Wednesday 20 May 2020

Plague Times Diary (33) - David Hare renews his interest in long neglected B Movies DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (Robert Florey,USA, 1937), SUSPENSE (Frank Tuttle, USA, 1946), THE GANGSTER (Gordon Wiles, USA, 1947)

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
My two favorite Ahn movies are the bad guy part in John H. Auer’s nihilistic 1955 Hawaiian Noir,Hell’s Half Acre  and as the noble son of a Mandarin matriarch who dies defending his family honor, itself embodied by yellow-face Pauline Frederick playing Madame Chung in Thank You Mr Moto (1937, same year as the Florey but for Fox’s B unit under the great Norman Foster). 

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. " amazing hallucinatory production design out of
Weimar and late Surrealism by Paul Sylos", Suspense.
From 1937 B-Plus Paramount to 1946 and one of the last Monogram pictures released under that moniker in 1946. Suspense, is directed by Frank Tuttle, on loan from Paramount. Godard’s homage to Monogram pictures in A Bout de Souffle is not some campy reference to low budget trashiness, but rather to the compellingly inventive and energetic way poverty row studios and film making could keep turning up masterpieces. By the time The King Bros were running the show at Monogram Suspense was their first full blast “A” budget picture, coming in at a staggering $900 grand, after the average Monogram budget was literally 10% of that figure. Not long after the release of Suspense Monogram changed its name to “Allied Artists” which it remained until the end of its era in 1956 or thereabouts. 
Barry Sullivan, Suspense
The movie sports an extremely effective Barry Sullivan in the lead as the Noir Sap who’s undone by a dame, with an amazing support cast including Albert Dekker, Eugene Palette and Bonita Granville. The crew resembles a first tier Paramount outfit with DP Karl Struss, an amazing hallucinatory production design out of Weimar and late Surrealism by Paul Sylos, comparably imaginative wardrobe from Kalloch, which almost lifts Belita’s performance and persona, on and off the ice rink, into the realm of the credible. It’s the best thing she did, but she’s got an entire studio apparatus behind her. At 101 minutes this would be the longest film Monogram would ever make. It’s worth every minute. Warner released an excellent DVD of it ten plus years ago, still in print.
Belita, Suspense
Lightning doesn’t strike twice however. After reveling in Suspense I dug out another disc unwatched for years, The Gangster, directed by occasional hack Gordon Wiles in 1947 which was designed to re-unite Sullivan and Belita under Monogram-reborn-as-Allied Artists in another prestige “A” picture. 

"...designed to re-unite Sullivan and Belita", The Gangster
The one unquestionably amazing aspect of this otherwise disastrously misconceived movie is the supporting cast: Akim Tamiroff, Harry Morgan, John Ireland, Charles McGraw and buried in there as a non-speaking “check out” girl, Shelley Winters. In powerhouse company like this constellation of character and method actors, Belita can barely breathe, which is probably just as well. Her wardrobe here is from the less flamboyant Norma Koch who had previously done Sirk’s Scandal in Paris and Lewin’s superb The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. But it’s not Belita who sinks the project, it’s something far more impossible to overcome, the ever turgid and overwrought Philip Yordan, whose lamentable uncredited screenplay pours concrete over every impulse to movement or action and freezes scene after scene into static psychodramas of the most staggering banality. There are a few good things to enjoy here, almost all of them Barry Sullivan, again, playing a variation of Lancaster’s 40s shat upon, ever suffering dumb loser. Even more interesting is Harry Morgan who builds a fascinating minor part into a complex and contradictory Noir loner. The Gangster is still in print on an older but very good Warner DVD. 
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.

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