Monday, December 23, 2002


The setting is Chinatown in 1911. Residents are split over the revolution that is happening back in China. Some are supporting the revolutionaries by sending money and supplies, while others, loyal to the Emperor, are taking measures to stop such aid. Lewis Stone is Dr. Dong Tong, who has already given all he can to the revolutionaries, but he is pressured to give more; there is a boatload of supplies ready to go but they need money to pay the captain and crew to take the boat to China. Stone's daughter, Helen Hayes, has fallen in love with young Tom Lee (Ramon Novarro), who we later discover is actually a revolutionary in exile (I think; this plotpoint was a bit blurry, but he's definitely a "good guy"). Stone approves of the match, but when the need to raise money becomes urgent, he decides he has to auction Hayes off as a bride to the highest bidder. She is shocked at first, but gives in to help her father. Warner Oland is a cruel Royalist who winds up buying Hayes. When she finds out that Oland is involved in some theft and murders that have affected her family, she exacts her own form of revenge.

The movie looks good, ripe with shadowy and exotic atmosphere. Virtually every major character is Chinese, but all are played by Caucasian actors. Once you get used to this, it actually works, except for Hayes; it never feels like she's really into the part, and to compensate, she overacts the general passivity of her character (until the last half when the character shows that she is made of stronger stuff). Navarro seems more vaguely "foreign" rather than Chinese, but he is handsome here and is very good, the best acting I've seen from him in a talkie. Ralph Morgan is the head of the "bad guys," H. B. Warner is the friend who pressures Stone into giving more money, and Louise Closser Hale is Hayes' mother figure. The real affront here for many modern viewers won't be the outdated use of non-Chinese actors, but the fact that Hayes is constantly apologizing to Stone for being a daughter rather than a son. I realize it's a reflection of real cultural values, but still it is bothersome when Hayes does take control near the end, she does it not as a strong woman, but as, in her words, a "son-daughter." If you can get past that, there is some old-fashioned charm and atmopshere to be had in this melodrama.

No comments: