In the early pre-code 1930s the Asian menace was a hot topic. China was in a bloody civil war, and its newsreel scenes of exotic people in various states of distress brought the mystery of the orient into movie audience's laps in a big way. Of course with foreign fascination inevitably comes 'miscegenation' fantasies, always proportionate in intensity to the extremity of the culture's racial intolerance. The white male viewer was presumably all alight with lust for the beautiful Asian ladies they saw, whether via the exotica-betrothed vamps like Theda Bara or Myrna Loy in Asian make-up (before she hit it big in The Thin Man Loy was the go-to girl for scheming Asian pre-codes -- Mask of Fu Manchu, Thirteen Women, The Barbarian (where she got around the miscegenation by being half-Egyptian). Even today audiences who should know better, like myself, fall madly aswoon to Loy shimmering in tight silks, but she's reflecting an evil double standard: white man + Asian girl = sexy; Asian man + white girl = NEIN!
But with every double standard comes suspicion, the dark flip-side. The entitled American white straight male viewer is agog over the exotica of this beautiful other (with her Sadean-skill in inflicting kinky pleasure-pain through knowledge of eastern medicine and her complete freedom from the suffocation of western bourgeois 'morality') so he must naturally, inescapably, worry his wife is being seduced in turn by some handsome, smooth-skinned, erudite, extremely cultured albeit cold and cruel Asian man, like Nils Asther in Asian make-up in the most complex, beautiful yet ultimately frustrating of the lot, Frank Capra's Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). Without that corresponding forbidden fantasy, the white man in turn cannot move forward without guilt, and so the spiral tightens, autoerotically, to blackout.
The celestial Hal Eriksen notes of Bitter Tea:
"The one scene that everyone remembers takes place during one of Stanwyck's fevered dreams, in which she imagines Yen as a Fu Manchu-type rapist, who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor. Directed with the exotic aplomb of a Josef von Sternberg by the usually down-to-earth Frank Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was unfortunately a box office failure, due in great part to its miscegenation theme (this was still 1933). Even so, the film was chosen as the first attraction at the new Radio City Music Hall."Yes, what about that misegenaiton theme and speaking of 1933 (arguably the greatest year ever for Hollywood) one can feel the racist angle being stretched to its limits, backing the censor up just a few inches with each assault, until gradually, if not for the damned code in 1934, the racist double standard might have slowly been pushed back across the line. In this assault you can feel the sheer stupidity of miscegenation codes come full flower, practically baiting the intolerant bourgeois 'moralists' into getting pundit-level furious. For Capra's film dares to present the forbidden love of Stanwyck and Manchu general Asther as preferable to the disposable British missionary fiancee.
Abducted and given a beautiful room in his summer palace, Babs becomes enamored of the spring moon and the sight of Chinese lovers frolicking in the fronds, even if they are just soldiers and concubines --she probably presumes they're all legally married. Her own sexuality is at stake as her letters back to her fiancee are misdirected by Mai-Li (the Japanese Toshia Mori) Asher's young local girl lover, who has to sit lower than everyone else at the dinner table as she is not the general's wife. But in trying to seduce Stanwyck, Yen is foolish enough to listen to Bab's pleas of mercy, and its this mercy that costs Yen his kingdom, fortune and leads to his bitter tea-drinking. A white woman is the end of him, it's Joseph Breen looming over Asther with a glass of poison, like they did to poor Elisha Cook Jr. in THE BIG SLEEP!
