by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film I picked last night was Shadows Over Shanghai, a quite good production from Franklyn Warner’s Fine Arts Pictures, released through Grand National, a download from archive.org but a technically better one than usual because it had been uploaded in high-quality MPEG-2 format. Directed by Charles Lamont, who was also named “associate producer,” from a script by Joseph Hoffman based on an original story by Richard Sale (a thriller writer of some repute later on), Shadows Over Shanghai (1938) was a nicely done international-intrigue movie centered around the desire of heroine Irene Roma (Linda Gray) to get out of China with a priceless amulet which supposedly will help ensure the success of China’s armed resistance against Japan. We don’t know until midway through the movie that what she’s supposed to do with the amulet — given to her by her brother, pilot Peter Roma (Edward Woods), after his plane was shot down over the Red Cross orphanage where she was working by renegade Russian general Igor Sargoza (Robert Barrat), who’s after the amulet for his own purposes.
Peter tells Irene that the one person in Shanghai she can trust is Howard Barclay (Ralph Morgan, the Wizard of Oz’s brother playing a good guy for a change — given this actor’s reputation, throughout the movie we’re half-expecting him to sell her out to the villains at the end, but no-o-o-o-o), and when she meets him in a hotel he’s rooming with photojournalist Johnny McGinty (James Dunn, who seems to have set out to prove he could be just as obnoxious as Lee Tracy had been in similar roles). Johnny has a carte blanche letter giving him the right to leave China any time he wishes as long as it’s on an American vessel, but Irene doesn’t even have a passport — and, hoping that he could instantly have her declared a U.S. citizen once he tied the knot, Johnny enters into a legally binding marriage with Irene — only it turns out that she still needs a passport and can only obtain one from the Chinese authorities. (Later it turns out that she’s not actually American — even though she’s been working for the American Red Cross and speaking English with a flawless American accent all movie — and the script doesn’t really specify where she is from.)
Unfortunately, while all this has been going on the American ship Irene originally wanted to take has sailed, and she and Johnny are stuck seeking passage on a Japanese liner and then transferring to a U.S. ship at Manila. Along the way they hang on to the amulet, first concealing it inside Johnny’s camera — until he sees an attack in the streets of Shanghai and wants to use the camera to document it — and then in an incense burner given to Irene by her Chinese friend Lun Sat Li (Chester Gun), which unbeknownst to any of the good guys was intercepted by two Chinese thugs (Richard Loo and Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son, Victor Sen Yung, the latter billed as “Victor Young”!) so Sargoza’s rival bad guy, Japanese general Fuji Yokohama (Paul Sutton), could have it booby-trapped with a small bomb set to go off whenever the incense burner was heated — which of course it eventually is. Johnny and Barclay eventually use the booby-trapped burner to blow up Sargoza (they know it’s booby-trapped because Yokohama has kidnapped them and told them) and assume the amulet is destroyed — not that it matters that much anymore because in the meantime President Franklin Roosevelt has declared an embargo on shipping any arms to China for any side in their wars in U.S. vessels. Then it turns out that Barclay rescued the amulet from the incense burner before giving it to Sargoza and setting off the trap, and it ends with the three principals on the Japanese ship and Barclay definitely looking like the third one who makes a crowd as he dangles the amulet in front of Johnny and Irene, who at the moment are only intent on getting to the U.S. in one piece and making their marriage work for real.
Shadows Over Shanghai is actually quite a nice, comfortable thriller, with enough reversals to keep the plot interesting without taxing audience credibility, and it also is far better technically than the average 1930’s indie: though some of the footage of airplanes involved in dogfights and bombing raids is obviously stock from Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (a movie that got raided for years for its spectacular aerial footage, much of it shot from a camera plane flown by Hughes himself), the matching between stock, new footage and newsreel shots of Shanghai is superbly done, as well as one could have expected from a major studio at the time, and given that there were surprisingly few really effective thrillers made in the U.S. in the 1930’s (Hollywood made great gangster films but genuinely didn’t do other sorts of crime well), this one was a pleasant surprise, well acted (despite Dunn’s moments of insufferability and the sense that Robert Barrat’s villain role might have originally been intended for Bela Lugosi, which would have made a good movie even better) and effectively scripted and directed.