Archive for Anna May Wong

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

OldSanFrancisco

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.”

The Mothering Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by dcairns

Actually, we don’t bother with this “Mothering Sunday” stuff in Scotland, we prefer plain old “Mother’s Day.” And I can well recall my mother’s irritation when European Union interference caused Mother’s Day and daylight saving time to fall on the same day, resulting in a pitiful 23 hour Mother’s Day.

This week’s subject is PETER PAN, Herbert Brenon’s faithful and elegant filming of JM Barrie’s play. All the pantomime artifice of the play is preserved, but augmented with charming movie tricks — thus, Tinkerbell is a flying light in longshot, but with dream-continuity becomes a tiny girl in a billowing gossamer dress when viewed more closely. Nana the dog is played by a human in dog drag, and the crocodile likewise. Anna Mae Wong is Tiger Lily, and looks happier than I’ve ever seen her. (She so often has an air of solemnity or melancholy about her.)  Everybody seems jolly, except maybe the pirates…

Leading the cutthroat crew is Edinburgh-born Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, a hissable villain with quite a scary face. A familiar one too — he played Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. He’s splendidly outfitted, with a domino ring on the finger of his good hand, and Torrence compensates for his genuinely disturbing face by doing a lot of mugging and sneering and generally letting us know that he’s in on the joke. This kind of thing works for the kids sophisticated enough to interpret, but I can imagine toddlers being terrified of him nonetheless.

In the best panto tradition, Peter is played by a girl, the disconcertingly sexy Betty Bronson (those thighs!). Mary Brian plays Wendy, a surprise to anybody whose seen her in 1930s roles like HARD TO HANDLE with Cagney or GIRL MISSING with Glenda Farrell.

It’s the gayest film there is.

Never Never Land is a sumptuous studio creation with giant mushrooms, underground dens, fake lions, and all manner of wonderment and make-believe. It’s a movie which should be revived more — any kid old enough to read the intertitles, or with someone handy to read them aloud, would get a kick out of it. Even if they couldn’t read, familiarity with the story via the Disney version or the 2003 CG-fest. The edge this one has over those later versions is that it isn’t irretrievably vulgar. (Actually, I like the Disney, but especially for the cobalt blue skies of its Edwardian London nightscapes.)

The movie is so faithful to the play, it even reproduces the famous audience participation moment where we’re all invited to clap and save Tinkerbell’s life. Betty Bronson’s appeal to camera (I mean her dramatic urging, not her pansexual attractiveness) is played with such conviction — stylised conviction, that is — it fair brings a tear to the eye.

Staying with the Scottish connection, one has to love Kelly MacDonald for saying that her favourite aspect of her own career is the outtakes from FINDING NEVERLAND in which her flying harness malfunctions as she careens through the air in a stage production of Peter Pan — she sails majestically out of shot, there’s an abrupt thud, and the camera readjusts to frame her flattened against the stage wall like Wile E. Coyote after an unsuccessful rocket-assisted lunge at the Road Runner.

Worth buying that DVD for the extras alone, but the movie itself is very sweet ~

UK: Finding Neverland [DVD] [2004]Finding Neverland [Blu-ray] [2004]

Johnny Depp’s accent? Well, I can recognize what it’s trying to sound like…

USA: Peter Pan

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