King Fu Fighting

Ah, Karl Grune! I’ve only seen his DIE STRASSE and already I know this is a man I would like to clap on the back and present with a packet of Trebor Extra Strong Mints. And I feel sure that he would accept this gift in the spirit in which it was offered. I have wondered if the famous image of the optician’s sign in that quasi-expressionistic meisterwerk could have inspired the similarly sinister sign that looks down on the characters of The Great Gatsby, published just afterwards (Ah, the twenties were very different things in German and America! — so this connection seems nice, somehow.)

But now — HOT WOW! — I’ve seen THE YELLOW HOUSE IN RIO, the French (Pathe-Natan) version of a UFA caper which shows Herr Grune in more antic mode. And it seems very much as if you CAN make a movie about a mad Chinese strangler with Pirandellian confusions of life and theatre, in two languages and with two casts, and have it be a minor-league classic.

This is the French version (full disclosure: I watched without subtitles, in a state of sort-of getting-the-gist, alternately frowny and delighted) — I haven’t heard of any of the cast of the German version, though one of them is called Charles Puffy, which does make me smile. In the French one, Charles Vanel, apparently bound by law to appear in every Pathe-Natan feature, appears twice, once as Scalpa the great actor, and once as King Fu  the mad strangler. (Is there a porno version where he’s Fu King?) If you have trouble believing Charles Vanel as the Yellow Peril, this film may not be for you. I found him every bit as convincing as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Peter Sellers in similar roles…

So, the film is defiantly German in style, but with maybe a French lightness — but that makes it all the more bizarre. It hinges around two set-piece scenes, sandwiching a lot of talkier bits I frankly couldn’t follow. In the first highlight, our leading man Jacques Maury finds himself and the leading lady (Renée Héribel — another Pathe-Natan fave — she starred in LES TROIS MASQUES, the first French talkie, and co-starred in Gabin’s first movie too) abducted by the oriental fiend and threatened with noxious villainy if Renée will not dance. But it’s all an act — an audition to see if Jacques is right for the show, and he passes with flying colours.

The show opens, but there’s a REAL King Fu too — at the crazy climax, he takes the place of the actor and threatens our leading man for real. The curtain rises, surprising Fu, but he realizes he can do anything in front of the audience, who don’t believe it’s real. And he really does want to see Renée dance… Poor Jacques nearly has his arms yanked out by Fu’s devilish associates (yes, he’s a gang leader, also), all in front of a mildly appreciative crowd. Pirandello was never so grand guignol.

About the grand guignol… according to Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, the French theatre of atrocities was very popular with the occupying Nazi forces in WWII. It makes sense, really, when you think about it. But several of the stars entertaining the SS, night after night, were secretly members of the resistance, who would have liked nothing better than to get their smartly-uniformed audience onstage for a bit of bloody participation.

This image, of the fake horror onstage and the real horror in the audience, always struck me as a great subject, and I haven’t pursued this story only because I’m not French. But now, as it happens, I’m making a French film (more later), so I figure, why not? If anybody wants to pay for my Grand Guignol script, maybe it’ll be my next project… I’ll be sure to steal a few ideas from Herr Grune.

12 Responses to “King Fu Fighting”

  1. Charles Puffy! A made-up name as good as the one he was given in Open All Night – Bibendum. Quite busy in American silents, but he was Hungarian so ended up going back to Europe when sound came in.

  2. Alas for him — the IMDb reports, “His death place and date is still unconfirmed. He and his wife left Hungary in 1941 because of the Holocaust and tried to get into the United States. Some sources say that he died in Tokyo, Japan in 1942. Others that his train was stopped by the Soviet army and he was imprisoned in a Gulag labor camp in Karaganda, Kazahstan where he performed in the camp theatre company. He died there from diphtheria in June, 1943.”

  3. Wow, the inimitable reliability of the IMDB mixed with “some say” journalism!

  4. Well, Tokyo or Kazakhstan, that seems to cover most of the options. It’s not good news, either way.

  5. Charles Puffy played, um, I don’t know, a fat guy (innkeeper, per IMDB) in The Man Who Laughs. I’ve seen yet other some-say versions of what happened to him: killed in Auschwitz, even survived in Shanghai IIRC. I wonder if the mystery can be resolved.

    Meanwhile, the mystery dcairns project becomes ever more intriguing as more hints are dropped!

  6. Whoa, that hint about the French film has me all distracted from poor Herr/M. Grune.

  7. “Charles Puffy”? Perchance un petit ami de Anthony “Puffy” Asquith?

  8. No, no, “Puffin”!

    I’ll announce the project formally soon, as there’s really no need to keep quiet about it anymore! While it was gestating and we hadn’t spoken to the parties concerned, we had to be discreet.

  9. If you do a Grand Guignol in WWII script, you should also work in Dr. Eugene Petoit, a serial killer who preyed on Jews trying to flee the Nazis (some of his other clients were criminals serving as Gestapo auxiliaries who had embezzled from their leaders). He was being investigated by the Gestapo because they thought he actually was helping Jews escape, and then French investigation was hindered, first by the fear they were intruding on a Gestapo torture/execution site, then by policemen who thought Petoit was a Resistance member.

    And meanwhile, Sartre, Camus and Picasso all hanging out nearby.

  10. I have this image of a French resistance comic book, drawn in the style of Jack Kirby, with Samuel Beckett, Josephine Baker and Albert Camus on the cover. Title: “RESISTANCE! Tales of two-fisted existentialism!” They’d be the ultimate superhero team.

    Petiot has a film of his own, with Michel Serrault as the bad doctor. Christian de Chalonge, who had assisted Bunuel, was the director.

  11. I’ll have to check that out. (the movie, not the comic book, as it sadly does not exist. Though it should. Get cracking on that, Cairns!)

    Anyway, a Grand Guignol versus the SS script would be a nice corrective to the MIDNIGHT IN PARIS romantics.

  12. It’d be a nice corrective to Inglourious Basters, too.

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