Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Pre-Code Parade: ROAR OF THE DRAGON (1932)
I'd been waiting for a chance to see this RKO film from the director of Cimarron since Erich Kuersten gave it a rave review on his invaluable Acidemic blog, and last week Turner Classic Movies finally came through. Normally "from the director of Cimarron" is not a recommendation for me, but whether thanks to or in spite of Wesley Ruggles' directorial touch Roar of the Dragon proved to be one of the pulpiest pictures I've seen in some time. It's basically a disaster movie or Stagecoach kind of film with a motley collection of characters thrown together by crisis, only they're in an isolated location, a Chinese inn under siege by bandits with a grudge against the American sailor holed up inside and the warlord's runaway mistress. The warlord -- apparently a Russian exile commanding Chinese -- is C. Henry Gordon, perhaps Pre-Code cinema's most reliably repulsive character actor, here allowed to play a little badass. We're introduced to him giving orders as his face is getting cauterized with a red-hot iron. It seems that that American sailor had cause to bite the warlord's ear off before the film even got started. The sailor is the star of Cimarron, Richard Dix, which usually isn't a recommendation even if you leave Cimarron out of it. But Roar of the Dragon is now my favorite Richard Dix movie because he plays the hero as a hardcore drunk -- and a bit of a jerk -- who only seems to sober up under threat of imminent death. He has a great line when he opens a door in the inn and finds the warlord's ex inside, pointing a gun at him: "I didn't know you wanted to marry me." As the exotic woman with the gun, Danish import Gwili Andre looks like the cover of a Pre-Code picture book. RKO brought her to America to be their Garbo or Dietrich, but she didn't get far beyond this movie, and that's too bad since I thought she was fine for what the part required. The collection of characters gets still more motley from here, encompassing Arline Judge as a horn-playing dame called Bridgeport with a soft spot for Chinese orphans, Edward Everett Horton as Bridgeport's earnest suitor, Dudley Digges as a craven capitalist possibly more vile than Gordon's warlord, and ZaSu Pitts in an especially useless version of her stock nervous Nelly role. Also present is history's only nonwhite WAMPAS Baby Star, Toshia Mori, as a stylishly modern Chinese girl whose dad runs the inn. But most importantly, our little band has a machine gun. Ho ho ho.
Don't expect any profundity or sensitive analysis of the political situation in Asia from this movie. You'll be too busy guessing which of the characters gets killed, or rooting for certain characters to be killed. Its setting is a fantasy China where Americans can cut loose and play out whatever fantasies of destruction Depression and its frustrations might inspire. It would be called irresponsible now, and may have been then, but it's less disturbing than the many fantasies about vigilante justice and vigilante leaders playing around the same time. Nothing symbolizes this blowing off of steam better than the spectacular site of Edward Everett Horton -- the simpering, fussy comic relief in so many Astaire-Rogers musicals and similar pictures -- going all Wild Bunch on a horde of bandits with that machine gun. The only thing that might have been more transgressive would have been to give ZaSu Pitts a turn at the gun, but the filmmakers clearly had no idea what to do with her apart from her routine Olive Oyl antics. I suppose she forms part of an ensemble of more-or-less Ugly Americans running amok in the Orient, with Digges the ugliest of all, some of whom are redeemed by heroism, not to mention heroic death, while some, like ZaSu, stay the same as they ever were -- and maybe that's the point of her. Dix's half swaggering, half staggering performance carries the picture, artistically assisted by Edward Cronjager's cinematographer and a characteristically ominous Max Steiner score. Roar of the Dragon packs a lot of mayhem into 70 minutes, and while Wesley Ruggles remains no great shakes as a director he (or at least the writers and actors) packs more energy into it than there was in all but the first reel of Cimarron. Apart from violence, Roar doesn't push too many Pre-Code envelopes -- and, to be fair, it does include someone getting burned at the stake -- but its furious energy fits the period just fine.