Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Sunday, December 09, 2012


In the early pre-code 1930s the Asian menace was a hot topic. China was in a bloody civil war; newsreel scenes of exotic people in various states of distress brought the mystery of the orient into movie audience's laps; 'miscegenation' fantasies popped up, always proportionate in intensity to the the fantasizing culture's racism. The white male viewer was presumably all alight with lust for the beautiful Asian ladies they saw, whether via the exotica-betrothed 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 honeys, in pre-codes like Mask of Fu Manchu, Thirteen Women, and The Barbarian (where she got around the miscegenation by being half-Egyptian). Even today audiences who should know better, like myself, swoon over Loy a-shimmer in shining silks, but she's reflecting an evil double standard: white man + Asian girl = sexy; Asian man + white girl = riots.

But with every double standard comes suspicion. If the entitled American white straight male viewer is all agog over the exotica of this beautiful other, imagining her Sadean-skill in inflicting kinky pleasure-pain and her complete freedom from the suffocation of western bourgeois 'morality' he must naturally, inescapably, worry his wife is being seduced in turn by some handsome, smooth-skinned, erudite Asian man, like Nils Asther in Asian make-up in the most complex, beautiful yet ultimately frustrating Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). Without that corresponding anxiety over the vice versa, the white man's fantasy is inert, 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? Speaking of 1933 (arguably the greatest year ever for Hollywood) one can feel in its prohibition-repealed euphoria that the racist angle is being stretched to its limits in pre-code films of the moment, backing the censor up just a few inches with each assault,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 1933 you can feel the sheer stupidity of miscegenation codes come full flower, practically baiting the intolerant bourgeois 'moralists' into getting pundit-level furious. 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 must presume they're all legally married before vanishing into the bushes together). Meanwhile her own sexuality is at stake; her letters back to her fiancee are misdirected by the treacherous Mai-Li (the Japanese actress Toshia Mori), Asher's young local girl lover, who resents having to sit lower than everyone else at the dinner table as she is not the general's wife. Yen is foolish enough to listen to Bab's pleas of mercy for Mai-Lin's life when a different betrayal is discovered, and its this mercy that costs Yen his kingdom, fortune and leads to his bitter tea-drinking. A white woman's naive pro-life soap boxing 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 by a white man, even of a kiss on the lips with the white Babs is forbidden. Similarly, a later Stanwyck vehicle, the Furies' (1950), presents a romance between a Mexican man and Barbara that leads to a bitter hanging early on even though he's Gilbert Roland, a white man --and nothing happened between them.  In Yen a kiss happens kind of but only in the Fu Manchu monster dream sequence. "They found a love they dared not touch," read the tag line, but it's rather Columbia who dared not; Yen is down to touch that love 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 hero, 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. Thompson thinks 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 first offers him a handkerchief 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 even after berating him. He sees in her something that if he follows it through will lead to his death, but hey, life's hardly endurable. Yen adopts her forgiving attitude towards the treacherous Mai Lin 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 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 1933 Josef Von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich film: Shanghai Express. White actor Warner Oland (who also played both Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu in the same approx. era) hijacks the title train and won't let it go until Dietrich agrees to becomes his mistress. 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 
Wong and Dietrich are upscale prostitutes in the film, so it's presumed Dietrich has slept with Chinese generals before, but as long as we don't have to see it, or know about it, I guess it's okay (don't ask don't tell!). But we know about it when Oland takes Anna May Wong into his makeshift train station boudoir as consolation, thus justifying her deux ex machina stabbing. Apparently sex with an Asian man is hardly endurable even if you're Asian!

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 ineffectual 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. We'd hate to see her throw away her happiness with this stiff Uncle Tom of an Asian detective, and Fletcher's little better. Anna meanwhile can have any white man she wants, as they're all beguiled, 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 in a South Carolina two-dollar theater on a 1998 Xmas day, just for wearing a yellow sweater (a present from mom I'd never normally wear) to In and Out, which the audience did not expect was about gay people, and there was a lot of hissing and shocked dismay around us. So I can vouch that a lot of that intolerance in certain states 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.

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 black dresses with dragons glistening down the slit skirt, Hindi deity statuary casting monstrous shadows over exquisite torture devices. I've never thought these cine-fantasias represented the real China, but I love their beauty and weirdness, the 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), Irving Pichel's character is coded Asian with a great sculpture collection, a penchant for sadism and silk pajamas, and statues marked for every sexual conquest. Tallulah Bankhead promises to sleep with him if he pays her gambling debts but then at the last minute — 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, but she white. When he gets the spurn he brands her in reprisal. 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 then than in 1933. 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. 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 are 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. The sooner we're all one glorious carmel-skinned, mildly epicanthically-folded race the better... as far as our genes are concerned, especially. 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 later stretches of Brokeback Mountain does.

When we feel denied the right to objectify, imitate, adopt or consume 'another' culture, isn't that also a kind of racism? Let's not just go through a faux-Rastafari phase as a college kid then get mugged in Kingston and get all racist all of a sudden, flimming and flamming based on personal experience rather than an objective outlook. Let's learn the lesson of our fascination with exotica, and let's let the tortured sprits of conveniently killed characters like General Yen point out the absurdity of Hollywood's censor system, an outmoded code which encourages Montague-Capulet divisiveness even as it portends to delve into sensitive issues of star-crossed lovers separated by chasms of culture who are destroyed by the very divisiveness the code encourages, demanding credit for putting out a fire they themselves lit.

The devil falls in love with those that won't be tempted.


  1. Agree on everything here, Erich. The strangest, or simply dumbest riff on these themes I've seen recently is Son of the Gods which exploits memories of Broken Blossoms by casting Barthelmess -- without makeup for the eventually revealed reason (ugh!) that he's an adopted white boy -- as someone ostracized by society because he's a "Chinaman," even though he looks utterly un-Asian. But I suppose a film like that does the most to highlight the absurdity of race prejudice. I've been reading a lot of pulp and magazine fiction from the 30s lately and that obsession with China is all over the place -- oddly more so that you might expect now with the Chinese supposedly poised to dominate the world. But it's as you say: despite some propaganda the Chinese of 2012 are less "Other" and obviously less forbidden than the Chinese of 80 years earlier, and it's a less exotic world overall when the Asian phenomenon of the moment is Gangnam Style!

  2. Thanks Samuel - it's true, and back in the day of pulps and pre-codes 'the Orient' seemed a lot farther away, while meanwhile Chinatowns were right there in all the major cities, full of Tong wars, opium dens, evil Chinese masterminds bent on world domination, and the mix of graceful sadomasochistic women and Tong thugs that a figure like the Shadow could freely blast to ribbons with his twin .45s... never worrying he was offing someone who might be missed: "In the East, where life is cheap." - As Oland's general puts it in Shanghai Express - "you are in China now, sir, where time and life have no value."