Thursday 28 May 2020

On the Internet - John Baxter unearths William Wellman's THE HATCHET MAN (USA, 1932, 73 minutes)

Some film stories are perennial. How long before the next A Star is Born, probably featuring a YouTube personality seduced, then superseded by a Facebook upstart? The first (1937) version, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, was the work of William Wellman, a director never less than interesting but mostly associated with the westerns and war stories that occupied the last half of his career. 

He also did The Public Enemy, however,not to mention Beggars of Life and Wild Boys of the Roadfilms which, it’s hard to believe, came from the same hand as the 1932 The Hatchet Man, his riff on another evergreen theme, Beauty and the Beast. Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont wrote this fable as a lesson for girls about to marry older men in arranged marriages, urging them to seek the prince behind the paunch. The play on which The Hatchet Man is based, co-written by David Belasco, also responsible for Madam Butterfly, restages the story for a Chinese executioner and the daughter of his victim.  While the best such stories are admirably adaptable, Bertrand Tavernier, one of the few people to give much attention to the film, rightly calls the premise of this version “delirious”.

As a prominent member of a Chinese Tong is murdered in pre-World War I San Francisco, the rival Tong calls in its official executioner, Wong Low Get, to revenge him in the traditional manner. (In case we don’t get the message, a brief montage shows groups of Asians hard at work at grindstones, sharpening hatchets.) Mortified to find his target is his oldest friend, Sun Yat Ming, he reluctantly does his duty. Ming not only makes it easy for him, but leaves him all his property, plus his baby daughter, Sun Toya San, as his ward and, hopefully, future wife. 

Edward G Robinson, Loretta Young
Every role is taken by an Occidental actor in yellow-face, which, aside from the offensive racism, gives a disjointed character to the performances, since each has made a different choice of mannerisms from the Asian Character takeaway menu. Edward G. Robinson is fairly credible as Wong Low Get. He at least looks a little Chinese, particularly in black hat and pyjamas, no doubt the reason for casting him, but J. Carrol Naish as a squinting Sun Yat Ming, hissing through his teeth and making odd shrugging gestures with his shoulders, might be Nanki-Poo in a road company production of The Mikado.
" flagrante".. Edward G Robinson, Loretta Young, Leslie Fenton
Once the story shifts into the nineteen-thirties, Loretta Young’s grown-up Sun Toya San lets her silk trouser suits and flapper outfits do the work  Leslie Fenton as gangster Harry En Hai gives a standard performance of double-breasted spivvery. Dripping Brilliantine and endearments, he seduces her on the dance floor to the tune of Poor Butterfly, an ersatz Oriental hit of the day. Wong Low Get catches them in flagrante but, rather than using his hatchet on them, lets them go, a breach of etiquette for which his colleagues ostracise him. When both are deported to China, he follows, rescuing Toya from a brothel cum opium den, evoked with surprising reticence for a pre-Code film, particularly considering the fumerie of the Shanghai Lil number in Footlight Parade from the same studiothe following year.   

All this is building up to the final coup de theatre. When the brothel owner demands Wong Low Get demonstrate his expertise, he flings his hatchet across the room, burying it in a painted partition. He’s unaware that the blade has gone through the wood and into the skull of Harry En Hai who’s leaning against it on the other side. His head waggles grotesquely as the weapon is withdrawn, the best moment in his otherwise wooden performance. 
Bertrand Tavernier was over-generous in calling this sequence, effective though it is, “staggering”. He’s on surer ground in describing the opening scenes of the film, a Chinese funeral on which most of the budget seems to have been expended, with hundreds of extras winding through a studio-recreated Chinatown. ”A funeral procession turns into a panicked stampede,” he writes. “Filmed in a series of breathtaking crane shots (interspersed with close-ups of painted dragons and histrionic exchanges), [it] transcends the mind-boggling plot twists and questionable casting.” Amen to that.

As modern liberals, we decry such films as The Hatchet Man, but the reality in many Western capitals during the nineteen-twenties was not very different. In London (where the film was released under the less inflammatory title The Honorable Mr. Wong, see poster below), a gangster named “Brilliant” Chang (picture left) ran a drug empire from his restaurant on Regent Street. He also kept an apartment in Limehouse, all red lacquer and gold dragons, where he entertained English women in twos and threes while catering opium parties and “morphine teas” for the elite of Knightsbridge and Mayfair. Wong Low Get and his chopper would have fitted right in.

Editor’s Note: The Hatchet Man can be seen if you click here 

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