Archive for February 18, 2018

The Sunday Supertitles: The Yellowface Peril

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by dcairns

I was mildly impressed by director Walter Forde when I first saw some of his thirties comedy-thrillers. None of these are at a Hitchcock level, although the comedy sometimes approaches the irksomeness of the worst bits of British Hitch. But his two INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH sequels (the original, confusingly, was directed by Eugene Forde) are witty and stylish — Forde could bring noirish atmospherics to his music-hall romps. ROME EXPRESS has some very inventive cutting and comes close to being a legit precursor to THE LADY VANISHES (Forde often worked with that film’s writers, Launder & Gilliatt, as well as other talents like Val Guest).


THE SILENT HOUSE is probably Forde’s most elegant piece of filmmaking, from an early tracking shot that passes ghostlike through the latticework of a window (surely Hitchcock was watching and nodding his chins in approval) to the use of big, frontal close-ups as shock punctuation. The plot lets it down — it starts as a simple but fun spooky house mystery, complete with will-reading, then plunges into a lengthy, hypnosis-induced flashback, then hits us with a flurry of reversals and suspense-menace involving hidden panels, apparent deaths that aren’t, and an actual snake pit. Yes, the villain has constructed a snake pit off his own living room, just in case he should need one.

The other thing that lets the movie down, or at least problematizes its simple pleasures, is the race angle. The movie is a colonial fantasy/nightmare, a bit like Hammer’s later ventures into this arena. Racism performs a queer sort of dance — at first, it looks like it won’t be as vicious as you feared, then it turns out to be much worse, then it unexpectedly backtracks, then lunges forward, and so on. We end up in a complicated place that does actually soften some of the most horrible aspects of the film. But they’re still there.

(Forde also directed CHU CHIN CHOW with Anna May Wong as an Arab along with George Robey and Fritz Kortner.)

The first hint of this angle is the appearance of Kiyoshi Tanase, an actual Japanese actor playing a Chinese manservant. The moody opening sequence, in which his master is flattened by a falling stone balustrade (a favourite country house assassination technique — see AND THEN THERE WERE NONE — probably never attempted in reality) seems to set him up as a villain. Still, it’s unusual and sort of cheering to see an actor who isn’t white given a substantial part in a Brit flick of this era.

Then Arthur Pusey, heir to the depleted estate, arrives, accompanied by his comedy relief chum Gerald Rawlinson. They learn that valuable bonds and a certain rare gem are hidden somewhere in the house. By curious chance, this is the exact set-up of The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery I had just read. This movie really is a mash-up of every mystery meme in the air at the time. Will the gem turn out to have been plundered from an eastern idol, like The Moonstone or The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God? It will!

Rawlinson’s effete pal, a sort of Cecil Vyse figure, reacts with superstitious horror whenever he sees a Chinese character — and it seems we’re supposed to share his anxiety. The next sinister orientals we meet DO provoke discomfort, as they’re played by white folks in wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery? false eyelids and yellowface. There are a couple of Portuegese-Chinese “half-castes” lurking about, and the respectable-seeming but obviously villainous Chang Fu, played by Gibb McGloughlin, a name which gives you some idea of how convincingly Asian he’s going to look, but that won’t stop me from inflicting his rotten face on you ~

Then we learn that Fu Manchu Chang Fu has an innocent white girl (Mabel Poulton, looking very innocent and positively pasty) under his hypnotic spell, the fiend! No suggestion of where he learned mesmerism, despite the lengthy flashback to the Mystic East — it just seems to be an inherent genetic trait he’s got along with the rubber eyelids and loose sleeves. And snake pit.

It is obligatory to mention that Mabel is one silent film star whose career really was derailed by sound — or, rather, by the class system. Cockney accent, you see.

Genuinely exciting climax, with the snake pit, a retracting floor, heroes in danger, and Tanase-san to the rescue. The one actual Asian turns out to be a good guy! And Chang Fu Manchu turns out to be motivated by religious passion — he’s relocated an entire Chinese temple (with a statue of some unidentifiable god, definitely not Buddha, but hey, at least he doesn’t have eight arms) to his English country house just so he can replace the stolen gem on its bosom as his dying act. A noble motive for all his perfidy, presented by the filmmakers with some awe and approval. But we have to think the whole kit-and-kaboodle’s now going to wind up in the British Museum, so was it worth his trouble?

And I guess the snakes will find a happy home in London Zoo, but the charming coda doesn’t tell us. Pusey and Poulton are married, Tanase is rocking the baby, and THE SILENT HOUSE is silent no more ~

I love a happy ending!