Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Friday, December 04, 2015

White Woman Waterloo: WEST OF SHANGHAI, JAMAICA INN, SKYSCRAPER SOULS



It's been my experience that European and South American women are all the time how American (as in white, middle class) women are only on Halloween and New Year's Eve, and if that makes no sense to you then you never hooked up with one, or noticed how in Guys and Dolls Jean Simmons is a quintessentially American girl, dumb enough to initially cut handsome Brando loose since he's not exactly the square dude she's fantasized about as a child, yet she's able to loosen up with a drink in her system and her system in Cuba --a double permissive whammy. South American and European women tend to date who they like, and like sex, so it's more musical chairs than hunger artist. They are neither frigid sober or indiscriminately slutty while wasted - because, as with New Year's and Halloween, it doesn't 'count' - her behavior on these nights or in this place on that drink is not 'them' so unanswerable to whatever high ideal they're seeking. Non-American women know that if Brando's gambling addiction doesn't meet your expectation of good Sky Masterin' while yr sober, then that's your problem, not MGM's. For European and South American women (a sweeping generalization I know, forgive me) the idea of behavior not 'counting' at all seems infantile. What are American women waiting for? Do they believe the ads their heads are saturated with? Do they really believe in princes with lots of money and no vices just waiting for them to round the corner?

The question MGM loves to ask though, remains: Why are dull-as-dishwater Christian-mingling "white women" of the USA so highly prized amongst "the Orientals" --when it's so clear that white American straight Christian (missionary) women are shallow, self-entitled and sanctimonious and as 'locked up' in their nether regions as Fort Knox? The answer is something so lewd only prude censors can even imagine it. The well-laid writers amuse themselves tying sexually embittered censors up in knots, seeing lewd Chinese slavers under every innocent cherry blossom. May as well give them one, or more -- a parade of gibbering slavering stereotype foreign men for whom every day is Halloween or New Years, sexually speaking. Naturally, they fall for the one girl who is Lent, the one girl whose repressed id/sexuality is so bottled up the only way they can uncork is via some loathsome heathen having his way with her. She's the censor stand-in, a figure MGM supposes is worthy of lionization and trust, but the writers conjuring her sneer at even while delivering. The result? A whole new front of masochism, since Hollywood demands the heathens die for the sin of even trying to bust a move. Even played--as they inevitably are--by a white man, a single kiss might topple an empire, or cause riots south of the Mason-Dixon line.

By which I mean, TCM recently showed the always alluring and shockingly racist (it gets more odious and racist with every passing year of dawning social awareness), Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and also West of Shanghai, (1937) a film I'd never seen thanks to mediocre Lenny ratings and its post-code date, but actually it's much better at linear momentum and minutiae than the more glossily ornate and sexier, but dumber Manchu. 

 If, like old Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), West turns out rather like Houdini drowning in a vat of water while trying to wrestle loose from the handcuffs of racist censorship while still painting the a lurid miscegenation fantasy, it's got a few tricks marking it different: there's a slightly gay twist courtesy the resolutely unappealing and boxy dyke vibe of the missionary seductee Jane Creed (Beverly Roberts); repeated fake-out firing-squad based tests of homoerotic male bonding between General Fang (Karloff) and the dashing wildcatter Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver) who saved his life years back when Yang was just a revolutionary peasant; big business intricacies (what good are business deals with revolutionaries if they don't win, or even if they do?), and a zig-zagging first half that denotes some actual good screenwriting.

West of Shanghai starts like it's going to be Shanghai Express with the Chinese Civil War backdrop, and disparate first class passengers saying their station farewells, boarding the train and settling into compartments. We might think at first that it's going to be about the duplicitously jolly interrelation between foreclosing banker Douglas Wood, his slightly less-leaden daughter Lola (Sheila Bromley), and Ricardo Cortez's big oil man Gordon Creed. They're all heading out to Hallet's discovery field in the titular direction, getting accidentally caught between Karloff's existential warlord Wu Yen Fang and the well-intended but stretched-thin Chinese army. We soon learn Creed isn't just heading west to get Oliver's oil but also visit his boxy missionary wife  Jane (Roberts), who's in love with Hallet and pining all around his oil. Creed doesn't want her but damned if he's going to give her up if she has any value he's not seeing. The foreclosing banker's Lola likes Jim Hallet too, and is the better bet, in my opinion, but hey, each according to his own closeted lesbian tastes. Karloff's rebel General Fang may want them all anyway. He starts with Jane and--via a slow boil seduction strategy--we're invited to feel her mix of excitement, dread, and curiosity. Sensory bewitchment ala the "Oriental" decor, and Fang's practiced tact makes it pretty clear that all Jane will have to do is not scream or run and she'll be in bed with an Asian by the end of the night. Accorded A-number one mistress status on account of her white skin, she'll probably dumped off at some Peking brothel when her bloom fades, or when he finally realizes she hasn't one. Gorgeous Asian women are a dime a dozen it seems, while boxy, repressed white women are apparently more precious than entire empires. This may be perhaps just a grass-is-greener thing, but I always wonder how long these women would stay so valuable if they weren't so damned racist, or if the censor demographic (the kind of old broads who drag Sullivan to that wheezy triple feature during one of his early Travels) suddenly all dropped acid and had an orgy.


Intricate business for an allegedly lurid and exciting slice of adventure hokum. Karloff's at half-sail but tacitly bemused, playing his general like a weird mix of Charlie Chan and Willie Fung with just the right amount of General Died at Dawn's Akim Tamiroff-style poker faced existential brinksmanship to keep it all from collapsing into high camp. Indeed, seeing his general next to Warner Oland's similar role in Shanghai Express, and Nils Asther's in Bitter Tea of General Yen (both 1932) is to notice how the all run a similar track: for these three rebel officers, the measure of a man is how well he stands up to the intensity of a firing squad, or torture. If his hand isn't shaking when he lights the last cigarette instead of taking the blindfold, if he pontificates in typically post-WWI sardonic hipster √©lan about death instead of pleading like a weak-livered carpetbagger, then he's (or she's) earned A-number one white man (or woman) status in the epicanthic eye. For a world still recovering from the wholesale slaughter of trench warfare, already dreading the next world-wide conflict, casual ambivalence about facing a firing squad is such a righteous mark of cool it's worth betraying your country just to get the chance. It's like boarding a first-class train to that shore no traveller from returneth, and no evil general may stoppeth: do it with enough self-sufficient detachment you don't think twice about leaving your bags on the platform, and you may get to stay on as conductor.

Another reason I veddy much like West of Shanghai: the Asian characters are actually far more complex than the whites, and played by actual Asians for a change (Karloff aside). Chester Gan as Karloff's #1 henchman is a former Chicago gangster who speaks in streetwise slang; Richard Loo is the portly officer who christens the feisty Jane 'Little Dragon' after she takes umbrage with the way he casually bats her around; as a nationalist general who's killed on the train in the opening reels, Japanese actor Tetsu Komai talks in the steadied and eloquent but succinct, polite and honest style of English as a second language spoken by an educated and intelligent person. Happy to be in the company of so many white people he doesn't know (they're more trustworthy than his scheming soldiers he says), his polite dignity sets a high bar no other character in the film ever matches. His death leaves a sad mark, as if the potential for a happy resolution for this conflict is a given not to happen.

The white set of passengers--white missionaries and wildcatter capitalists--are as a whole painted rather harshly by contrast. In their haughty colonialist arrogance they view the civil war strife going on around them as just another Chinese excuse for slow room service. This is particularly well-drawn in the scene between Jane and Fang (Karloff) after Oliver is hauled off to the gulag for punching a guard. The silken pidgin English-spouting warlord brings her into a special room he's commandeered for the occasion, to ply her with drink and promises of grand adventure and the best food. Always there's the clear indication she's bereft of alternatives, other than suicide or murder (via the pistol he's left on the table). "If I want," Fang says, "I take you. It veddy easy." The scene is rather chilling, and we feel the protean echo of the violent savaging women were enduring in mainland China at this approximate time (1937) at the hands of the Japanese Army. 

