NZ moved over to Level 2 COVID security just under a week ago which leaves us all a little more relaxed.
What always sends me pawing through the shelves for discs, old and new are prompts from others. Facebook Movie Wardrobe guru supreme, David Noh had been posting about a season of Asian-Americans in Hollywood on US TCM a week back. One of the new to me titles he fingered was a 1937 Paramount B pic (at 62 minutes), Daughter of Shanghai. An early picture directed by the great French surrealist expat, Robert Florey. I managed to claw out a copy from the backchannels, likely taken from the same US TCM screening.
Apart from being the only 30s Paramount “B” feature I can remember seeing, it’s also a revelation in how much B pictures could get away with over and above the code controlled “A” picture industry. The two leads are Asian-Americans, notably the great Anna May Wong, still luminously beautiful, and Philip Ahn, an actor I’ve loved forever who appeared in hundreds of pictures from the 30s up to his death in 1978.
|Anna May Wong, Philip Ahn, Cecil Cunningham,|
Daughter of Shanghai
Daughter of Shanghai is remarkable for the total absence of yellow-face performers, and the casting of all but one of the leads with Asian-Americans. At this point of his career Ahn was also quite as beautiful as Anna May, if not given to launching into hoochy-cooch numbers that Anna May does midway in the picture when she enterprisingly takes up a gig as “dance girl” at some South American niteclub hellhole, here run by a very young Charles Bickford. The head “girl” is a bit from the great Evelyn Brent (late of Sternberg and Chaplin) who plays what is virtually the only decent white person in the entire film. In fact, the white race is comprehensively damned in the film which sports a remarkable if not uniquely sanguine representation of the bullshit non-white people in America are still putting up with. Even the apparently sole “friendly” white is played here by the cinema’s greatest butch lesbian, Cecil Cunningham, in her “maternal” mode as Anna May’s only honky confidante. Alas, Cecil turns, as she must.
Florey was one of those directors out of left field in Hollywood who brought so much style and intelligence to even worthless projects. Daughter of Shanghai is very far from worthless, and it engages a mixture of Paramount A and B crews to deliver style and relatively code free presentations of Asian-American characters. One should remember that yellow-face with white actors was essentially a creation of the various movie Codes which banned any mixing of races in romantic scenes. Such would have been miscegenation, and worse.
|Above two images. "..an amazing hallucinatory production design out of |
Weimar and late Surrealism by Paul Sylos", Suspense.
|Barry Sullivan, Suspense|
|"...designed to re-unite Sullivan and Belita", The Gangster|
So a week lurking back in the world of the B picture, and another chance to dig out titles from the shelves that I haven’t seen for thousands of years. There’s perhaps something karmic about wallowing in the world of Noir, too in a period of time when life seems circumscribed by threat and pandemic.