The Hatchet Man (1932)
This veritable cornucopia of yellowface features Edward G. Robinson as the unlikely named Wong Low Get, a most highly respected “hatchet man” (every Tong gang had one apparently) who, having sworn total allegiance, cannot turn down an order, even one to kill his best friend Sun Yat Ming (named after anyone perhaps?). Sun accepts his fate (in rather stilted faux-Confucian dialogue) but begs Wong to raise his daughter, Toya (is that like any Chinese name you’ve ever heard?), as his own.
Wong dutifully obliges (he is an “honourable” hatchet man after all) but, in a somewhat pervy plot development, when she grows older he falls in love with her and proposes. Despite looking somewhat crestfallen , Toya, who we we’ve already seen flirting with dapper young gangster type Harry En Hai (jeez, those names!), agrees to marry Wong. Later, when Wong catches Toya and Flash Harry blatantly post-coital (the film’s portrayal of adultery and narcotics was quite daring for its time) he makes the young man swear an oath to Buddha that he will take care of the fragrant Toya and effectively gives her away. Later though Wong receives a letter from Toya, who has been deported to a brothel in China after Harry was busted for opium dealing in NYC, begging to be rescued and that it’s the honourable hatchet man she truly loves (somewhat unsurprisingly in light of the fate that’s befallen her). Wong sets out to “Old China” to rescue his young lover/step-daughter.
None of these characters is played by an Asian actor and all wear ludicrous make up in order to appear Chinese, though Robinson’s seems stronger in some scenes than in others. According to Wiki “makeup artists had noticed that audiences were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise if the faces of actual Asians were in near proximity. “ Maybe they were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise ‘cos they look like a bunch of freaks?
In terms of portrayal, most of the main players don’t even bother to make any concession to the fact they’re meant to be Chinese and it’s easy to forget they are. Robinson sometimes attempts to be slightly portentous in what seems like “honourable Chinaman” acting but merely comes across like he’s in a bit of a daze most of the time. Loretta Young (as Toya) and Leslie Fenton (as Harry En Hai) simply play their roles like regular Americans with taped eyes. Some of the minor characters are hammed up a bit to give a sense of “Chineseness” and there’s also some rather clumsy attempts at “Eastern” dialogue –my particular favourite being “Love is as useful as wings on a cat” – but it all feels a little half-baked in all honesty. Meanwhile oaths are sworn to Buddha and the oath-swearers are warned that Buddha will hunt them down if they foreswear. Now, I’m no expert on Eastern religions but it doesn’t sound like any practice I recognise. The names have already been commented on but I’ve saved my personal favourite for last-Lip Hop Fat. I ask you.
Some very minor characters are played by genuine Asians including the Japanese actress Toshia Mori who was to have a much more central role in the following years yellowface classic The Bitter Tea Of General Yen.
The Hatchet Man was apparently based on stage-play titled The Honorable Mr. Wong. I shouldn’t expect a revival any time soon.
Our next Yellowface film review will follow very shortly. Meanwhile don’t forget The Fu Manchu Complex opens Tuesday, October 1st and runs till the 19th October. Book tickets here http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex