Saturday, March 10, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931)

Before making a real name for himself as a comic character actor, Lloyd Corrigan was the auteur of a trilogy of Fu Manchu movies for Paramount Pictures, writing all three and directing the last. Corrigan's films are very loosely based on Sax Rohmer's devil doctor, giving Fu Manchu a backstory that reduced his motive to revenge against the family of an English officer whose men had killed the once-benevolent doctor's family during the Boxer Rebellion. Corrigan's Fu Manchu was Warner Oland, whose vaguely Asiatic features won him many a yellow-peril part before he atoned, in retrospectively thankless fashion, by playing the belovedly benign Charlie Chan until his death. In Daughter of the Dragon, Corrigan retcons that backstory to exploit Rohmer's latest novel, Daughter of Fu Manchu. We learn that Fu Manchu, who has been playing dead for the last twenty years since the previous picture, had a living daughter who was raised in secret by one of his European loyalists (Nicholas Soussanin) and trained as a dancer who, as the story begins, is the toast of London vaudeville as Princess Ling Moy. In a big twist, Fu Manchu's daughter is played by an actual Chinese woman -- though to be more correct Anna May Wong was Chinese-American by birth. Daughter was Wong's Hollywood talkie debut after spending the 1920s lauded for her beauty but limited in opportunities by her ethnicity. She returned with fresh plaudits after stealing a late British silent, Picadilly and proving her voice, refined by her London sojourn, by starring in a Broadway play. Hollywood may have had little idea of what to do with her, but they knew she was some sort of star, acknowledging it by giving her top billing for her title role, Oland having little more than a cameo. Fu Manchu shows up in London to personally take out the latest generations of Petries, hypnotising one into falling down a flight of stairs but taking a mortal gunshot wound while throwing a knife at the Petrie heir (Bramwell "the mummy went for a little walk!" Fletcher), who we saw earlier making a admiring but also patronizing visit to Princess Ling Moy's dressing room. The Princess herself is presented to her dying father, who laments his lack of a son to continue his great work, only to be promised by Ling Moy, "I will be your son!" With Scotland Yard hot on his trail, the old man convinces her to play his victim, allowing himself to be shot down definitively while appearing to assault the popular dancer. This will allow her within the confidences of the surviving Petries so she can carry out her father's mission of vengeance.

Inevitably there are complications. For one thing, Ling Moy is sort of attracted to Ronald Petrie, and can't bring herself to knife him during a golden opportunity. For another, she has another suitor, the Chinese detective Ah Kee who took out Fu Manchu and now has a crush on the girl he rescued from the devil doctor. Daughter of the Dragon has far more historic than aesthetic value because Corrigan brings together the most successful Asian-American actress of early Hollywood and the most successful Asian actor of the studio era. Ah Kee is played by Sessue Hayakawa, best remembered now as the increasingly perplexed prison commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai but long before that a legit sex symbol if not an all-purpose ethnic star following his breakthrough role in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat. Daughter was a Hollywood comeback attempt for the 42 year old Hayakawa, who like Wong had gone to Europe seeking a wider variety of roles and was well received for his efforts. Unfortunately, unlike for Wong, English was a second language for Hayakawa and it shows. He makes a heroic effort, but his accent is almost impenetrably thick sometimes. Worse, he's been cast as a Chinese detective when, for those who know the difference, few men look and sound more obviously Japanese than Sessue Hayakawa without wearing samurai armor. No doubt Paramount Pictures expected few people of 1931 to know the difference or call Corrigan out on his caricature of Chinese culture. There's a scene where Ling Moy, trying to string Ah Kee along, performs a traditional Chinese song for him. I don't claim to be an expert on Chinese music but I think I've heard enough to recognize Wong's singing for the laughable imposture it most likely was. You could believe that she had no more clue about Chinese music, or music in general, than Corrigan did. It's like when American actors try to speak some Native American language like they're reciting Shakespeare, with no apparent awareness of how Natives actually talk. But I digress. Miscast as Hayakawa is by modern standards -- though it wasn't so long ago that Zhang Ziyi starred in Memoirs of a Geisha -- the fact that counts is that Ah Kee is the hero of this picture: a competent detective who's good with a gun and capable of breaking out some jiu-jitsu moves, or whatever people would have called it back then when a Chinese man did them.

Ah Kee is also a tragic hero in that Ling Moy really wants Petrie more than him. She finally goes off the deep end after being haunted by her father's voice after her first failure to kill the Englishman and seeing how Ronald reacts when the film's bland blonde (Frances Dade) is imperiled. That puts her into full Oriental torture mode, threatening to disfigure her rival before finishing Petrie off. In the meantime, her goons have temporarily taken Ah Kee out of action, tying him to a chair near an upper-story window where he can watch Petrie's friends, including the film's comedy-relief servant, blunder into danger. Our hero tosses himself out the window and crashes to earth to get their attention, and he's still got enough juice left after that to shoot down his beloved, finishing the "House of Fu," when she takes a last stab at poor Petrie. Corrigan can't help but play for pathos as poor Ah Kee lays himself down to die beside Ling Moy, but I'd like to think that even 1931 audiences had to wonder why the detective needed to die at all. In a better world, Ah Kee, accent and all, would have gone on to star in his own series of B movies, playing the yellow peril to the yellow peril -- just as I always say that the way to bring back Fu Manchu today is to make him a fugitive from the People's Republic and make a Chinese agent prominent in pursuit of him. Ah Kee could have been a Charlie Chan who kicked ass, but that could only have been in an alternate reality. In fact, Hayakawa was soon back in Europe, where he remained through World War II before Hollywood caught up with him again, while Anna May Wong had a minor apotheosis in her next, infinitely better picture, Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, where she gets to kill Warner Oland. Ironic, no? Daughter of the Dragon may be a uniquely historic Hollywood effort, but it's a good thing that no one involved is best remembered for it.


hobbyfan said...

Let's see. Warner Oland was from Sweden. Maybe Swedish father, Chinese mother, or the reverse?

Samuel Wilson said...

Pure Swedish parentage as far as I know, but Keye Luke said that Oland claimed distant Mongol ancestry to justify his quasi-Asiatic features.