Tag Archives: Chinatown

Yellowface Film Review #9: Outside The Law

Outside The Law (1920)

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Lon Chaney was one of the true stars of the early movie era and is still renowned today as The Man Of A 1000 Faces (including one or two yellow ones). Famed for his ground-breaking use of prosthetics and makeup he specialised in portraying “tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters” (Wiki) and is best known for starring roles in silent horror films such as The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera. Chaney was also no stranger to struggle. Despite his obvious character acting flair he was reportedly told by a studio head that he would never be worth more than $100 a week. It’s fair to say actors were treated appallingly in Chaney’s day and were it not for the bravery of some (including Boris Karloff) risking their entire careers to form a union they would be treated (even more) appallingly today (than they already are). The current trend for certain actors not to want to get involved in activism of any kind smacks of the self-defeating selfishness of our age I’m afraid to say.

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But I digress. In this workaday gangster morality tale directed by Tod Browning, Chaney is (relatively unusually in a movie) given two roles, the fearsome and feral gangster Black Mike Sylva (not named so because he’s black I hasten to add) and Chinese manservant Ah Wing. In the first Chaney is at his very best, dominating the screen with a garish energy only matched by James Cagney (who was later to play Chaney in a biopic). In the second he’s an absolute embarrassment, but more of that later. The plot revolves around Silent Madden, a criminal leader in San Francisco, and his gangster daughter Molly (played by popular actress of the day, Priscilla Dean) having forsaken a life of crime after receiving counsel from Chang Low, a Confucian philosopher living in Chinatown. The “despicable” (Wiki) Black Mike Sylva frames Molly’s father for murder, causing Molly to lose faith in abiding by the law and prompting her return to a life of crime. Black Mike plots to double-cross Molly as well during a jewelry theft, but Molly gets word from her gangster lover and foils Black Mike’s plans. While hiding out from the law, Molly’s hard heart is slowly melted by her gangster lover. The film ends with a climactic shootout.

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The film is unusual for the time in that the Chinese characters are portrayed as good guys, albeit portrayed wholely inappropriately.

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lon_and_order_04 The perennially yellowface E. Alyn Warren

The film features two yellowface regulars, E. Alyn Warren (The Forbidden City, The Hatchet Man) and Chaney (Mr. Wu) as the Confucian sage Chang Low and his manservant Ah Wing. As Chang Low, Warren sports the same facial hair as he did in The Forbidden City where I remarked in my review on his resemblance to Sigmund Freud. In his darker and less ostentatious robes here he puts one to mind of a Jewish rabbi. He’s relatively restrained in this yellowface outing, though his serene and knowing smiles are his only deviations from complete inscrutability.

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As Ah Wing Chaney grotesques as only he knows how but when the subject of that grotesquerie is racial characteristics it’s difficult not to feel uncomfortable watching as he gurns and mugs his way through an awful simpleton stereotype of a charaterisation. One reviewer of the time described Chaney’s Ah Wing as “incredibly subtle” but watching The Great Man’s initial close-up, all false teeth and taped eyelids grinning and gurning like a loon, you have to wonder what particular drugs this viewer had imbibed to be of that opinion.

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The film is also notable for an uncredited appearance from a very young looking Anna May Wong as one of a group of (genuinely East Asian) girls being mentored by Chang Low.

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Favourite scene? The one where Chang Low persuades the police chief that if Molly and her lover return the stolen diamonds of their own free will he should let them go. If only we all had a friendly neighbourhood yellowface man to cut us deals like that, eh readers?

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Tomorrow we jump forward to 1985 to review little-remembered Remo James featuring a spectacular yellowface turn from Joel Grey. In the meantime there are just FOUR PERFORMANCES remaining of “boisterous romp through the yellowface canon” (Madam Miaow Says) The Fu Manchu Complex (at the moment with a different guest star every night!) BOOK TICKETS NOW http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex


Yellowface Film Review #2: Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms (1919)

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Or The Yellow Man and the Girl as it’s charmingly also known as, though If you find that offensive it’s worth bearing in mind that the Thomas Burke Limehouse Nights short story it’s based on is charmingly titled The Chink and the Child.


That said this is a generally well thought of slice of social realism directed with a fair degree of flair by one of silent cinema’s better known directors, D.W. Griffith (who earlier courted controversy for his positive depiction of slavery and the Klu Klux Klan in  Birth Of A Nation). Maybe he felt the need to atone because this is a sympathetic (if somewhat patronising) tale of an abused young girl, Lucy Burrows, played by Lillian Gish (often known as The First Lady Of American Cinema) and a kind-hearted Chinese man who falls in love with her, albeit somewhat chastely.

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The Chinese man does have a name (Cheng Huan) but he’s only ever referred to as “The Yellow Man”.  He leaves his native China because he “dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.” This seems to result in him opening a shop in Limehouse and smoking opium (naturally) when he’s depressed until he rescues Lucy from the clutches her rather brilliantly monikered violent alcoholic prize-fighter father, Battling Burrows.

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The film is renowned  and praised for its small-scale aesthetic , with one critic Richard Schickel crediting it with inspiring “the likes of Pabst, Stiller, von Sternberg, and others, [and then] re-emerging in the United States in the sound era, in the genre identified as film noir” and it’s certainly fair to say it pulls very few punches in its depiction of child abuse which audiences of the time were said to find “nauseating”. Of particular note is the scene where Gish is locked in a cupboard, “writhing like a tortured animal who knows there is no escape” (Wiki). On the day of filming her screams are said to have attracted a crowd of people who had to be held back outside the studio.

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“The Yellow(face) Man” is portrayed by Richard Bathelmess as a kind of idiot-savant simpleton in the mould, perhaps, of a silent “oriental” Forrest Gump but with none of Forrest’s renowned luck. The character is clearly sympathetic in the writing and playing but there’s something very irksome about his good natured and asexual (or so it’s intended) fawning over young Lucy. I have to say, as well, that even for a silent movie star Barthelmess has a quite deathly pallor.

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The one other Chinese character of note is the unsubtly named Evil Eye (it’s fairly easy to gauge his dramatic function) who is again portrayed by a (unconvincing) Caucasian. Incidentally there is one scene that juxtaposes between The Yellow Man and Evil Eye both leering at the hapless Lucy in the cobbled Limehouse street where we’re obviously meant to contrast the protagonist and antagonist but I have to say that if anyone were to see just that scene in isolation they’d be hard-pressed to tell which is the villain.

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My favourite scene? When The Yellow(face) Man wraps Lucy in an ornate chioiserie blanket and all is tender until we see a subtitle of Lucy’s dialogue which reads “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?” though I have to say so pale is he perhaps she should have substituted “Chalkie” for “Chinky”.


Stay tuned for the next in our series of Yellowface Film Reviews where we get our talons into the Yellowface “classic” that is The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex running till October 19th

Yellowface Film Review #1: The Hatchet Man

The Hatchet Man (1932)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Hatchet Man was apparently based on stage-play titled The Honorable Mr. Wong. I shouldn’t expect a revival any time soon.

200px-Poster_of_the_movie_The_Hatchet_Man 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