yin Ling, daughter of an antiques dealer murdered by people-traffickers, (a topical plot, but this sombre start scarcely darkens the proceedings) who vows revenge and sets about tracking down the boss of the outfit, first travelling to the South Seas or somewhere, working as a hooch dancer so she can infiltrate the racket. Meanwhile, cop and obvious romantic interest Philip Ahn has inveigled his way into the outfit by getting a job on the crook’s boat. Complications ensue.

Better known, perhaps, as Master Kan in TV’s Kung Fu.

For a minor-league film, this picture has a pretty great cast. Dependable surly Charles Bickford, youthful Anthony Quinn and Flash Gordon himself, Larry “Buster” Crabbe, play malefactors. Wong’s fellow graduate of the Sternberg glamour academy, Evelyn Brent, is a moll. Louise Brooks once observed that E.B.’s approach to acting was to stride into a scene, plant her feet wide apart, and stand with her hands on her hips, and that Sternberg made her great by softening her with feather boas and keeping her from striking poses. Well, she decidedly backslid after Sternberg.

Two-fisted fellows. Never has a hyphen been more important than in that last sentence.

Favourite supporting player was John Patterson Frank Sully, whom I’d never heard of, who plays a cauliflower-eared Irish ex-boxer working as a chauffeur to Mrs. Big, Cecil Cunningham (Cecil is a woman), who turns out to be a swell guy. Actually, there are lots of NICE PEOPLE in this film, I immediately liked it for that reason. For some reason, they weren’t boring, even if they weren’t brilliantly written. They were just nice.

While no masterpiece, DAUGHTER gets a shot in the arm once we get to Bickford’s sleazy rum joint, the Home Cafe (which is it?). Florey suddenly gets inspired, skewing the camera, laying on the atmos thick and lurid, and thronging the frame with characterful extras.

After this sequence the film lapses into a solid, entertaining third act with plenty of fisticuffs (poor Philip Ahn seems seriously winded by the end), and a coda featuring untranslated Chinese dialogue between our two lovebirds and some quips for Patterson. “By the time you get out of jail my grandchildren will be collecting my social security cheques.”

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, made six years earlier, is a silly Fu Manchu movie with Wong playing the daughter of the crime lord, here rendered chubby by Warner Oland, better known as Charlie Chan. For some reason Swedish actors were considered ideal to play orientals in Hollywood. The story, a travesty of Sax Rohmer’s racist pulp Daughter of Fu Manchu (itself something of a travesty) gives Wong an incomprehensible character trajectory from conscience-tortured avenger of imagined wrongs, to sadistic villainess. Threatening to disfigure the blonde heroine with acid, unless her boyfriend mercy-kills her first, is the one moment of zesty sadism comparable to Myrna Loy’s lip-smacking turn as Fah Lo See in MASK OF FU MANCHU (she was a popular Fah Lo See). The dialogue is by the esteemed Sidney Buchman (MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON), and he’s clearly trying for SOMETHING, but the results are pretty ungainly and risible. “Death shall first waken Petrie from sleep, and then end his lingering horror with a slow knife.”

Sessue Hayakawa (THE CHEAT, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) is romantic interest (Wong’s films either shrink in terror from the spectre of miscegenation, or deflect it by attempting to provide suitably ethnic partners), struggling somewhat with his dialogue. He never once confuses an “L” with an “R” sound, but it seems to be absorbing all his concentration to avoid it. He’s rigid with strain at all times: “He’s terrifying!” exclaimed Fiona during his love scene.

Enjoyable supporting thespage comes from the pleasingly named Harold Minjir, as an effete English Comedy Homosexual, who actually saves the day in the end. This seems to have been Minjir’s biggest ever role (he was actually American-born), in a bit-part career that saw him typed as hotel clerks, couturiers and secretaries. Shadowplay salutes his fey heroism!

Wong herself is dependably dignified, which is part of why she’s being honoured these days. As an actress she’s adequate, but her waif-like figure, strong and noble features, and surprisingly deep voice with its unusual enunciation make her a striking presence, and that typical solemnity makes her warm smile more surprising. Maybe her uniqueness as a Chinese-American star in that period, and the dignity with which she always performs, are what make her so sympathetic, in addition to her natural charisma. Even when she plays a villain, I’m on her side.

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9 Responses to “Two Wongs”

  1. I know I have a habit of hoping in with entirely off topic comments… but did you know that the post office is selling at St James Centre stamps commorating British film? First Class stamps are Carry on Sergent and international postcard are Frankenstein (my grannie in Sydney has been treated to one of those)

    Found Lara Celini late of FVA in the filmhoose bar dangling her baby Ivor (after Cutler not Engine) on her knee she had walked out of the mother and baby screening of Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ as being too depressing for 10.30 am on a summer’s morn…

  2. hopping in – spolling not my strong point…

  3. Heh. Haven’t seen Lara for years. She was a nice, strange girl.

    I once designed a set of British Film Stamps as an art school project. I’m proud I went for A Hard Day’s Night rather than the usual boring choices, but I think I could have been bolder.

    Frankenstein’s a nice choice, and it did have an English director.

  4. When I think of Anna May Womg it’s not her “dignity” that gets me, it’s her ineffable glamour. Have you ever seen Puzzle of a Downfall Child? It’s Jerry Schatzberg’s film a clef about the rise and fall of a high fashion model named (wait for it!) Lou Andreas Sand played by Faye Dunaway at her most charmingly berzerk. “Lou” is utterly besotted with Anna May Wong, and screens her films frequently in the course of the semi-action.

  5. Oh, her glamour is awesome (haven’t seen the Schtzberg, love the title!). And then there’s her charm, which surfaces in lighter moments. And then the dance numbers, where it seems like she’s just asked to do her own thing, without benefit of choreography, in film after film.

    PICCADILLY isn’t any kind of masterpiece (dupont has no clue about filming dance) but it’s very very glamorous and lovely to watch.

  6. One of the (many) noteworthy aspects of Shanghai Express is the way in which Dietrich regards Anna May as an equal. And while Sternberg most assuredly has Marlene as his central point of focus, he certainly
    doesn’t neglect Anna May when it comes to pouring on the glam.

  7. Yes, that’s all commendable and impressive.

    I know Jonathan Romney called the film reactionary, but I don’t know enough about Chinese politics of the 30s to have any grasp of what that means. I basically regard it as a fantasy anyway. But in the treatment of Wong it seems downright progressive.

  8. […] Robert Florey, quoted in David Bret’s Valentino, a Dream of […]

  9. […] seeing because it’s a better version of DARKMAN than DARKMAN, because Florey is a suave director, especially paired with a glossy cameraman like Franz Planer, and because Lorre […]

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