It's fascinating that even though the general is played, as was often the style by a white man (Nils Asther), any kind of romance, even of a kiss on the lips, is forbidden. Similarly, the Furies' (1950) presents a romance between a Mexican man and Barbara that branches from the novel turns chaste, leading to a bitter hanging early on even though he's Gilbert Roland, a white man. In Yen a kiss happens kind of but only in the Fu Manchu monster dream sequence Eriksen writes of above, but the tagline below is right: "they found a love they dared not touch." Or rather Columbia dared not; Yen is down to touch it. BUT! But is also a gentleman so she has to want to come to him, and then even if she does she's eventually unable to actually kiss more than his hand in fealty. When Babs thinks about kissing him, even though she dreamt this awesome dream where the Fu Manchu rapist stereotype is replaced by a dashing Zorro type, both played by Asher, she's repulsed. Critic David Thomson interprets Stanwyck's misisonary coldness as the result of external metatextual echoes of Capra's smitten advances. They had dated for their first three Columbia pictures and she had broken it off and he cast her in Yen to try and win her back. "So Stanwyck tries to be the missionary when everything in the film calls for a creeping abandon in Megan. When I say everything I mean above all Nils Asther's Yen, one of the most attractive figures in early sound cinema--witty, fatalistic, and very smart." ("Have You Seen..." p. 99)
OF course Yen can't be that smart if he lets his attraction for another man's bride get in the way of his war, since it means he'll lose it. His fascination for Stanwyck is tied up in this, it's a slow coiling he sees as suicide from the very beginning, when she offers him a hankerchief after he runs over her rickshaw driver. He doesn't care about the rickshaw driver because "life, even at it's best, is hardly endurable" - a great line he delivers with the perfect mix of ennui and breeziness - but he's moved she gives him a handkerchief The idea of a culture clash is driven home in the way Babs gets to apply her missionary zeal to he pleading for the life of Mah-Li. Yen adopts her forgiving attitude almost on a dare, and while he handles the subsequent loss of his stolen fortune with Zen aplomb he can't really handle the strait-jacket of the production code (who could?) which results in Babs' surrendering to Yen in penance yet still unable to think about kissing him in real time without recoiling as if he was still the leering Fu Manchu character from her dream. She loves him but his non-whiteness ensures she'll never convert him back into that masked prince.
This repulsion and lust see-saw between beautiful white women and hormonal Chinese officers was prevalent all over the years 1930-33, and so it's no surprise one shows up in a Josef Von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich film: Shanghai Express, a Chinese general played by Warner Oland (another white guy in Asian make-up) who hijacks the title train and won't let it go until Dietrich agrees to stay behind with him. She will, because she's heroic, but it's implied that this would be a fate worse than death. Luckily Anna May Wong stabs him in a race-appropriate act of post-rape retribution before this miscegenation fantasia gets any farther. And the censor wipes his brow.
|Shangai Express by Erich Kuersten - 2008|
Anna May Wong played another 'entertainer' who felt this way, the previous year, in in the 1931 Fu Manchu sequel Daughter of the Dragon. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa plays a smitten detective who starts presuming that, since he's young and Asian and so is she, he can dictate who her friends are and make all sorts of won't-take-the-hint advances. Wong prefers the rich white guy, of course, even if she means to kill him and even if he's played by Bramwell Fletcher, an Englishman so delicate he makes David Manners seem like Marlon Brando. We're meant, I think, to be a little repulsed by Haywakawa and simultaneously to secretly root for Wong's plans of vengeance agains the Petries, and to identify with the sense of love and duty she feels for her infamous father. And naturally we'd hate to see her throw away her happiness with this stiff Uncle Tom of an Asian detective! Anna meanwhile can have any white man she wants, as they all want to sew some wild oats with an exotic flower, though of course its understood none of them would ever marry her. Good heavens!
The fear of course was that seeing a love scene involving a young Asian male with another woman, even an Asian woman, would lead to riots and lynchings and burning of the nitrate in the southern markets. Censorship pre-empted the crackers' pre-emptive strike against nonwhites, lest as Fu Manchu urges his throngs in Mask of Fu Manchu (1933)---"(they) kill the white man, and take his women!" As someone who was almost lynched just for wearing a yellow sweater my mom got my on a Christmas afternoon showing of In and Out in 1998, I can vouch that a lot of that intolerance is still very real. To these racist swine Asians are almost scarier than Hispanics, Latinos, African-Americans or Native Americans, because the derogatory phrase 'yellow' doesn't really fit. Asians are in fact 'whiter than white' - more refined than the white racist thinks even himself capable of. That's why for every exquisitely cruel and cultured monster like Manchu there must be hordes of leering Chinese soldiers or grinning, moronic cooks, often played by the versatile character Willie Fung, to make whitey feel better.
