Friday, March 25, 2011

Bombs Over Burma (PRC, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, Charles and I ran a movie I’d downloaded from which had got a good review from Don Miller in his 1970’s book “B” Movies but which turned out to be a major disappointment: Bombs Over Burma, a 1942 PRC war movie starring Anna May Wong as a schoolteacher in Chungking, China (she starts her lesson teaching her Chinese pupils in Chinese — this 65-minute movie is already nearly three minutes old before we hear a word of English — but her lesson soon shifts to English and the film’s soundtrack stays there) who’s sent to a town on the China/Burma border to escort a convoy back to Chungking — only along the way the travelers on her bus are stranded at an inn (shades of Roar of the Dragon!) and they have to stay there while the big suspense issue is who in the party is the spy relaying all the information about the convoys to the Japanese. The print we were watching was of pretty poor quality even for an download — blurry and with a soundtrack that alternated annoyingly between hissy and muddy — and the film itself, despite the promising credits to Joseph H. Lewis as director and co-writer (the “original” story — quotes definitely intended — was by one George Wellington Pardy and the script was by Lewis and Milton Raison), was simply dull.

Wong seemed to be sleepwalking through her part; Noel Madison as her romantic interest (though it was a nice bit of anti-racist casting to give her a white co-star and have them fall for each other without any indication that this was a big deal) was actually more personable and more interesting than the star; Nedrick Young and Teala Loring as the second leads were O.K. but dispensable (Loring was a blonde, which may have triggered memories for Wong of having made virtually the same story a decade earlier under far superior auspices as Shanghai Express — at Paramount instead of PRC, with Josef von Sternberg as director and Marlene Dietrich as the blonde!). Lewis wasn’t capable of directing a movie without visual interest, and though he was working on the incredibly overfamiliar Republic Western locations (any moment one expected to see cowboys and Indians riding by on horseback!) and obviously the trucks representing the convoys (there are two of them, one a decoy for the other, just to add to the general confusion of this hopelessly muddled script) are driving around the same rocks over and over and over again, he did get the occasional creative angle and there’s a nice set of close-ups towards the end as the camera looks into the face of each member of the stranded party before finally revealing, to utterly no one’s (in the audience, anyway) surprise that the supercilious British tourist Sir Roger Howe (Leslie Dennison) is the bad guy.

Aside from the horrendous misnomer of the title (it’s called Bombs Over Burma but the entire movie takes place in China) and the preachy dialogue about the strength and resilience of the Chinese people, Bombs Over Burma is a real disappointment; the pace is so slow and the editing so relentlessly unsuspenseful it’s hard to believe this is the same director who did Gun Crazy just seven years later, and the film just drags on and on without grabbing hold of any of the story’s potentials for suspense, surprise or action. I’ll say one more good thing for Lewis’s direction (besides his creative camera angles): he leaves most of the film unscored — which, given the cheesiness of the “Oriental” theme we heard under the opening credits, is probably just as well — but this is still a pretty dull movie, just another “B” without the bits of style and panache Lewis gave to some of his other assignments around that time, including The Invisible Ghost with Bela Lugosi for Monogram and The Mad Doctor of Market Street with Lionel Atwill for Universal.