Saturday, June 14, 2008

First Yank Into Tokyo (RKO, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was First Yank Into Tokyo, a 1945 production from RKO which Turner Classic Movies recently offered as part of their series on “Asian Images in Film.” In their introduction, Robert Osborne and his guest commentator, Peter X. Feng, pointed to this film as a successor to such previous RKO war-exploitation movies as Hitler’s Children, Behind the Rising Sun and The Master Race, and also as an interesting variation on the so-called “yellowface” practice of casting white actors in Asian roles (Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters as Charlie Chan; Oland and Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu; Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto and virtually the entire casts of MGM’s Pearl S. Buck-based epics The Good Earth and Dragon Seed) in that the story deals with a U.S. military pilot, Army Air Corps Major Steve Ross (Tom Neal, in the second-twitchiest performance of his career and probably his only other good movie besides Detour) who, because his father was an industrial engineer selling technology to Japanese companies, lived in Japan from age one until he was ready for college and therefore knew Japan’s language and customs intimately.

Because of this, he’s selected for a top-secret assignment to infiltrate a Japanese concentration camp and make contact with an American prisoner, Lewis Jardine (Marc Cramer), who has an all-important secret that could hasten the end of the war — and in order to “pass,” Ross is given plastic surgery to make him look Japanese as well. RKO had registered the title First Yank Into Tokyo in hopes that they would make a killing by releasing a film of that name at the same time the American armed forces actually invaded Japan — which, of course, they never did because in the meantime the U.S. developed the atomic bomb, used it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus induced the Japanese to surrender without having to launch a war of conquest on the Japanese homeland. No problem: RKO merely called a few of their actors back and reshot a couple of expository scenes to make the atom bomb (or at least the triggering mechanism for it) the precious secret Ross has to get out of Jardine before the Japanese either torture or kill him.

It’s a really kinky movie in ways I suspect its writers, J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater, didn’t intend, from the almost kabuki-like appearance of Neal’s Asian drag (RKO’s makeup artist, Maurice Seiderman — who’d done Orson Welles’ age makeup in Citizen Kane but hadn’t yet joined the movie makeup union so he couldn’t be credited on screen — succeeds in making Neal look non-white but at the cost of slathering so much makeup and tape on his face he loses the ability to act with his expressions and has to convey emotion through voice and body language alone) to the bizarre coincidences with which they powered their plot. We’re supposed to believe that when the Pearl Harbor attack happened Ross was stationed in Hawai’i and dating an Army nurse, Abby Drake (Barbara Hale, later Della Street on the Perry Mason TV show, who here has such perfectly plucked eyebrows it’s hard to believe in her as a nurse), who’s shipped out to Bata’an before the two can get married and who is presumably killed there — only she wasn’t really killed, she survived and was impressed by her Japanese captors into serving as a nurse at the concentration camp Ross has been sent to infiltrate, whose commandant just happens to be Ross’s old college roommate, Col. Hideko Okanura (Richard Loo, here acting even more than usual like an Asian version of Erich von Stroheim), who in the big scene at the end recognizes and “outs” Ross because he saw him run through the camp’s grounds when a dog was chasing him and display the same broken-field running skills he’d used as a star football player back in college.

Bren and Atwater are even inventive enough to work a romantic triangle into their film — thinking that Ross was dead (as he did with her as well — what were they going to say to each other? “We’ll always have Honolulu”), Abby fell in love with Jardine while she was nursing him to health in the prison camp — and by far their quirkiest invention was the character of Haan-Soo (Keye Luke), a Korean and part of an underground resistance movement who’s also stationed in the camp (this is a very claustrophobic movie — once Ross makes it into the camp the film never leaves it until the very end) and is helping Ross, indeed is the only other person there who’s supposed to know his real identity. Even the ending is more than a bit Casablancan: Ross sends Abby and Jardine to the British submarine that’s parked off the Japanese coast to take Jardine to safety and back to the Manhattan Project and tells her she belongs with Jardine now — at least partly because he’s been warned the plastic surgery is irreversible and he’ll look like an Asian the rest of his life — while he and Haan-Soo use a couple of captured machine guns to hold off the Japanese hordes long enough for the sub to submerge and escape, thereby giving up their own lives for the mission.

First Yank Into Tokyo has its share of the racist conventions of war films of the period — the Germans were occasionally shown as cultured brutes but the Japanese were just animals, what we hear of their own language reduced to almost guttural growls (much the way Michael Cimino did with the Viet Namese characters in The Deer Hunter 33 years later, without even the excuse that the war was still going on!) while about all they talk about in English is greed (just about everyone in the camp administration is stealing supplies from the prison hospital and mess and selling them on the black market) and lust (just about everyone in the camp administration has the hots for pretty little Abby and her nubile white body) — but it’s also a good deal more complex than its makers intended, at least partly because of the Production Code and what it forced them to leave out. The details of Abby’s ordeal on Bata’an, especially the “comfort woman” aspects it probably involved, were strictly (to borrow a word from one of Japan’s wartime allies) verboten, and so was any suggestion that Haan-Soo’s services to the Japanese (his cover while he’s really resisting them) involved anything (homo)sexual — yet Keye Luke plays the character as a screaming queen and a sort of prototype for the Sal Mineo role in Exodus (“They used me like a woman!”). Certainly you’d be hard pressed to realize that this bizarrely mincing man is the same actor who played Number One Son in the Warner Oland Charlie Chans!

First Yank Into Tokyo — a film I’d seen only once before, on commercial TV in the 1970’s — holds the interest for its sheer kinkiness and quirkiness (including the obviousness with which the references to the atomic bomb were spliced in, and the almost orgasmic tone the announcer assumes at the end when describing the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and suggesting it was what the Japanese deserved for killing off poor Tom Neal), as well as galvanic direction by Gordon Douglas, who was clearly destined for biggers and betters (his best-known credit is probably the 1954 Young at Heart, wth Frank Sinatra and Doris Day). It’s not a great movie but it’s better than a cheap war exploitation film with a hideously racially stereotyped script and a no-name (white) cast had a right to be!