by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
I celebrated Boris Karloff's birthday last night with the two films TCM showed as part of an all-day tribute to him that I'd recorded because I hadn't had them in the collection before -- and one of them I'd never even seen before. The first film in our Boris Karloff double bill was West of Shanghai, a 1937 Warners' "B" that had a weird history. It began as a 1920 play by Porter Emerson Browne called The Bad Man that was set in the American West and dealt with a group of people at the mercy of a good-bad outlaw. The play was filmed in its original Western setting twice, as a silent in 1923 with Holbrook Blinn repeating his starring role from the stage version, and in 1930 with Walter Huston.
Then in 1937 Warners' "B" production head Bryan Foy decided to remodel it and relocate it to the warlord-dominated region of northern China, and cast Boris Karloff in the lead -- perhaps because he'd been so effective as a Chinese villain in MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu five years earlier. Unfortunately, the film suffered by the comparison because, for all its racist stereotyping The Mask of Fu Manchu had at least had a literate script (by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard) that allowed Karloff's character to speak in perfect English (Fu Manchu was established as having gone to universities in three Western countries, including the United Kingdom, and acquired a doctorate in each one) and project a marvelously understated form of villainy. West of Shanghai scenarist Crane Wilbur, on the other hand, gave Karloff's character, warlord Wu Yen Fang, lines of horribly offensive and nearly unspeakable pidgin-English to speak, and director John Farrow (Mia Farrow's father -- but you probably knew that already) completed the crime against Karloff by having him utter Wilbur's awful dialogue in a mincing fashion that seemed far from the authority producer Foy had hoped Karloff could bring to the role when he assigned him to it.
The plot concerns a newly discovered oil field in Fang's realm that has the potential to earn millions -- only the guy who actually discovered it, Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver), owes $50,000 to loan shark Myron Galt (Douglas Wood), and Gordon Creed (Ricardo Cortez, second-billed), representative of a major oil company, plans to gain control of the field by giving Hallet the money to pay back Galt's loan in exchange for three-quarters of the field's income. Creed brings along his wife Jane (Beverly Roberts), who's already fallen out of love with him before the film begins and ends up falling in love with Hallet. Government general Chow Fu-Shan (Vladimir Sokoloff) is killed, Hallet saves Fang's life and Fang, out of gratitude, offers to steal Creed's money, pay off Galt's loan and thereby put Hallet back in charge of the oil field. He also offers to kill Creed so Hallet will be free to marry Mrs. Creed -- only Mr. Creed bribes a captain in Fang's army to start a revolution. The rebellious captain is tricked by Cheng (Richard Loo -- what a concept! There's actually one Chinese character in this film being played by a real-life Chinese actor!), Fang's right-hand man (and part-time English tutor), into giving up, but meanwhile Hallet has sent his own Chinese sidekick to alert the Nationalist government to send their own army to rescue the white people and break Fang's power, and in the final sequence the Seventh Cavalry -- oops, I mean the Nationalist army -- rides to the rescue, save the white people (except for Creed, whom Fang has conveniently killed in the meantime) and execute Fang.
With better writing, West of Shanghai could have been a not-bad movie, but Wilbur totally fails to dramatize the culture clash between East and West one would have thought would be at the heart of a film like this, and Karloff's mincing performance is one of the worst of his career. Fortunately, in his next Chinese role, as private detective James Lee Wong in Monogram's knock-offs of the Charlie Chan movies, Karloff was once again allowed to speak perfect English and carry himself like the dignified figure he always was, even in his most blatantly evil roles.