Category Archives: charles starrett
Here is just a sampling of some of the movies being featured this month for “Asian Images in Film” on TCM.
Mr. Wu ~ This is a silent 1927 vehicle for Lon Chaney in which he plays two roles, the title one, old Wu and young Wu. Surrounded by Asian extras, Chaney and Louise Dresser, as his daughter, are Americans playing Chinese aristocrats. Legend has it that Chaney was so convincing that he rode buses and wandered Chinatown while in this make-up unnoticed. As convincing as the make-up may have been however, in the presence of true Asians, the Americans are revealed as just that – whites in yellow face. Ah, simpler minds in simpler times perhaps?
When the daughter of a powerful Mandarin is seduced and abandoned by a wealthy Britisher, Mr. Wu, the Mandarin, takes his revenge. The sets are beautiful and elaborate, even having as much a German film influence, or at least as much as the American black and white silent film industry would allow at the time. The music relays the story as much as the actions and the words, a perfect blending.
The Oriental lettering of the title cards also lends to the film’s uniqueness. Also the passage of time via caption cards does contrive the story a bit, but in the time and the place there was no other way to do it, I suppose, Hollywood not being as slick as it is today. However the emotion and expression performed by Renee Adoree and Holmes Herbert confirm them as masters of the silent field right along with Chaney. Acting without words and conveying feeling perfectly is not an art I doubt that Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez or any star of our day could pull off easily, if at all.
The tension of the tea party is wonderfully Hitchcockian before his time and well portrayed. While there is precious little Chaney in this Chaney starrer, when he’s onscreen, he dominates. As is his strong suit, when he gets angry, he is positively frightening. Wu’s horrible revenge is right out of a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel, and fitting for the characters and the story. Despite my misgivings above this is one of my favorite Chaney flicks and a must see for Chaney fans. Brilliant.
Mr. Wong in Chinatown ~ This is the third of four films in which Boris Karloff plays the San Franciscan amateur detective. It’s a role that shows off Karloff’s charm and elegance, qualities not often revealed in his horror parts. The character of James Lee Wong was created for Collier’s Magazine in 1934 by Hugh Wiley.
Mr. Wong went on to star in twelve short stories, six feature films (two of which were remade as Charlie Chan flicks) and a handful of comic books. This one is one of the best, with Karloff playing against Grant Withers as the hard-nosed detective and Marjorie Reynolds as the plucky girl reporter. It’s fun and mystery in the 1930s pulp flavor for everyone.
Daughter of Shanghai ~ Starring the incomparable Anna May Wong in one of her heroic lead roles. Also look for a very young Anthony Quinn, as well as Buster Crabbe in a rare bad guy role. Anna May’s acting and dancing are hypnotic in this B-thriller about smugglers of human cargo. Recommended.
Daughter of the Dragon ~ Once again Anna May Wong is in the spotlight in this early cinematic outing for the insidious Fu Manchu. This film is notable as one of the first featuring an Asian actress playing Asian in a lead role, in this case the title role, the equally insidious daughter of Fu Manchu. Acting against his later known type as Charlie Chan, Warner Oland is Fu Manchu here (his third time in the role), and extra props go to legendary Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa in his role as one of Scotland Yard’s Chinese detectives. The story, based on Sax Rohmer’s “Daughter of Fu Manchu,” is weak but the performances more than make up for it in this often overlooked B-picture.
The Mask of Fu Manchu ~ Speaking of Fu Manchu, this is probably the flick most people think of when they think of this legendary Asian villain, this time played by horror king Boris Karloff. In my opinion, Karloff’s portrayal is the best in cinema of this sinister villain, who I might add was author Rohmer’s first choice. It’s perfect, the ultimate movie monster playing the premier super-villain, it just doesn’t get better than this.
The rest of the cast is flawless as well. Andy Hardy future dad Lewis Stone is perpetual Fu protagonist Nayland Smith, the future Durango Kid and cowboy superstar Charles Starrett plays leading man action hero, and in perhaps her most unforgettable (and frightening) role (and yes, I’m counting Nora Charles) Myrna Loy as the daughter of Fu Manchu.
The film, based on Sax Rohmer’s classic of the same name, has the heroes and villains racing to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, which contains a mask and other relics that shall bestow ultimate power on the mad villain. All of the trappings and dynamic qualities of the pulps and the early serials are here, but stepped up to the next level. This fantastic adventure is highly recommended.