Tag Archives: Chinese

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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Yellowface watch

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 #8: The Conqueror

The Conqueror (1956)

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This epically bad retelling of Ghengis Khan is universally derided as one of the worst films of all time and the subject of much controversy over its use of a nuclear test site as a location.

the_conqueror_wayne_5 It filled its producer Howard Hughes with such guilt he later paid an estimated $12 million dollars buying up every print of the film so no one could see it (not even on TV) for seventeen years. In fact The Conqueror is sometimes known as “An RKO Radioactive Picture” because it was filmed on a location in Utah contaminated with nuclear fall-out, with contaminated soil even being shipped back to the studio set in Los Angeles. Over the next 20 years many of the cast and crew (including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward & Pedro Armendariz) developed cancer.  In fact in 1980 People magazine researched the health of the cast and crew and discovered that 91 of the 220 people who worked on the film had developed cancer but even then this didn’t include the Native American extras or visiting friends and relatives (including Wayne’s son Michael).

John_Wayne - the conquerer  The film itself is every bit as bad as it reputation suggests, hilariously inaccurate historically, unintentionally silly with ludicrously miscast actors banging leadenly portentous dialogue at each other and shot through with truly unpleasant misogyny.

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When Wayne as Temujin (later Ghengis Khan) first spies Susan Hayward’s Tartar princess Bortai he says of her “I feel this Tartar woman is for me. My blood says, take her.” According to The Guardian Few actors could make lines like that sound good, and John Wayne wasn’t one of them.” It’s difficult not to agree. Writer Oscar Millard, aware that his screenplay was, in his own words, “nothing more than a tarted up Western” determined to give his dialogue an “archaic flourish”. And boy, does he.  Again, according to The Guardian “Poor old Wayne has to prance about saying things such as “I greet you, my mother!” where normal people would say “Hello, mum!”

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The plot revolves around Temujin’s obsession with Bortai, the Tartar princess he captures from a Merkit warlord who he humiliates then slays. Bortai was in fact the name of Temujin’s real-life wife but she was a Mongol like him and they were betrothed aged 9 and 10, but here he abducts her and manhandles her roughly whilst declaring “Woman, I take you for wife”. She professes hatred for him but quivers and swoons every time he comes near her, succumbs to his roughhouse seduction techniques and later decides she loves him so much she betrays her father and her own people to him. At one point when she briefly resists him he even gives her a smack in the face. Hollywood sexual politics at its very worst.  Susan Hayward though is a fiery presence and, along with Hispanic actor Pedro Armendariz as Temujin’s blood-brother Jamuga,  is by some distance the best thing in the film.

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Yellowface watch

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Younger readers may not be so aware of John Wayne’s place in movie history but during my childhood it’s safe to he was probably the biggest film star on the planet, famed for his sturdy presence and laconic drawl. Whether Wayne could actually act or not is open to debate but it’s fair to say he had far better days than this ludicrously inappropriate bit of “ethnicing-up”. The screenplay was originally written for Marlon Brando but, according to the story, Wayne was discussing scripts with director Dick Powell and when the latter was called away for a few minutes he returned to find Wayne enthusiastically poring over the script for The Conqueror. Although Powell attempted to talk him out of it Wayne had set his heart on playing a 12th Century Mongolian warlord. As Powell later said, “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?” Wayne reportedly took the role very seriously, going on a crash diet and taking Dexdrine tablets four times a day, but appears hopelessly uneasy on-screen and later regretted the movie so much he cringed at  the very mention of it and once remarked that the moral of the film was “not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.”

waynekhan The_Conqueror01Elsewhere, Armendariz aside, the film features lots of Caucasian American film actors hamming desperately away in tribal robes as if they’re in a particularly bad am-dram production but with a much bigger budget.  At its very best the film more resembles a weak episode of Star Trek than a historical epic.

