Wednesday 11 June 2008

Daughter of Shanghai (1937)

Well two reviews after I comment on how Keye Luke's portrayal of James Lee Wong must have been unique as an Asian actor playing an Asian lead in a Hollywood film of the classic era of the thirties and forties, here comes Daughter of Shanghai to prove me wrong. Three years before Phantom of Chinatown, Anna May Wong played the lead in Daughter of Shanghai. While she's not a detective by trade, she's the detective in our story: Lan Ying Lin, daughter not just of Shanghai but of Quan Lin, notable importer of Asian art into San Francisco.

When the front page headline of the San Francisco Herald screams 'Foreign Horde Floods US', we know we're not talking about Asian actors stealing all the lead roles in Hollywood. We're talking about illegal smuggling of human beings, foreign nationals brought in with promises of freedom in America but then sold into slavery by the smugglers. Quan Lin has been quietly gathering information but as he's about to deliver it to the FBI, he's assassinated by the smugglers. They get Quan, they get his information and they only slip up by not ensuring the death of his daughter, who takes on his quest.

Beyond the lead being played by an Asian, the FBI agent is played by an Asian too: Philip Ahn, who was even better spoken than Wong and coincidentally went to the same school. The pair of them follow their own investigations but end up in the same place, a clearing house somewhere in the islands run by the only name they have as a lead, Hartman, and from there team up. Otto Hartman is far from the only character played by a name actor to back up the Asian leads. This may be a B picture but it's got some major names early in their careers to its credit.

Hartman is played by Charles Bickford, who made his mark in everything he did from the beginning of the sound era but was probably most notable in the roles he took later on in his career like Johnny Belinda, The Woman on the Beach and The Farmer's Daughter. He was Oscar nominated three times but while he never won, every single time saw one of his female costars win for the same film he was nominated for. That must have bit.

One of the first faces we see is a smuggler played by Anthony Quinn, who seems to be playing an Irishman this time round. While he was Mexican by birth, he had Irish blood through his father, so this would seem to be a rare ethnic part that he was perhaps qualified to play, and he played what feels like every ethnicity in the book. His most important fellow smugglers are played by J Carrol Naish, regular actor in sleazy roles over six decades, and Buster Crabbe, certainly best known as a pulp hero. After all how many actors played both Tarzan and Buck Rogers?

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