For example: At the very racist comic relief end of MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu, Fung terrifies the white people when he emerges out of the fog on deck with the dinner gong. All is well, apparently, once he starts giggling in pidgin English. The subtext is clear: So long as we keep the Chinese out of our schools (Fu Manchu boasts of earning at least one of his many doctorates at Oxford) they're perfectly happy.
I write this post not to stir up racist trouble. In fact quite the opposite. I'm fascinated by the tropes of exotica, of chinoiserie -- I can't help it. The art directors involved in these 1933 films took the Asian milieu as a license to go nuts with ornate doorways, sparkling, slinky dresses, Hindu statuary reflecting monstrous shadows over jeweled walls, and exquisite torture devices. I've never thought these cine-fantasias represented the real China, but I love their beauty and weirdness as an elaborate masquerade as much as I recoil from scenes of neo-realist squalor or the banal prefab sameness of middle class suburbia, or anything showing reality in its lack of glory. There's a liberation from the sticky wickets of drab western symmetry when one surrenders to the Asian aesthetic. In The Cheat (1931) for example (see my review of The Universal Pre-code Collection on Bright Lights):
"Crashing like a drunken ferry between the banks of marriage's ho-hum sanctity and the liberal miscegenation fantasia (Pichel's character is coded gay/Asian, with a great sculpture collection, a penchant for sadism and silk pajamas), The Cheat (below) bangs itself up pretty bad in order for the heroine tofinally — for the sake of her children or her husband's reputation — back out of the deal. Pichel (the black-lipstick wearing assistant of Dracula's Daughter in 1935) is plenty creepy, but Bankhead, stoop-shouldered like a boxer or Garbo in Anna Christie, isn't exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. What's so sordidly pre-Code about it all is that the "cheat" of the title refers not to Tallulah cheating at cards, or cheating on her husband, but rather cheating on Pichel — our lonesome bachelor — by trying to reneg after he's already paid off. In other words, this sort of deal was — in the pre-Code universe — as valid and holy (or unholy) as the state of marriage itself!"
The Cheat was made in 1931, and the coded miscegenation repulsion-attraction was even worse! The overriding motif throughout these films is that Asians are treated with some respect if they are cultured and can speak English, though they tend to go all to blazes when the get a load of any white chick. Irving Pichel brands Tallulah's breast to mark her as a cheat when she won't put out after he pays off her gambling debts. Apparently Asian guys even if played by whites (as whites) are so repulsive that being literally branded on the breast is better than putting out, regardless of your word of honor.
The earliest and most influential chaste interracial romance of them all is surely that between horribly abused Lillian Gish and the disillusioned Asian curio shop owner played by white man Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms (1919). Chris Jacobs writes "it is a delicate story of characters and ideals caught up in an inexorable destiny. Modern-day critics who acknowledge Griffith's contribution to cinema also find the eloquent plea for racial tolerance less embarrassing to embrace than the controversial The Birth of a Nation." Yeah but as I recall they never even kiss or embrace despite this poster:
Nowadays of course racism is still a problem. But may I suggest that a part of this is the prevalence of the attitude that we are all the same? I applaud kids who get way into the minutiae of another culture, even ironically... this is how racism is healed, through admittance into one's own lexicon. The purpose of making fun of something can be to join it, to playfully analyze and encompass it. How many best friends didn't like each other at first, but were drawn to the unique complimentary energy the other provided during fights, insults, or misunderstandings. It's well known that mixed race children are actually genetically superior to many purebreds. The bigger the gene pool for your DNA to work from the less likely you are to have birth defects and the more likely you are to be beautiful, as per books on the subject, such as Breeding Between the Lines.
We should rejoice when our children start dating someone of a different race. The best thing we can do is to mix our genes and absorb all the details of each other's culture, celebrating each other's unique perspectives rather than demonizing or objectifying. The sooner we're all one glorious carmel-skinned, mildly epicanthically-folded race the better... as far as our genes are concerned. In the meantime we should try on each other's cultures like robes at a costume party, and in the process de-demonize ourselves to each other. Films like Bitter Tea can be accused of racism or copping out on miscegenation but they also open up the dialogue, they point out the withering hypocrisy at the core of the anti-miscegenation code and its ultimate damage to world culture the same way homophobia in Brokeback Mountain does.
The devil falls in love with those that won't be tempted.