Friday, May 27, 2011

Limehouse Blues (Paramount, 1934)

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

I ran a film I had recently downloaded from Limehouse Blues, a.k.a. East End Chant (and shot under the working title Limehouse Nights: the print we were watching said East End Chant but the American Film Institute Catalog lists it as Limehouse Blues), a 1934 weirdie from Paramount directed by Alexander Hall from a script by Cyril Hume and Arthur Phillips from Phillips’ original story, with Philip MacDonald and Idwal Jones given AFI Catalog credit for “contributions to treatment” and Grover Jones for “contributions to screen construction.”

It was basically a U.S. gangster movie only set in London’s Limehouse district and featuring George Raft risibly cast as Harry Young, a half-Chinese immigrant from the U.S. (his dad was American, his mom Chinese), who runs a nightclub called the Lily Gardens that’s a front for a smuggling racket he heads. He’s in a relationship with his star performer, dancer Tu Tuan (Anna May Wong, who’s a breath of fresh air in this film and not just because she’s actually Chinese) but he’s fallen hard for Toni Talbot (Jean Parker), a pickpocket who’s been inducted into a life of crime by her wretched stepfather Pug (Montagu Love). Toni flees into the Lily Gardens when she’s being chased by the police, and Harry agrees to alibi her. Pug rats out Harry to the police, but Toni tips him off and he escapes, and later Harry has Pug killed. Toni works for Harry for a while until he lets her go — but keeps paying her — to keep her from Tu Tuan’s jealous rages, and while working in Piccadilly she meets and falls in love with a white man, Eric Benton (Kent Taylor), who’s described as owning a pet shop but seems to spend more of his time outdoors training dogs.

Harry tries to break up Toni’s new romance with Eric, while Tu Tuan warns Harry that a white girl can’t give him what he really wants (and Wong plays this scene in her most sepulchral, “inscrutable” tone, a far cry from the hysteria with which white actresses usually played confrontations with guys who were about to break up with them in 1930’s movies), and ultimately it all resolves with Toni agreeing to marry Harry — Harry even gives her the traditional Chinese robe his mother wore when she married his father — only still pining for Eric. They have their engagement dinner on board a ship that’s supposed to load the latest cargo Harry’s crew are stealing (so for the second night in a row Charles and I watched a movie involving pirates!), only the police arrived, tipped off by Tu Tuan, who called them and then killed herself (by stabbing herself with a small dagger, the sort of thing one expects more from a Japanese than a Chinese character, but to the writing committee, what hey: Asian was Asian) in a rather murky black-on-black scene that was rendered even murkier by the public-domain print we were watching.

Eventually the police, headed by Inspector Sheridan (Robert Loraine), ambush Harry and his gang on the open seas, bringing guns (which, as some of the committee’s dialogue explained earlier, British police don’t ordinarily use) and staging a shoot-out that nearly kills Toni, who’s on a speedboat with Harry and Harry’s right-hand man, but ultimately Harry is wounded but lasts long enough to get back to his ship and do a long drawn-out death scene in which he officially blesses Toni’s relationship with Eric, who opportunely arrives to Take Her Away From All That. As Charles pointed out, Limehouse Blues (the famous song, with its wince-inducing reference to “Chinkies,” is sung over the opening credits and played again, instrumentally, at the end) is basically an American gangster film in Chinese/British drag — and it doesn’t help that two years earlier William Wellman had made at Warners a much better gangster movie in Chinese drag, The Hatchet Man (though Edward G. Robinson’s “Chinese” makeup in the lead was only marginally more convincing than George Raft’s here — Lon Chaney, Sr. had managed to pull off a convincing Asian in Mr. Wu, but George Raft was no Lon Chaney, and neither was his makeup person, Wally Westmore), or that the gimmick of British police being specially issued firearms in an emergency situation that required them was done a good deal better the same year by an authentically British director, Alfred Hitchcock, in the first The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Still, Limehouse Blues is notable for the sheer beauty and power of the atmospherics (Harry Fischbeck was the cinematographer, and the director was Alexander Hall, usually known for his comedies but adjusting superbly to a tale that demanded a dark, foggy, almost noir visual approach) and for Anna May Wong’s haunting performance in what was, alas, the second lead.