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Sunday 4 November 2007

Mr Wu (1927) William Nigh

I'll take any opportunity I can to see a Lon Chaney film, Lon Chaney senior that is, and here's a new one on me: 1927's Chinese themed Mr Wu, in which he plays two roles. In fact there's an extra title card after the one showing the main credits that tells us that 'the characters of Grandfather Wu and Mandarin Wu are both played by Mr Chaney', just in case we wouldn't believe it otherwise.

We start in the palace of Wu, where Mandarin Wu stutters around with a very strange gait, a cool staff and almost inevitable long fingernails. He also asks Mr James Muir, an Englishman, to take his young son and teach him the ways of the west, as the west is coming to the east. As always Chaney is unrecognisable but having great fun playing with the part and teasing his young son about the fact that his wife has just been born. Needless to say he doesn't play the young Wu, who must be less than ten at this point.

Then we jump forward a few decades and we see Chaney change again. Now the young Wu meets his bride and the elderly Wu lives to see it. He's much more recognisable as the grown up young Wu but truly awesome as the even more elderly grandfather. I have no clue how he made his face look like that, but then this is Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, and that name was given him for a reason. He came up with no end of incredible tricks, that often involved self-torture, to gain the effects he desired, but they died with him. At least we're blessed that some of them still remain to be viewed on film today. This part goes well beyond the makeup though, to some truly wonderful movements that highlight just how great an actor Chaney really was.

Anyway, we leap forward yet again. Now the elder Wu is dead and the younger Wu's wife too, but their daughter is all grown up and ready to be married herself. She's played by Renée Adorée, who looks almost acceptable when viewed full frontal but otherwise looks terrible, more like Shirley Maclaine than a full blooded young Chinese lady. Given that Anna May Wong was in the cast, the choice to cast Adorée instead is lamentable to posterity. She was still riding high on the silent screen though, after The Big Parade, La Boheme and The Show, so it's understandable at least.

She falls for an Englishman, Basil Gregory, thus prompting the great tragedy of the plot. Not only is Gregory's father a racist who wouldn't 'drink tea with a Chink', young Wu Nang Ping is expected to marry the son of another Mandarin and their 'marriage moon is near'. It doesn't help that actor Ralph Forbes looks like a cross between James Cagney and Dwight Frye, but the key thing is that his character has got his lady love pregnant. There's only one real way out for Mandarin Wu, given the strict traditions of his race, and that's not a pleasant one for anyone concerned.

Chaney is great, though his elder role dies off early and he doesn't get much chance to show what he can do as the younger Wu until late in the film. He does finally get scenes he can work with though, tortured internally at what he must do, and Chaney was always awesome at those, even when acting through such layers of makeup involved overdone eye flaring. The elder Wu would have been a great Chaney role, the younger Wu is merely a good one.

However Renée Adorée is awful in almost every respect, to the degree that some of her bad acting rubbed off on Anna May Wong, who I've seen and respected elsewhere as a fine actor in her own right, both in silents like Old San Francisco and Piccadilly to sound films like Shanghai Express. The sets are great, especially the outdoor ones: I can only dream of having a garden like the one the Wu's have. The direction isn't bad as William Nigh was a pretty good director of silents. He couldn't really take that through into the world of sound though, ending up solidly in the B movie world.

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