But of course, this being after the 1934 Joseph Breen-enforced code, before any real deflowering gets underway, our Androcles Oliver escapes his captors and rushes to the rescue where he's recognized by Fang for a thorn-out-the-paw favor he did back when Fang was just a wounded nobody rebel. Still, we're glad to be spared any further dismay over why such a slick operator would be attracted to this boxy blank broad, and grateful we can spend the rest of the film enjoying the the weird head games Fang employs as he runs along a silken edge betwixt menace, playful Solomon-style problem solving, and macho existential last cigarette firing squad-style coo. It's enough to earn him a ladder rung between Dietrich's smiling exit at the end of 1932's Dishonored (see: Decadence Lost) and Walken's "one shot" at the end of 1978's The Deer Hunter.  


SKYSCRAPER SOULS 
(1933) Dir. Edgar Selwyn
***1/3 

"A man and a wife should never live in the same house," Warren William says to his expensive absentee spouse Hedda Hopper (she comes to town only to snap $100K checks from his fingers like AA tokens). Indeed, William avoids houses altogether, living above where he works and mixing business and pleasure so seamlessly together all distinction ceases. A tycoon of towering ambition and ruthlessness, William's big ambition is a skyscraper monument to his own ego, one that dwarfs the Empire State. But. as so often happens, especially in Warren's Warner Bros. pre-codes, a white woman gonna lay him as low. Skycraper follows the blueprint of high-test William vehicles like Employee's Entrance and The Mouthpiece, mixing his brand of infectious big business wolfishness with a Little Red Riding Hood secretary or client naif waterloo as counterpoint. He falls for her and ends up going straight... usually to jail or the morgue. He can scale capitalism's summit in a bounding leap, but flash some naive integrity his way and he's in over his head. The naif here is Maureen O'Sullivan at the height of her sparkling gamin loveliness. She lays us low, just watching her climb drunkenly into his bed. Veree Teasdale, as Williams' mistress and personal assistant, is both jealous and protective of this young innocent (she runs the secretarial pool). As with all the best William films, the last chunk might be ham-handed kowtows to bumpkin decency, but the first swath is pure giddy carnal Mr. Wolf's wild ride. Usually that means an uninterrupted stretch of 'real time' at Williams' side during office hours. This time we see him problem solving and merrily bull-charging through a steady stream of assistants, clients, bankers, lovers, and the wife, all while still in his robe upstairs in his apartment: finagling investors is done in the lower level steam bath; appeasing the foreclosing bankers (after he 'borrowed' thirty million from the kitty) is done upstairs in his office; accruing endomorphic industry titan Norton (George Barbier) as a partner is done in a booze-and-babe-stocked penthouse. It all flows from day to early morning in a seamless pre-code rush. The practiced ease with which the great William lies and connives his way out of appointments with two different mistresses in order to seduce O'Sullivan, first telling her to stay late downstairs at the office and type a second copy of some report he doesn't need, then plying her with champagne upstairs--only to have her hang onto the less intimidating jolly old prospective client Norton!

Hmmm.... one can't just cockblock a desired investor outright, but that doesn't stop a big bad wolf like William. Just means he has to be extra conniving...


Feeling as if it's unfolding in total real time from the moment we see the peak-of-pixiedom Maureen (that sexy frock at left rivaling her deerskin Tarzan and his Mate) in the workday afternoon all the way through to him walking her out of the building in the early dawn, his catch-and-release seduction is so pure pre-code, so truly sophisticated and lecherous it rivals only a similar film (clearly a blueprint for this one), The Mouthpiece.

ALAS, this isn't Warners, this is MGM, so these reels of seamless business-during-pleasure fusion are offset by a lame working class romance in the lobby coffee shop and elevator, i.e.. the usual MGM bow to the sort of provincial moralism and hick sentiment that scrappy Warner Brothers or champagne and opium Paramount had expunged from their psyches when they moved into the sound age. 

In this case the 'decent guy' after O'Sullivan down in the lobby is a pushy little adenoidal mouth breather played by Norman Foster. One of the most annoyingly 'romantic' Madison Avenue-style ground floor lovers ever (an antecedent to Elliot Reid in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) he's a type that's thankfully disappeared long ago from the national register of romantic male archetypes: the smug, overbearing ad man, pipe in mouth, granting himself the innate right to annoy cute girls at their place of work. This would only be tolerable if he wound up arrested, served with a restraining order, or barred from the building, but his overbearing come-ons actually work on Maureen, which seems to condone boorish stalker behavior in a very unhealthy way (1). He actually stopped me from watching the rest of the movie on two separate occasions. Thank God I finally just realized I could FF past his scenes without missing a goddamn thing (though even I don't like to see his life's savings lost in stock rush boondoggle).

The rest of the 'vertical Grand Hotel'-ish cast includes Jean Hersholt as a Jewish (vot else?) fashion designer smitten by one of his 'party girl' models (Anita Page). At least he's smart enough to not lose every cent of his money in the same boondoggle that wipes out Foster.

Guess who makes a killing on that same boondoggle? Damn right.

JAMAICA INN
(1939) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
****

Our final oversize capitalist brinksmanship-swindler torpedoed by an innocent white girl gamin is the great Charles Laughton in Hitchcock's unjustly sidelined JAMAICA INN (1939). Cursed with decades of terribly murky prints, it was hard to tolerate no matter how stout the Hitchcock seafarer, that is... until last week when it showed up on TCM finally looking drop dead gorgeous in a cleaned-up new HD deep black transfer which made me instantly forget the dismally depressing time I had trying to watch it on public domain VHS over the last few decades. This new transfer is so good, by jove, I've changed my whole costume drama tune (I used to hit 'stop' at the first sight of petticoats, tricornered hats or powdered wigs, 'ceptin on rare occasions as it were, sonny). It looked so good on TCM that I put the Cohen BFI Blu-ray on my bleedin' Xmas wish list and started shouting "Chadwick!" in a worshipful impression of Charles Laughton as the British gentry/local constable. Unfolding over a few dark nights, set on a big tract of foreboding moors and cliffs along the windswept Irish (?) coast near the titular inn (a more Gothically delicious set-up you'll never find), it's basically yet another tale of an innocent beauty bringing her antiquated morality to bear upon a scene in which she is but a tourist and in the process felling some smitten tyrant or other, but it's far different in tone than the other two in this list. The wreckers at work here are genuinely evil--a truly murderous bunch of cretins--and in this case the beauty is a very young Maureen O'Hara in her first film. Who wouldn't choose to topple?

 
The stormy adventure eventually coheres into an extended thrilling chase as Maureen is pursued all over the adjoining properties, sea caverns, roofs, mansions, hills and dales, providing a fine example of Hitchcock's ever-evolving flair for  comedically-leavened suspense. What I remember most though is the genuinely fine mix of unique character actors as the wrecking crew, so full of rich slangy elocution and colloquial dialogue they rival of the unsavory crew of MGM"s 1935 classic Treasure Island (a personal favorite), none more than the crazy-eyed and haired Leslie Banks as Maureen's uncle-in-law. And, as might be supposed, Laughton--sneakily oscillating between gluttonous British lord swagger and conniving, homicidal greed--is at his nimblest, toying with O'Hara and the role as if a cat eager to make a mouse continually think it's almost gotten away. And for her part it soon cuts both ways: initially letting her woman's trust in signifiers of paternal power get the better of her, she comes around when it counts. Plucky, warm, brave, going to any length to save lives, even that of the no-good uncle-in-law (Banks) on account of her devoted aunt (Marie Ney), she practically leaps off the page of the screen, a fiction heroine of our imagination come to robust life. Now that there's a restoration wherein we can savor the beauty of the coastline and the deep horror film / mischief-night ambience, the dirty faces of the wreckers and the shadowy corners of the rooms, Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn has become a sploshing wave of thrilling old dark inn suspense, lovers-on-the-run mystery, colorful black comedy, and ripping action - jolly good show. And--what's this here? Could it be? Robert Newton is the romantic hero? Well strike me colors and call me ChadWICK!


NOTES:
1. see CinemArchetype 2: The Skeevy Boyfriend.
2. My father always said he originally wanted to name me Chadwick, but my mom stopped him.

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