A good look for him, actually

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Fritz Kortner goes full mongol in CHU CHIN CHOW.

A lot of fascinating elements in this film, but not enough made of them, somehow. A musical Arabian Nights extravaganza, it gets by for a few minutes on sheer spectacle, and Walter Forde’s voluptuously gliding camera. But George Robey, music hall legend, seems at this historical distance like the least funny man who ever lived. I always associate him with an obscure line in the short film LE PETOMAINE, written by Galton & Simpson, where Queen Victoria is ruling that a Frenchman who farts on cue is an unsuitable entertainment to set before the ¬†Great British Public: “Mr. George Robey is bad enough.” She’s right.

Fritz Kortner makes a rousing bandit baddie, burying men alive and perpetrating other acts of cruelty unsuitable for a musical comedy, and Anna May Wong is a seductive slave girl, but neither of them gets either a song or enough of a real stand-out moment. How many more rogue talents would have to be shoehorned into a stodgy play like this before it showed signs of animation? I think you’d need four or five, and you’d have to digitally paint Robey out of the picture too.

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8 Responses to “A good look for him, actually”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    The film was based on a very popular plays that ran for years in London’s West End. I’ve never seen it but am surprised that cast made little difference. Kortner was interesting in ABDUL THE DAMNED but George Robey never seemed to transfer easily to film, like Sid Field whom Walter Forde directed in his last film CARDBOARD CAVALIER.

  2. At first glance I thought I was looking at a young Ernest Borgnine in drag.

  3. In James Whale’s WATERLOO BRIDGE, the young dancer turns down a chance to be a show girl in CHU CHIN CHOW, the ‘joke’ being that it ran for fifteen years and would have provided the steady employment she needed to avoid becoming a streetwalker.

    Also remember Angela Lansbury in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, who displays her racism to Henry Silva’s Korean by snarling, “You! Chu Chin Chow or whatever your name is!” Talk about an obscure reference!

    — Hey! On the all-knowing, all-seeing David Cairns recommendation, just watched Duvivier’s AU BONHEUR DES DAMES on DVD …. a really great picture!

  4. … and of course, in “Auntie Mame,” the song that Rosalind Russell and Coral Browne sing together before their stage misadventure is …

    “I’m a Chu Chin Girl from Chu Chin Chow
    ” — And how! And how!
    “I’d love to chin and chew with you;
    “And turn the skies to blue with you;
    “And twenty-three skidoo with you!
    “Chu chu chee chee chow chow
    “And how! And how! And how!”

  5. I guess the reference was less obscure at the time of Manchurian Candidate and Auntie Mame — it would have represented antique cultural stuff, emphasising the age of the Lansbury character. Like Mr Burns’ references to Rory Calhoun in The Simpsons.

    Aun Bonheur des Dames is one I haven’t actually caught up with yet, but it’s within reach and I shall be grabbing it shortly. I have Duvivier’s Phantom Carriage lined up and, excitingly, Voici les Temps des Assassins, his darkest noir.

    Anna May Wong was lured to London for the CCC stage show, which led to her guesting in Elstree Calling during the day, and hence to the CCC movie.

    To be charitable, maybe Robey only worked with a live audience, the way Frankie Howerd fed off the responses of his crowd. Neither player is good at listening to his fellow actors, they get all their feedback from out front.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    I saw the 1943 version of AU BONHEUR DES DAMES without subtitles but not Duvivier’s. Does this have subs?

    Yes, CHU CHIN CHOW is now virtually forgotten but was certainly remembered in the 1950s. “The Cobbler’s Song” was featured in a BBC TV Variety Show and Angela Lansbury’s show business background could have led to her ad libbing this reference here. Also both Rosalind R, and Coral were veteran performers and knew their musical history.

  7. My source, apart from memories, for the Russell/Browne songlet was sheet music (discovered via Google) which explicitly attributed it to the play’s co-authors, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.

  8. I expect some of those songs from Chu Chin Chow were being hummed years after they stopped reviving the show, thus keeping its memory alive. Although I have entirely forgotten every one of them.

    Yes, I have access to a set of subtitles for the Duvivier (which is silent, only intertitles to translate).

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