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Sunday, 8 June 2008

Daughter of the Dragon (1931)

Long before he became Arthur Manleder in the Boston Blackie series of films, Lloyd Corrigan was a director. He made 13 movies between 1930 and 1937, but presumably didn't do too well at it, thus relegating him to appearing in front of the camera, which he did often. He was Manleder seven times but in all appeared in 106 films, only two of them before the end of his directorial career. This is a B picture, which was inevitable given its subject matter: it's a pulp adventure feating the infamous Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu is dead and gone these last twenty years, or so we think. Pulp heroes and villains never die, they just lie low until the next entry in the series, so it's hardly surprising when special Chinese detective Ah Kee brings news of Fu to Sir Basil Courtney at Scotland Yard. General Petrie, who Fu blames for the death of his wife and son, is thus in serious danger and the race is on to save them. Unfortunately we're working outside all the laws of physics here so it's a bizarre race.

Sir Basil immediately rings Petrie but discovers the lines have been cut (not that there could be any other reason), so rushes over with his men, only to find that Fu Manchu beat him to it. Before he appears to us, he has poisoned Petrie's tobacco with a mysterious drug that provides him with complete hypnotic control over him. When he introduces the hypnotised and dying Petrie to his family and Sir Basil, he warns that they can't shoot him because the sound of the report would kill Petrie. Then he kills Petrie anyway, and is somehow surprised when the Scotland Yard men promptly shoot him.

You see, we're not just outside the laws of physics here, we're outside the laws of logic. Fu Manchu escapes, as he always does to a nearby house, though hardly in great shape. Luckily for him, his daughter, who has been dancing in London as Princess Ling Moy, meets him for the first time in her memory and promptly buys into his revenge quest. After all, she's of his blood and the fact that she doesn't have a clue what he's talking about shouldn't stop her becoming a megalomaniacal villain to carry on his work.

Because this is 1931, the star of the show is Anna May Wong. She was one of the few Asian actors to achieve acclaim in the States in the early days of cinema, but was still treated very differently to her colleagues. She only had the lead here because she'd travelled to Europe where she became a star in both Germany and England, so the Americans had to follow suit in some manner. Yet instead of being granted appropriate roles like the lead in an actual Chinese story, The Good Earth, the Hollywood studios cast her in things like this. I've seen her talent as an actress so realise that she's deliberately overdoing it here to fit the material.

Backing her up is the other Asian actor to make a successful career in early Hollywood: Sessue Hayakawa. However this being the sound era, he was very much a supporting player because of his accent. While Wong had acquired a very clear voice in England, Hayakawa's accent remained very thick indeed. His unsuccessful transition to sound would therefore seem inevitable rather than because of racism on the part of the studios. He was superb in The Dragon Painter in 1919 but he flounders around here in 1931.

The third major name fits the racist nature of the story well, as it's Warner Oland, a Swede who had begun to specialise in oriental roles as far back as 1917. He'd played many before I started to see them in films like Tell It to the Marines or Old San Francisco in 1926 and 1927 respectively. He'd even played Fu Manchu twice before, in The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu and The Return of Dr Fu Manchu, and had assumed his most famous Asian role earlier in 1931: Charlie Chan. At least he was a good Charlie Chan because he's not a great Fu Manchu. Both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee are far more memorable.

The rest of the cast are notable to different degrees. Bramwell Fletcher is the youngest Petrie, and I know him well from many thirties movies. A glance at his filmography suggests that I've seen almost half of his 24 films. Like his other appearances, he comes off here like a more active version of Leslie Howard. Lawrence Grant played Sir Basil the same year he hosted the Academy Awards but was stuck firmly in the world of B movies. He would return a year later for The Mask of Fu Manchu, though he didn't reprise his role here.

Most annoying is probably Harold Minjir as a pain in the ass secretary called Rogers but E Alyn Warren is highly annoying also. He was another western actor who specialised in playing oriental characters, but he's not even as believable as Oland. He would also be back in a new role in The Mask of Fu Manchu. Unfortunately for this film, such overblown stereotypical performances are actually highly appropriate because it's an overblown stereotypical movie. And I say that as a fan of Sax Rohmer's original Fu Manchu books and a fan of pulp Asian exploitation in general. This is not a good example.

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