Tag Archives: Silent Cinema

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

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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!

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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).

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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.

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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 #4: Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly (1915)

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Not a film of the opera but supposedly based on the original John Luther Long book in which interestingly enough Cho-Cho-San doesn’t commit suicide at the end (in the book). Indeed, the briefest glance at the synopsis is deeply revealing of just how Colonial-Orientalist thinking has conspired to create an enduring cliché. It’s notable how much feistier Cho-Cho-San is in the original novel (at one point she asks Sharpless to write a letter to Pinkerton where she threatens to marry Yamadori and take their son with her) and how much more unsympathetic Pinkerton (who Sharpless finds himself feeling “contempt” for) and Adelaide are.  The latter is portrayed as utterly callous sending the following telegram upon discovery of her husband’s son “Just saw the baby and his nurse. Can’t we have him at once? He is lovely.  Shall see the mother about it tomorrow.  Was not at home when I was there today.  Expect to join you Wednesday week per Kioto Maru. May I bring him along? Adelaide.” At the end of the book Cho-Cho vanishes with Suzuki and her baby after being prevented from committing suicide in what really feels like an “Up yours, Whitey!” moment.

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A far cry from the “dying Oriental swan” and consciense-stricken Westerners who nevertheless must return to “civilisation” taking the child with them to a “better life”.  What of this film? There’s no soundtrack and one gets the impression it was lost for a long time. As well as looking like it was shot in a corner of Kew Gardens it’s also risibly patronising, especially with its use of pidgin English captions when the Japanese characters are speaking to each other, one particularly ghastly example being “I choke him with much big American cocktail. He get mad, and no come back”. Just keep talking to him in that doggerel, love, that’ll do the trick.

"He told me he do not want my relatives." "There is an American battleship in the harbor."

Yellowface watch

Pinkerton and Cho-Cho’s genuine (looking) Eurasian baby aside this film is populated by Caucasians in silk robes and kimonos with their hairstyles the only authentic looking thing about them. Cho-Cho is of course played by the great Mary Pickford , co-founder of United Artists studio and also known as “America’s sweetheart” , though her trademark curls are naturally hidden here.  She and director Sidney Olcott apparently clashed repeatedly over the fact he thought her “too Americanized to play a Japanese” Quelle surprise! True to form, Mary has one or two stabs at coy “oriental” flirting near the beginning but for the most part just acts herself, as does everyone else in the cast with the possible exception of David Burton as Prince Yamadori who perhaps feels he has to ham up his “Japaneseness” because he’s in ostensibly Western dress.

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Fave scene? All of the scenes featuring Cho-Cho’s family are unintentially hilarious, particularly the one where they sit in two lines facing each and bang their fists repeatedly as they decide to disown Cho-Cho. Because they do that in Japan. Obviously.

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Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meanwhile don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex a production The Public Reviews describes “incredibly guiltily hilarious” and The Upcoming says is “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo”