Sunday 23 December 2007

The Hatchet Man (1932) William A Wellman

I grew up reading literature that would go on to get labelled racist and insensitive in later times: not just the Fu Manchu stories but everything by Sax Rohmer I could find. One of my favourite pulp novels of the era is Anthony Rud's The Stuffed Men and I'm still trying to find Rud's other work. Now whether these were racist or not is really a separate argument, but when they were put onto film by Hollywood certain things were made very clear: the main parts tend to be played by white actors with lots of makeup and the actual oriental actors often don't get credits. Then again, given that the source play for this film was cowritten by Achmed Abdullah, is it racist to call it racist?

We start with some really cool camerawork that reminds to a lesser degree of the opening of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. We're in San Francisco's Chinatown watching the funeral procession of Hop Li, of the Lem Sing tong. Much is made of the tong war flag that is prominently displayed and sure enough, the Lem Sings bring in the Sacramento hatchet man Wong Low Get to kill Sun Yat Ming, the man who apparently killed Hop Li. Unfortunately Wong grew up with Sun and they are blood brothers. He therefore tries to refuse the work just as Sun writes his will leaving everything, including his daughter, to Wong, but a hatchet man is a hatchet man.

This is a First National production and the cast comprise some very well known names. Ten of them are shown in the credits, all of which are Chinese characters and all of whom are played by western actors. Wong Low Get is Edward G Robinson, with little additional makeup and no attempt to change his accent. Sun Yat Ming is J Carrol Naish, on whom much more work was done. There are also people like Loretta Young, Tully Marshall and Dudley Digges. However much of the supporting cast are oriental: Willie Fung, who had a long career playing servants, laundrymen and waiters; Miki Morita, who had the same but who managed to get up to the level of Japanese Prime Minister on occasion; and Toshia Mori, the only WAMPAS star who wasn't white.

Fifteen years later Sun's daughter Toya has grown up in Wong's care and he's fallen for her. Now she was promised to him in her father's will but given the changes in custom, Wong wants her consent also which she gives. However the community doesn't seem to be as progressive as he is and soon tong war is back on the agenda and Wong's hatchet must get dug back up again.

Robinson is good here, though he really doesn't look or sound particularly Chinese. He looks a lot better though than Dudley Digges, whose immobile makeup makes him seem constipated, and leading lady Loretta Young, who looks about as Chinese as I do. She's about as believable as Renée Adorée in the Lon Chaney movie Mr Wu and for precisely the same reasons. Englishman Leslie Fenton is terrible as a Chinese bodyguard and just as bad as as a romantic interest. More believable is the way that Wong takes care of arbitration. Putting some random American gangster in the same room as Eddie G is really not a good idea.

The story is good though, and the ending is a peach. Robinson is as magnetic as ever and I'm really beginning to notice how skilful a director William A Wellman was, especially back in the precodes. Much of the problem with the film boils down to the rest of the cast. Why couldn't Anna May Wong have played Toya? Why couldn't other oriental actors have taken major roles? Why did it take Hollywood so long to open up that concept? Then again, Hollywood continues down racist lines even to this day. I'm not talking about Intolerance or Charlie Chan or all the usual arguments, I'm talking about how the English are always the villains and the serial killers. Maybe someone should start arguing that case!

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