The Forbidden City (1918)
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.
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”.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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!