Archive for Anna May Wong

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!

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Anna May Wrong

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by dcairns

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It was a thrill to see PICCADILLY on the big screen at the Bo’ness Hippodrome. I confess I hadn’t been that excited about this one — I knew EA Dupont’s film looked spectacular, but I’d seen it before, I own the DVD, I can watch it anytime…

But the pristine restoration looked amazing on the big screen, and Stephen Horne’s daring multi-instrumental score was the perfect compliment. Also, this second viewing allowed me to get over a few issues I’d had with it before.

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Certainly, the film is guilty of shameless exoticism (and Exoticism is Racism’s sexy sister) — the great Alfred Junge decorates Anna May Wong’s Limehouse flat with a lot of bogus frippery including some kind of Chinese version of the mult-armed Kali which I don’t think is authentic AT ALL. It all looks nice though.

But last time I was disappointed that the prominently billed Charles Laughton appears in only one scene, sitting at a table in the night club, getting stroppy about a dirty plate. Knowing this time that I wasn’t going to get much Charles, I was better able to appreciate what I got — a fantastic display of sullen, fish-faced glowering from the great man.

And the racial politics disturbed me at the end. Heavy spoilers here as there’s no other way to deal with it.

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I didn’t like the way Wong turns nasty in her last scene as a living person. She’d been quite sympathetic up until then, a working class kitchen skivvy on the make, hoping for some of the wealth and comfort she sees all around her. Why not? Then she turns mean, and then she’s dead — slain off-screen as if she didn’t matter.

I got more pissed off when the two posh, Caucasian lovers are exonerated and it turns out the film’s one other Asian character, nicely played by King Hou Chan (about whom little seems to be known — one other film credit and no date of death) is the killer.

It seemed like the film served as a kind of dark racial warning — nice, rich, posh, white, English people shouldn’t get mixed up with fiendish orientals. It’s bound to end in murder.

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Except that the film isn’t saying that at all, as I belatedly realized. If it were, we’d absolutely require a moment of the lovers reunited at the end, having come through their ordeal. That resolution would be the film’s entire point. But once the fact of Chan’s guilt is established, via a terrifying flashback in which Wong’s rage to live makes her once more a thoroughly sympathetic person, we never really see the erstwhile protagonists again. Dupont doesn’t show them looking relieved, or embracing. The big love scene is in the morgue, with Chan committing suicide over Wong’s body.

It’s also worth noting that the other lovers are quite unsympathetic — he’s cheating on her, and her hatred of Wong isn’t initially to do with suspicion, it’s motivated by her professional jealousy and insecurity, and it’s inflected with snobbery and racism. We can’t like Gilda Gray, despite her winning way with a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive (but she might bond with Jon Finch in THE FINAL PROGRAMME over this shared taste.)

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The last, ironic moment headlines the words “Life goes on” and shows the entire plot reduced to a little story in a newspaper, disregarded by a reader who’s merely pleased that he’s won a bet. The big city will pause only a microsecond to acknowledge a tragedy. We’re not being reassured that the deaths we’ve seen don’t matter, we’re being shown the disturbing reality that, to society at large, such a crime is insignificant. Each man’s death does not diminish London, the crouching monster.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Quake Thinking

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.”