Saturday, January 3, 2015

Chinatown After Dark (Ralph M. Like Productions, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Chinatown After Dark, a 1931 production from Ralph M. Like’s studio, and unusually good for a Like production even though it’s not an especially great film — though it had the potential to be a good deal better than it was. It was directed by Stuart Paton, whose best-known credit was probably the 1916 silent version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Universal (and it’s a measure of how difficult this story was to film in an era of primitive effects work that, though it was safely in the public domain, no one went near it again until Walt Disney took it on in 1954) and whom S. J. Perelman, reviewing that film in the early 1950’s, described as an unwitting surrealist: “I daresay that if Stuart Paton … were functioning today (i.e., 1952), the votaries of the Surrealist film who sibilate around the Little Carnegie and the Fifth Avenue Playhouse would be weaving garlands for his hair. That man could make a cryptogram out of Mother Goose.” Chinatown After Dark actually begins in China — in Shanghai, which at least in the Western imagination was China’s most corrupt city (an image exploited in John Colton’s play The Shanghai Gesture and Josef von Sternberg’s film Shanghai Express — later Sternberg would film The Shanghai Gesture, too) — and establishes the film’s MacGuffin, a ceremonial dagger belonging to the family of Li Fong (Edmund Breese), who some years earlier emigrated to the U.S. with his white ward, Lotus (Barbara Kent), intending to raise her and get her a Western education and then return her to China to take over the destinies of the Li Fong family — at least I think that’s what we were supposed to glean from Betty Burbridge’s script and Paton’s cryptogram-out-of-Mother-Goose direction of it. He hired Ralph Bonner (Frank Mayo) to get the dagger out of China and to him in the U.S., but both in Shanghai and in San Francisco (once his ship arrives there) he’s set upon by various baddies after the dagger. The mastermind of the plot to steal it is Madame Ying Sin (Carmel Myers, top-billed), who operates out of a tea house (and, it’s darkly hinted, an opium den) in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and though Bonner is killed his brother Jim (Rex Lease, second-billed — both he and Myers were silent-era “B”-listers whose careers, such as they had been, dwindled in the early days of sound) takes over, recovers the stolen dagger and the black pearl concealed in its handle, and ends up with Lotus.

Way too much footage is taken up by a “comic” police detective, Dooley, played by Billy Gilbert — who gets all too many opportunities to showcase his famous sneeze and who, of course, thinks Jim Bonner killed both Li Feng and his own brother and is determined to nail him. Gilbert did some great movies, but they were in the company of Laurel and Hardy (most famously the brilliant 1932 short The Music Box), Nelson Eddy and Eleanor Powell (Rosalie, 1937) and Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday, 1940, in which Gilbert’s one scene as the honest doofus who brings down a corrupt political machine by innocently refusing to be bribed is more delightful and entertaining than all his work here). Where Chinatown After Dark scores is its visual atmosphere; all too many early-1930’s indies were shot in plain, evenly lit grey tones even when they could have benefited from the chiaroscuro look then called “German style” and later film noir. On this one, cinematographer Jules Cronjager kicked out the jams and shot virtually the whole film in half-lights and shadows, thereby disguising how cheap the sets were as well as creating the appropriate atmosphere for a tale of intrigue and deception, though given the usual poor quality of an download that also had the result of making the film very difficult to watch — at times the combination of Cronjager’s arty lighting and the deterioration through the passage of years made the movie so dark it was often almost impossible to tell what was going on. Other than that, the film was pretty typical indie — the characters generally delivered their lines in a stilted style more common in 1929 than 1931, there was virtually no background music (though given the tacky quality of rent-a-scores available to cheapie producers like Ralph M. Like that might not have been altogether a bad thing), and the acting — aside from Myers, who was delivering the stereotypical glacial performance of a white actress playing a “bad” Asian woman but at least was doing that schtick well — was at best mediocre and at worst (Billy Gilbert) offensively bad. Still, Chinatown After Dark is an oddly engaging movie, probably because it’s trying for Sternbergian atmospherics — one can readily imagine the basic story being used as a Sternberg vehicle for Anna May Wong, who would have totally out-acted Carmel Myers in the bad-girl lead but was also sick to death of those parts! — and though it doesn’t really work it’s still an intriguing effort that ventures more than most indies of its period.