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Of particular mention is John Hoyt as The Shamen at the court of Weng Khan, a character so slippery and treacherous his motives become so tangled that by the time he delivers his final explanation it is rendered virtually incomprehensible. Hoyt affects a hilariously bad sing-song accent but to his credit eschews taped eye-lids, preferring instead to squint his eyes into epicanthic slits. None of this is helped by the fact that the wardrobe department saw fit to costume him in a silly white conical hat straight out of some medieval pageant. Must be seen to be believed.

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Favourite scene? The one that contains this little gem, “So be it, Temujin, the slow death, joint by joint from fingertip upwards shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece shall hour by hour and day by day be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures

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More Yellowface Film Review tomorrow. Meantime, this evening we enter the final stand of 5 performances of The Fu Manchu Complex. There are just 5 performances left of the show which the brilliant Madam Miaow (Anna Chen) says “deftly demolishes a slew of stereotypes, setting them up and bowling them down like skittles in a boisterous romp through the yellow peril canon” (and she knows a thing or two about that stuff herself). Book tickets here http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex 

Yellowface Film Review #6: The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (1918)

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Despite an undeniably progressive (certainly for its time) plot centered around an inter-racial romance between San San, a Chinese princess, and John Worden, an American diplomat (well it wouldn’t be vice-versa gender-wise, would it?),  and notwithstanding some heartfelt emoting from Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan (two of the great stars of their day) this is a fairly crass affair. The title itself is a giveaway. The heroine only goes there once and, though it could be argued that San San’s conniving father wants to curry favour there, the story certainly doesn’t revolve around the imperial palace. Like much of this film it seems to have been chosen for its exotica factor.

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Competently directed by Sidney Franklin the picture comes a cropper in its casting and portrayal (naturally) with even the 1918 New York Times lamenting that Franklin “was unable to make some of his actors seem like natives of the East”, a criticism which, having watched it, I can only regard as more than a little lenient.  The male Chinese characters (with one notable exception) are unremittingly ruthless in a manner that can only be regarded as gratuitous and San San herself is introduced with a caption that has her imploring Buddha to “please send love-man here to give me million sweet kisses”.

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Steady on! Indeed there’s an awful lot of snogging in the first part of this though there’s no surely no denying that the intended inter-racial frisson of these clinches go for a burton because of the spectacularly unconvincing yellowface casting.

forbiddenCity-grapevine  She’s half-Chinese you know.

It’s also more than a little a cheeky to begin the film with Kipling’s famous quote about “never the twain shall meet” between “East” and “West” but then put it in the mouth of the Chinese emperor!

Yellowface watch

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Yellowface is everywhere in the first half of this, though in fairness (and unlike a lot of similar films of the time) a great deal of effort seems to have gone into making the actors seems as “Chinese” as possible. There’s an awful lot of bowing and florid gestures and Norma Talmadge  as San San seems to be attempting that styilised but slightly stilted manner that many in the Western entertainment industry perceive as authentically “Eastern”. Talmadge later portrays the Eurasian fruit of San San’s union with Worden (the curiously monikered Toy) where she looks and acts like a regular Caucasian but is still captioned in hilariously clumsy pidgin English (even when speaking with other Chinese characters).


Her conniving mandarin father is played by yellowface “specialist” E. Alyn Warren (The Hatchet Man, Outside The Law) who in his beard and glasses puts one to mind of Sigmund Freud in chinoiserie.

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This being a silent movie we are (unlike in The Hatchet Man) thankfully spared Alyn’s truly ludicrous Chinese accent but he nevertheless hams up his sly Chinaman role with relish. I don’t wish to mock a fellow professional here and I’m sure the man gave some truly fabulous performances in a 99 film career but he should never have been allowed to play East Asians.

