Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Roar of the Dragon (RKO, 1932)

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

The film was Roar of the Dragon, a 1932 RKO production from David O. Selznick’s brief (one-year) tenure as that studio’s head — he was forced out when he got tired of people from RKO’s radio side telling him what sort of movies he should be making and trying to limit his budgets — which reunited star Richard Dix and director Wesley Ruggles from RKO’s 1931 Academy Award Best Picture winner Cimarron in an intense melodrama set in Yulong, a town in Manchuria (leading me to joke that no one knew that during at least one of Dix’s character’s long absences from the action in Cimarron he’d spent a good deal of time in China!), though the film is only sporadically interesting and muffs most of the chances for action its story had to offer.

Written by Howard Estabrook from a novel called A Passage to Hong Kong (which, remember, is clear at the other end of China!) and an unpublished story co-written by Merian C. Cooper (who, you’ll recall, took over as RKO production chief when Selznick was fired but only lasted a year even though during that time he produced the biggest box-office hit RKO ever had, King Kong) and Jane Bigelow, Roar of the Dragon casts Dix as Chauncey Carson (though he’s too self-conscious about his own butchness to let anyone but his on-screen girlfriend know that something as nancy as “Chauncey” is his first name), alcoholic captain of a steamboat (complete with paddle wheel) and sworn enemy of the bandit leader Voronsky (C. Henry Gordon), who’s sworn to kill him because during a previous battle Carson sliced off a good chunk of Voronsky’s ear. Carson receives word that Voronsky is on his way to Yulong and tries to get his passengers out before Voronsky arrived, but that’s impossible because the paddles on his boat’s propellant wheel are badly damaged and it will take a week before the boat is operable again. Voronsky arrives with his minions and holds the passengers hostage inside the Yulong Inn, where Carson tries to command them, strictly rationing food, water and ammunition (he notes wryly that they’re safe as long as their ammunition holds out, and when someone asks him how long that is, he replies, “As long as we don’t use it”).

The passengers are a motley crew indeed, many of them cast with actors usually known as comedians — including Edward Everett Horton (TCM was showing this as part of a tribute to him that wisely avoided the Astaire-Rogers movies that are his best-known credits) and ZaSu Pitts (whom it’s impossible to watch in one of those bittersweet comic parts without ruing that the collapse of Erich von Stroheim’s directorial career meant the end of Pitts’s ability to get serious dramatic parts — one can’t help but imagine an alternate universe in which Pitts’s superb performance in Greed turned her career around and gave her the dramatic roles she deserved, much the way Sybil and Norma Rae did for Sally Field half a century later; one can even imagine Pitts winning an Academy Award for best actress and telling the Academy how grateful she was that they liked her, they really, really liked her) — as well as Arline Judge, who really steals this movie: though she’s only the second lead, her quiet, dignified strength (at times she reminded me of Myrna Loy) certainly triumphed over the mincing acting of the nominal female lead, Gwili André, who plays Natasha, a former mistress/sex slave of Voronsky whom Carson is torn between loving and thinking is a Voronsky spy. (There is a Voronsky spy in the Yulong Inn, who at one point tips over the barrel containing their entire supply of drinking water and also sneaks out handkerchiefs on which are written reports about the hostages’ level of food, water and ammo.)

It’s a movie with a few striking scenes — notably an early one in which Voronsky has one of his men heat a knife and apply it to his ear, apparently to cauterize and/or disinfect the wound; and a later, quite shocking one in which merchant Abel Sholem (Arthur Stone) tries to escape to his store to get the hostages some meat, is captured by Voronsky’s gang and literally burned at the stake — from inside the inn’s courtyard the other hostages see Sholem’s body tied to a stake being lifted up and then set afire, and Carson uses the machine gun he has inside the courtyard to blast Sholem’s body and thereby put him out of his misery rather than letting him linger. (I’ve read that being burned at the stake — at least in the classic medieval fashion — was a relatively quick means of execution, since the person died of smoke inhalation well before the body was consumed by the flames; but certain people, including homosexuals, were executed by being tied up and thrown directly onto the fire so they would suffer more than someone being burned at the stake, and this is the origin of the term “faggot” as a reference to Gays.) The ending is a bit of a surprise as it’s Edward Everett Horton, of all people, who mans the machine gun in the climactic sequence, shooting down Voronsky’s men after Voronsky manages to force his way in — Edward Everett Horton, action hero! — and this allows the rest of the hostages to escape and flee to the now-repaired boat even though Horton’s character dies for his pains, and Carson escapes with Natasha. (Frankly, I was hoping Natasha would get killed and Carson would pair up with Arline Judge’s character.)

Roar of the Dragon is full of possibilities that don’t quite make it on screen, despite the slithery atmospherics of Edward Cronjager’s cinematography (virtually the whole movie takes place at night and the half-lit shadows foretell film noir) and an early musical score by Max Steiner, who oddly supplies one of his typically intricate and overwrought scores for the first third or so of the film but then largely shuts up as the action settles inside the Yulong Inn. Overall, Roar of the Dragon isn’t much of a movie, but one could readily imagine it being remade today, only the modern version would take place in (or off the coast of) Somalia with pirates instead of bandits!