Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Captured in Chinatown (Louis Weiss Productions/Consolidated Pictures, 1935)

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

The film was Captured in Chinatown, a 1935 production by Louis Weiss, directed by Elmer Clifton from a script by himself and Arthur Durham, which proved to be unexpectedly good, workmanlike entertainment thanks largely to the presence of Tarzan — no, not the jungle-raised Homo sapiens but a canine Tarzan, also billed as the Police Dog and the Wonder Dog (there were an awful lot of Wonder Dogs in 1920’s and 1930’s movies following the enormous success of Rin Tin Tin — who single-pawedly kept Warner Bros. in business in the 1920’s and who’s the subject of a new biography by Susan Orlean that claims that in the initial balloting for the first Academy Awards, Rin Tin Tin placed first in the Best Actor category, only the Academy didn’t give him the award because they wanted the awards to be taken seriously and they wouldn’t have been if a dog had won the acting award) who sometimes seems to have more smarts than any of the humans in the film. Tarzan’s most delightful scene is one in which he manages to grab the ticket a cop has just written his owner, Chronicle reporter Bob Martin (Charles Delaney), for parking in front of a fire hydrant; he pulls it off the steering wheel (apparently that was a routine place to put it in those days when so many cars had open tops) and rushes down the street with it, finally trashing it down a storm drain while the cop who wrote it gives chase but is easily outwitted.

Captured in Chinatown begins with a marvelously atmospheric sequence (set, alas, to some pretty dreary “Chinese” stock music) far better than anything I’d have expected from an Elmer Clifton film, in which four Chinese people are murdered by having knives or hatchets thrown at them on dark streets. The victims are all members of either the Ling or Wong families, who had been blood enemies in China for hundreds of years and brought their feud with them. The story then rips off Romeo and Juliet as we see Joy Ling (Bo Ling) praying in front of an altar for peace between her family and the Wongs, which has become important to her because she’s fallen in love with Tommy Wong (Wing Foo) and she hopes to get both parents to consent to the marriage and settle their feud at long last. Tommy risks his life by coming to the Ling house and asking Joy’s father, Lieu Ling (Paul C. Fong), to be allowed to marry her. Eventually Lieu Ling and Tommy’s father, who doesn’t have any name in the cast list other than “Wong” (Jimmy Leon, Anglicized from his usual name of James C. Leong), meet and agree to settle their difference and allow their children to marry as long as the Wongs agree to give Joy a $50,000 jade necklace that has been in their families for centuries.

The Chronicle’s rival paper, the Herald, reports this story and it attracts the attention of a gang of crooks, including the ambiguously accented Zamboni (Paul Ellis) and two Anglo-Saxons named Harry (Robert Walker — not the same one!) and Raymond (Philo McCullough), who plan to steal the necklace; Harry and Raymond have already arranged for a fence as soon as Zamboni delivers the necklace, and Zamboni has arranged to infiltrate the wedding ceremony by bringing an audio recorder and offering to make a record of it the families can then copy and send to their relatives in China to document that the feud is now off. Bob Martin gets chewed out by his city editor (John Elliot) for having been scooped by the Herald on the Chinatown wedding story, and he replies that he’d have plenty of time to chase down such leads if his editor didn’t have him training Ann Parker (Marion Shilling, the “good girl” from Lord Byron of Broadway and a charming and personable, if not exactly drop-dead gorgeous, young actress who should have had more of a career; she made her last movie in 1936 but lived until 2004), a female cub reporter who goes with him to cover a polo match to learn how to interview the celebrities presumably in attendance. (There aren’t any.) The three groups of characters eventually converge on the Ling/Wong wedding, in which Zamboni stabs Joy’s brother Li-Foo Ling (no surviving record contains the name of the actor in this role) and puts on his robe to attack Tommy, thereby leading the Wongs to believe the Lings were responsible and threatening to reignite the feud.

Zamboni steals the necklace from Tommy after attacking him but is unable to make the quick getaway he planned on — which leads his confederates to think he’s double-crossing them. Harry is inadvertently killed by an ax thrown into a curtain by one of the Wongs who thought a Ling was hiding there (so, as Charles noted, the plot rips off Hamlet — the murder of Polonius — as well as Romeo and Juliet). Ann gets locked in a room (the closest anyone comes in this movie to actually being “captured in Chinatown”!) but discovers the recording machine, makes a record for Bob and gets Tarzan, who jumps into the room via a skylight window Ann has broken to let him in, to carry it across town to the newspaper office, where Bob has to take it to a record store to be able to play it. (The record sticks in a few places, presumably where Tarzan’s teeth bit through its surface.) Eventually the surviving bad guys get apprehended, the necklace is recovered, Li-Foo Ling is let out of the chest in which Zamboni had stuffed his body, the Tommy Wong/Joy Ling wedding goes through as planned and Bob and Ann — who turns out to be the daughter of the Chronicle’s owner — are also paired off.

Elmer Clifton, who played “The Rhapsode” in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance and whose directorial career lasted from 1915 to his death in 1949 (he started the 1949 film Not Wanted, an exploitation movie about unwed motherhood, but fell ill a week into the shoot and the producer, Ida Lupino, replaced him as director and turned in a minor gem), was usually pretty much of a hack but here he actually proved capable of staging exciting and creatively photographed action scenes (though the lack of a musical score after the opening is a bit of a handicap and the film is sometimes a bit confusing as to who’s doing what to whom), especially when he didn’t have to deal with dialogue — though, with the exception of Wing Foo as Tommy Wong, the actors are at least capable and deliver their lines relatively naturalistically instead of falling into that first-day-of-drama-school monotone all too many “B” actors in this period resorted to. Captured in Chinatown isn’t much of a movie, but it’s genuinely exciting even when Tarzan the dog isn’t front and center on screen!