63063-12294 63063-13349The many (yellow)faces of E. Alyn Warren

Such is the abundance of yellowface it’s something of a shock when two genuine East Asians turn up in the latter part of the film. Both perform creditably, though uncredited in the case of the first – an emperor’s court lady who racially abuses  the Eurasian Toy (most of the racism in the film eminates from the Chinese characters). Not so in the case of Charles Fang as the solely sympathetic East Asian male Yuan-Loo who fights heroically to help Toy escape but who is never seen again and whose fate the filmmakers don’t appear to deem worthy of interest. Fang’s contribution though did inspire this truly astonishing appraisal in the January 1919 Photoplay, “In one or two details the play missed its celestiality by an odd margin–notably the scene in which the Pekin palace guard, to overcome an unwary foe, resorts to a barroom wrestling match, a thing about as unlike the Chinese character as anything that may be imagined. Your Oriental moves more subtly and certainly: an overturned flower pot, the plunge of a knife, strong strangling fingers … and the outward course of events flows so serenely that even passers-by cannot tell murder has been done.”

vlcsnap_2013_04_16_22h30m13s107 “Enough cliches already!!!”

My favourite scene? When the Chinese Emperor, played by the impressively whiskered L. Rogers Lytton (who I’m devastated to say there are no pictures of), pretends to allow San San to go free with her baby by gesturing to walk along a corridor of drapes out of which appear about ten spears which promptly slay the hapless heroine. A display of “Oriental cruelty” that makes Sax Rohmer look mild.


We are highly tempted to bust out John Wayne’s notorious turn as Ghengis Khan next but let’s see…maybe later. Meantime, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to book for the “funny, often outrageously so” (There Ought To Be Clowns) The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Just seven performances left!


Yellowface Film Review #5: 55 Days At Peking

55 Days At Peking (1963)

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As has been remarked before, yellowface has proved the undoing of many a great director and this barely disguised western in an exotic setting is no exception as one of the all time greats, Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar), comes a serious cropper with this lavishly mounted and reasonably compelling Boxer Rebellion drama that nevertheless trades in dubious stereotypes and poor casting decisions as well as being overlong and more than a little dull. Indeed, Ray is said to have had a premonition that the film would finish his career and so it proved as the great man collapsed on set halfway through shooting, was replaced and never received another directing job again.

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The film boasts handsome photography and stirring action sequences as well as strong performances from Charlton Heston and David Niven (showing much more depth here than his reputation as a light comedian would lead one to expect) but Ava Gardner’s character is something of a bore and Heston apparently found her “unprofessional”. 18822751.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx The film’s best scenes though come in what is easily the most involving subplot between Heston and Lynne Sue Moon as an orphaned Eurasian girl who Chuck becomes a reluctant father-figure to.

s_82863lynne_sue_moon55days You can all relax though, there’s nothing seedy in it, and the old pro-gun lobbyist gets to show a tender side while Moon is a poignant figure throughout. Incidentally I can find virtually no info on Lynne. She appeared in four films in the 60’s (including the great To Sir With Love) but appears to have vanished afterwards. One can hardly blame her. It’s difficult enough to be an East Asian actor in Britain today let alone then.

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Yellowface watch

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Where the film really falls down though is in its depiction of the Chinese. There are sympathetic East Asian characters – the already mentioned Lynne Sue Moon’s Teresa, an old man (voiced by Burt Kwouk) who Gardner befriends and there are genuine East Asian actors; as well as the previous two, the Japanese film director Juzo Itami appears as a Nippon army colonel and the great martial arts star Yuen Siu Tien (Drunken Master) makes his debut (though he’s uncredited). pekinde-55-gun-55-days-at-peking-1963-dvdrip-dual-tr-dub-bb66-3

In general though the Chinese are portrayed as a bunch of Christian murdering blood-lusters who are also a bit weird. At one point Peking is described as a “backwater” and Niven’s wife breaks down fearing her injured son will be lost in “an endless Chinese limbo”.

18822734.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx The main Chinese characters are represented by three simply horrendous yellowface performances that make up a triumvirate of naffness. As Empress Cixi, Flora Robson (but of course!) is reasonably restrained, coming over as an old battle-axe in chinoiserie in an end of pier production of Charley’s Aunt.

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Full marks to her though for at least showing some commitment. The same cannot be said unfortunately for Leo Genn as General Jung-Lu who appears to treat the whole idea with contempt, though maybe this is understandable.

