Archive for Mask of Fu Manchu

Ra Ra Rasputin

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2012 by dcairns

RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS is a weird one. I tried watching it once, figuring “Pre-code Rasputin movie with the Barrymores — must be exciting!” But the beginning was such a total snooze, like somebody at MGM decided that what an audience attending a pre-code Barrymore Rasputin movie wanted was lots of PAGEANTRY and PROCESSIONS, so I zoned out and switched off. Plus it seemed kind of a shame to have Lionel Barrymore as Rasputin, instead of the disreputable Jack, who had form playing hypnotic masterminds (his SVENGALI, and even his later role in TWENTIETH CENTURY).

Then Shadowplayer Randy Cook advised me to try again, using the fast-forward if necessary, because of the good stuff later on.

Quite apart from the tedious parades, some of which are augmented by jerky stock footage of pre-WWI Moscow, there’s the criminal incompetence of beginning the story with an assassination that happens entirely offscreen, while we’re watching the drones with flags trudging through a palace. Then everybody talks about the assassination for a while, and then things come to life as John Barrymore, as heroic Prince Paul Chegodieff, has to stop an out-of-control General from ordering summary executions of a dozen suspects. We start to get a picture of the situation in Tsarist Russia, where opposing urges to modernisation and imperialist conservatism are at war. The Tsar is admirably embodied by Ralph Morgan, with a hairpiece that looks like it’s been inserted by traveling matte, using all his anti-charismatic sincerity as a fundamentally weak man with plenty of good impulses but zero political nous. Ethel Barrymore is the Tsarina, in a rather mannered performance, but with a core of reality that stops her being utterly ridiculous.

John B is keeping his ham tendencies well in check, ready to unleash them when the time is right. The movie is trundling along agreeably enough.

Enter Lionel. Wisely, he makes Grigori Rasputin not too obviously sinister at first — he has to be able to inveigle his way into the first family’s confidence, and though they’re not exactly bright, they’re not complete idiots. So Lionel B dials it down a little, although he’s still the biggest performer thus far, apart from Ethel of course, who’s resolutely weird throughout.

Charmingly, John B’s hero appears to be an atheist or freethinker — he congratulates his sweetheart (Diana Wynyard, from the original GASLIGHT) on her religious faith, saying words to the effect of, “It must be a wonderful thing, or I suppose it must.” Although he’ll later use more religious language himself when battling Rasputin, hinting at a reconciliation with the Church, this is by no means explicit. It sets him up as the one man who can see through the mad monk’s mask of kindliness. As Dennis Potter attempted show in BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE, the man of sin knows the Devil when he sees him, whereas the truly innocent often do not.

Lionel got his bedside manner from Bob in Twin Peaks.

The first bravura scene is Lionel’s hypnotizing of the little hemophiliac Tsarevich, well-played by young Tad Alexander (according to the IMDb, Tad may still be with us. Well done, Tad!). This might be the best hypnosis scene I’ve ever witnessed. Although Lionel does get his pocket watch out for some wide-eyed dangling, he doesn’t waste time saying “You are getting sleepy,” or any of that stuff, he just bangs on about elephants and stuff, making up childish tales while stunning the anemic lad with the full force of his overwhelming personality.

The movie staggers along from style to style, apparently a by-product of its having had two directors. Ethel seems to have had the first helmer, Charles Brabin, fired and replaced with Richard Boleslawski. Most of what we see is R.B.’s, but I’m tantalizingly uncertain about who did what. Brabin was a Liverpudlian who married Theda Bara and directed the Gothic camp MASK OF FU MANCHU and the searing pre-code gangster flick BEAST OF THE CITY, which combines a Revengers’ Tragedy savagery with neo-Fascist tendencies. Given his strengths and weaknesses, he COULD be responsible for the four or so hyper-intense, noirish and expressionist sequences, of which the hypnosis is the first. Or he could be responsible for the stilted ham. Reviews of some Brabin movies I’ve not seen, like a silent film of Poe’s THE RAVEN (1915), suggest he was equally capable of both approaches.

Boleslawski was more of a typical MGM man, with an unfortunate tendency towards good taste, but his LES MISERABLES serves up some striking period drama, with dynamism and plenty of shadows, so this gets very cloudy.

Ham — John and Lionel get one atrocious scene where each tries to trump the other in showy awfulness. Talk about sibling rivalry — if they tried to upstage each other like this in a theatre, one or other would be backed into the orchestra pit. Fiona started translating their performances into English.  “I’ve got a sword and a cigar!” cries Jack’s body language. “I’ve got a beard!” screams Lionel’s. “Yes, but when I smirk for no reason like this, nobody cares about your old beard!” retorts Jack’s face. “That’s not fair,” shrieks Lionel’s face, “My face is under a beard!”

This leads straight into another GOOD scene, with Rasputin and the Tsarevich and a microscope. Giant closeups of bugs! Lionel Barrymore channeling Hades itself into his perf! A terrified child who inexplicably becomes very happy for no reason! Historical drama doesn’t get any more savagely fruity. Note that MGM have decided that Greg Rasputin is basically a revolutionary, rather than a symptom of the status quo’s corruption. On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid feeling that, in spite of the whitewashing they try to give him, the Tsar deserves his fate. He carries on believing in his divine right to rule despite his demonstrable lack of leadership abilities. It’s not my socialist side that wants him dead, it’s my meritocratic instincts.

Chegodieff’s first assassination attempt against Old Greg is a suitably shadowy, sombre affair, leading us from the clammy mystic’s dining room full of women, into a darkened back room where he survives the assassin’s bullet via a metal breast plate of the kind later worn by Clint Eastwood and Michael J Fox. Despite the scene’s intensity, Jack B has wrestled his perf under control again and is effectively stoic as he’s thwarted by henchmen. “Next time I’ll aim for your head.”

This loses him his job at court, and things snowball further out of control, with Raspy buying power and turning the Royal Family into prisoners of their own palace. This is something that never happened, but it’s necessary to justify everybody deciding that Chegodieff was right after all, and arranging a second assassination attempt.

Somewhere in there, Diana Wynyard’s attitude to her spiritual guardian has chilled noticeably, which is due to a scene deleted at the behest of the real-life Chegodieff: Rasputin’s fictitious rape of Princess Natasha. This scene was removed as a result of a lawsuit and has never turned up — without it, her character makes no sense, and her progressive marginalisation in the story is increased.

“I know your face!”

“Yes, I’m noted character comedian Mischa Auer. I’ll be your poisoner tonight.”

The real show-stopped is the final assassination of Rasputin. Rather implausibly, he’s lured back to Chegodieff’s house: to fall for that, he must’ve been VERY drunk. We get a great number of sexy blondes in lovely gowns by Adrian, rolling around drinking champagne while he scoffs poisoned cakes served by an uncredited Mischa Auer. But Greg recognises M.A.’s very distinctive face, and his men take over the household and find Chegodieff. In a bit of dramatic contrivance, the now very-mad monk takes his enemy alone to the cellar at gunpoint to finish him off.

This has all been worked out to make the murder of Rasputin seem more justifiable. Rather than giving Chegodieff the upper hand, as was the case in reality, he’s now a man alone against a bloodthirsty enemy. Whoever’s directing at this point milks curdled buckets of suspense from the scenario of the maniac with a gun slowly losing his senses due to the envenomed confectionary he’s devoured, while the hero just hopes he won’t be fatally shot before the drugs take full effect.


Kind of a spoiler… 

And then the excrutiating violence begins… I really want to say that Brabin is responsible here, but it’s still quite possible that Boleslawski rose to the challenge, egged on by the excellent script and the extremity of the situation.*

“Get back in Hell!” strikes Fiona as the best line ever. Now we see why Jack’s been holding back so long: so he can let rip here and tear the film from its sprockets. The whole “unkillable Rasputin” thing is a myth, but they really sell it here.

Unfortunately, the film then trundles past what could have been a very poignant false happy ending — Jack, the hero, goes into exile, which saves him from the Revolution, so the irony is pretty rich. A fine ending, if the film stuck to it, but I guess somebody at MGM didn’t trust the public to know what happened to the Tsar next, so they spell it out, which leads to a rather strange fade-out. Appropriately enough.

“These part-works don’t interest me at all,” said Douglas Sirk, talking about the movies he’d directed bits of, and he’s largely correct. The Auteur Theory has this going for it — typically, only the director of a movie is in a position to have an overview which includes not only the planning and final shaping, but the performances. Despite the micro-managing of a Selznick, even the strongest producer doesn’t have the kind of direct communication with the cast during the creation of scenes that would allow the film to have a dramatic and artistic unity. You can only get that by allowing a director to direct. What’s great about RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS is individual bits of colossal power and style, but without a single mind in charge, it can’t achieve overall greatness. But those stand-out scenes are terrific lessons in expressive cinema, whoever was responsible.

*A bit of research seems to confirm that Brabin is responsible for the exciting bits.

Two Wongs

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2008 by dcairns

“Punning on Chinese names is a low form of wit.” ~ Clive James (writer, broadcaster and low wit).

DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937) is one of two Anna May Wong films directed by French emigré Robert Florey in Hollywood. I saw the second collaboration, DANGEROUS TO KNOW, at the Museum of the Moving Image, I think, on a trip to New York, where it was playing as part of a Wong retrospective (AMW is being rediscovered and reappraised a fair bit these days). I remember it being decent enough, with a few imaginative directorial flourishes.  While DANGEROUS is a fairly sombre, noir-styled crime drama with Wong playing second banana to Akim Tamiroff, who was being seriously groomed as an exotic leading man (!), DAUGHTER is more in the way of a romp.

Wong is Lang Yin Ling, daughter of an antiques dealer murdered by people-traffickers, (a topical plot, but this sombre start scarcely darkens the proceedings) who vows revenge and sets about tracking down the boss of the outfit, first travelling to the South Seas or somewhere, working as a hooch dancer so she can infiltrate the racket. Meanwhile, cop and obvious romantic interest Philip Ahn has inveigled his way into the outfit by getting a job on the crook’s boat. Complications ensue.

Better known, perhaps, as Master Kan in TV’s Kung Fu.

For a minor-league film, this picture has a pretty great cast. Dependable surly Charles Bickford, youthful Anthony Quinn and Flash Gordon himself, Larry “Buster” Crabbe, play malefactors. Wong’s fellow graduate of the Sternberg glamour academy, Evelyn Brent, is a moll. Louise Brooks once observed that E.B.’s approach to acting was to stride into a scene, plant her feet wide apart, and stand with her hands on her hips, and that Sternberg made her great by softening her with feather boas and keeping her from striking poses. Well, she decidedly backslid after Sternberg.

Two-fisted fellows. Never has a hyphen been more important than in that last sentence.

Favourite supporting player was John Patterson, whom I’d never heard of, who plays a cauliflower-eared Irish ex-boxer working as a chauffeur to Mrs. Big, Cecil Cunningham (Cecil is a woman), who turns out to be a swell guy. Actually, there are lots of NICE PEOPLE in this film, I immediately liked it for that reason. For some reason, they weren’t boring, even if they weren’t brilliantly written. They were just nice.

While no masterpiece, DAUGHTER gets a shot in the arm once we get to Bickford’s sleazy rum joint, the Home Cafe (which is it?). Florey suddenly gets inspired, skewing the camera, laying on the atmos thick and lurid, and thronging the frame with characterful extras.

After this sequence the film lapses into a solid, entertaining third act with plenty of fisticuffs (poor Philip Ahn seems seriously winded by the end), and a coda featuring untranslated Chinese dialogue between our two lovebirds and some quips for Patterson. “By the time you get out of jail my grandchildren will be collecting my social security cheques.”

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, made six years earlier, is a silly Fu Manchu movie with Wong playing the daughter of the crime lord, here rendered chubby by Warner Oland, better known as Charlie Chan. For some reason Swedish actors were considered ideal to play orientals in Hollywood. The story, a travesty of Sax Rohmer’s racist pulp Daughter of Fu Manchu (itself something of a travesty) gives Wong an incomprehensible character trajectory from conscience-tortured avenger of imagined wrongs, to sadistic villainess. Threatening to disfigure the blonde heroine with acid, unless her boyfriend mercy-kills her first, is the one moment of zesty sadism comparable to Myrna Loy’s lip-smacking turn as Fah Lo See in MASK OF FU MANCHU (she was a popular Fah Lo See). The dialogue is by the esteemed Sidney Buchman (MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON), and he’s clearly trying for SOMETHING, but the results are pretty ungainly and risible. “Death shall first waken Petrie from sleep, and then end his lingering horror with a slow knife.”

Sessue Hayakawa (THE CHEAT, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) is romantic interest (Wong’s films either shrink in terror from the spectre of miscegenation, or deflect it by attempting to provide suitably ethnic partners), struggling somewhat with his dialogue. He never once confuses an “L” with an “R” sound, but it seems to be absorbing all his concentration to avoid it. He’s rigid with strain at all times: “He’s terrifying!” exclaimed Fiona during his love scene.

Enjoyable supporting thespage comes from the pleasingly named Harold Minjir, as an effete English Comedy Homosexual, who actually saves the day in the end. This seems to have been Minjir’s biggest ever role (he was actually American-born), in a bit-part career that saw him typed as hotel clerks, couturiers and secretaries. Shadowplay salutes his fey heroism!

Wong herself is dependably dignified, which is part of why she’s being honoured these days. As an actress she’s adequate, but her waif-like figure, strong and noble features, and surprisingly deep voice with its unusual enunciation make her a striking presence, and that typical solemnity makes her warm smile more surprising. Maybe her uniqueness as a Chinese-American star in that period, and the dignity with which she always performs, are what make her so sympathetic, in addition to her natural charisma. Even when she plays a villain, I’m on her side.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers