Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 women are only on Halloween and New Year's Eve, and if that makes no sense to you then you never hooked up outside your league on either holiday stateside, 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, but able to loosen up with a drink in her system and her system in Cuba. South American and European women tend to date who they like, and like sex, so it's more musical chairs than hunger artist. For them it's not starve at the steakhouse because you imagined a lobster. Non-American women know that if Brando's gambling addiction doesn't meet your expectation then that's your problem, not MGM's.

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 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. For these gibbering slavering stereotype foreign men, every day is Halloween or New Years so they fall for the one girl who is Lent. It's a whole new front of masochism for any foreigner of any race to fall for one of these women, since Hollywood demands they 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.

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 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 (post-code), while still painting the usual 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 Oliver's discovery field in the titular direction, getting accidentally caught between Karloff's existentially grounded 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 own flat little box-shaped missionary wife (Roberts), who's in love with Oliver-but Creed doesn't want her but damned if he's going to give her up. The foreclosing banker's Lola likes Jim Hallet too, and is the better bet, in my opinion, but go figure, each according to his own closeted lesbian tastes. It's still pretty interesting that, once Karloff's Fang  begins a slow boil seduction strategy, we're invited to feel Jane's 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, given A-number one mistress status on account of her white skin, and probably dumped off at some Peking brothel when her bloom fades. Gorgeous Asian women are a dime a dozen it seems, while--be they ever so boxy and repressed--white women are apparently more precious than entire empires... though that may be perhaps just a grass-is-greener thing, for I always wonder how long they'd stay so valuable if they weren't so damned racist.


Intricate business for an allegedly lurid and exciting slice of adventure hokum, don't sweat it. 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 them 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 confliuct, 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 find 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 with a streetwise slang; Richard Loo is the portly officer who christens the feisty Roberts 'Little Dragon' after she takes umbrage with the way he 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), his polite dignity sets a high bar no other character in the film ever matches.

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 strife going on around them as just another Chinese excuse for slow room service. This is particularly well-drawn in the scene between Miss Roberts and 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," Karloff says, "I take you. It veddy easy." The scene is rather chilling, and we feel the protean echo of the violent savaging of women in mainland China at this approximate time (1937) at the hands of the Japanese. 

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 that thorn-out-the-paw favor. 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 Karloff employs as he runs along a silken edge betwixt menace, playful Solomon-style problem solving, and macho existential last cigarette firing squad-style cool. 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. Here said waterloo gamin is played by Maureen O'Sullivan at the height of her sparkling gamin loveliness. She lays us low, just watching her. Veree Teasdale, as Williams' mistress and personal assistant, is both jealous and protective of the young innocent (she runs the secretarial pool that employs O'Sullivan). As with those other William films, the highlight comes early or in the middle: usually an uninterrupted stretch of 'real time' at Williams' side during office hours, where 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 involves throwing a booze and hired girl-stocked party in the penthouse. This whole section of the film is a seamless pre-code delight, allowing us to savor the practiced ease with which the great William lies and connives his way out of appointments with two different mistresses (and picks yet another one up on the balcony) 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, only to have her hang onto the less intimidating jolly old prospective client Norton! 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, which comes second nature. 


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 WB film The Mouthpiece.

But this isn't Warners, this is MGM, so these reels of seamless business-during-pleasure fusion are followed and preceded by lame working class romance in the lobby coffee shop and elevator, the usual MGM bow to the tiresome parameters of provincial moralism and the kind of 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 as one of the most annoying 'romantic' Madison Avenue-style ground floor love interests ever, an antecedent to Elliot Reid in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 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 (it's pretty rewarding when he loses his life's savings in a stock market boondoggle).

The rest of the Grand Hotel-aping 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
****

 Another oversize capitalist of ambiguous design brought low by an innocent gamin is the great Charles Laughton in JAMAICA INN (1939), a film I'd never seen 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. This new transfer is so good, by jove, I've changed my whole costume drama tune and 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. Though 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, in this case the beauty is a very young Maureen O'Hara in her first film. Who wouldn't topple?

 

The stormy adventure eventually coheres as an example of Hitchcock's ever-emerging gift for prolonged romantic chase sequences, but the crux is a genuinely fine mix of unique character actors as the bad guys. Full of rich slangy elocution and colloquial dialogue, they rival of the unsavory crew of MGM"s 1935 classic Treasure Island for earthy eloquence. Each wrecker rogue painted in detailed brush strokes, led by crazy-eyed and haired Leslie Banks, they're a slimy delight, they are. And as usual Laughton has a field day, oscillating from respectable if oafish parody of gluttonous British lordsmanship and conniving greedy rogue. O'Hara's strength and overwhelming Irish beauty is put to fine use as his foil, initially letting her woman's trust in signifiers of paternal power get the better of her (like most Hitchcock heroines) only to come around when it counts. Plucky, warm, brave, going to any length to save lives even 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 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 inn, it's gone from being a public domain footnote to a very strong entry in Hitch's canon, a sploshing wave of thrilling old dark inn suspense, lovers-on-the-run mystery, colorful black comedy, and ripping action - jolly good show. And 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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