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The very worst offender though (indeed, maybe a serious contender for worst yellowface perf of all time IMHO) is the Australian actor Robert Helpmann as Prince Tuan who seems to have make-up several times more ludicrous than either Flora or Genn, the most ridiculous long fingernails I’ve ever seen and an accent that beggars belief.

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It’s worth bearing in mind while watching this fiasco of an interpretation that this man would have been paid quite well for that performance.  I’m sure Robert was a very fine actor in the rest of his career but for this he should hang his head in shame frankly.

Robert Helpmann  55 Days at Peking (1963)     55days_3

My favourite scene? The one where Helpmmans Prince Tuan takes the Empress’s terms to the assembled representatives of the great colonial powers who all sit around looking at this latex-eyebrow’d ,golden finger-nailed cartoon caricature as if they can barely believe what they’re seeing.  Or maybe they’re just relieved it’s not them.

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Yellowface Film Review #6 will see us go forwards or backwards in cinematic history, depending where the fancy takes us. Meanwhile don’t forget to book tickets (if you haven’t already) for the “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo” (The Upcoming) The Fu Manchu Complex at Ovalhouse http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Some people are saying they want to come and watch it twice. A hilarious evening guaranteed.

8x10_55_days_at_peking_KS00592_L “I COULD’VE BEEN FU!!!!!!!”

Yellowface Film Review #3: The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)

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Proving the case that yellowface is the undoing of many a great director, Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life amongst countless other outstanding films) comes a cropper with this unwittingly (by all accounts) brave and ambitious tale of inter-racial sexual tension between a young American missionary and a man in ludicrous looking make-up during the Chinese Civil War. The acclaimed critic Derek Malcolm named this one of his hundred best films in The Century of Films but, while impressively mounted and with a compelling premise, the film lumbers somewhat, despite its relatively brief running time, and is IMHO undone entirely by the central casting.

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A flop on first release, the film’s female star, Barbara Stanwyck, blamed its poor showing on “racist blacklash”. McBride quotes her as saying, “The women’s clubs came out very strongly against it….I was so shocked. [Such a reaction] never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it.” The generally sympathetic portrayal of miscegenation proving particularly unpalatable at the time.  The film’s sexuality is palpably conveyed, with Stanwyck appearing in several quite revealing (for the time) costumes and in one scene dreaming she succumbs to Yen,  who she first imagines as a Fu Manchu-type rapist with long tapering nailes, but who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor. The New York Times described the film as “barely plausible”.

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Yellowface watch

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The film is notable for featuring genuine East Asians, most notably Japanese actress Toshia Mori, who features strongly throughout as the treacherous concubine Mah-Li , Time magazine describing her as a “a sloe-eyed Japanese girl” but praising her performance as “the most noteworthy“ of the film’s female performers. As her partner in duplicity  Chinese-American cinema mainstay Richard Loo is also given reasonable screen-time.

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Yet, proving once again Western media’s curious antipathy towards strong and dominant East Asian male figures, Nils Asther gives one of the famous yellowface performances of all time. Smiling serenely beneath make-up that looks like Botox gone wrong, Asther appears to be attempting some sort of “Oriental” accent as the film plays out King & I style tropes of “civilised white woman and exotically suave brute with a tender side”. Asther (along with Myrna Loy and Warner Oland) is one of several Swedes to have “yellowed up” and proves that, along with Germans Luise Rainer and Curt Jurgens, dusky North Europeans were often Hollywood’s yellowface actors of choice.

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There are several scenes where Asther appears to be talking some strange gibberish that I utterly failed to recognise as any Chinese language I’ve ever heard and his character seems to have been constructed around all-purpose Eastern clichés of vaguely sinister inscrutability and stoic “ honour” with his eventual suicide method (the “bitter tea” of the title) obviously designed to arouse lurid fascination.

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My favourite scene is the one where General Yen is shown to have some human consideration as he yells at his troops who are busily assassinating captured enemies right outside Stanwyck’s bedroom, thereby disturbing poor old Babs’ sleep, to go and do their grisly business elsewhere. A gentleman and a yellowface for sure.

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Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meantime don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex on now until October 19th

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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Yellowface watch

“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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Yellowface watch

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