Sunday 26 June 2011

The Son-Daughter (1932)

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: Helen Hayes and Ramon Novarro

A century or so ago a western fascination with the Orient arose, almost as if the creative minds at the time suddenly noticed that there was an entire other race of people mingling with them on a daily basis. So up sprang the yellow peril pulps, inscrutable detective tales and tragic Oriental dramas, which pretended at tolerance but often found themselves the most racist of all. Here's a great example: to explore a quintessentially Chinese quandary are a host of westerners whose names fail to inspire confidence. It was adapted by John Goodrich and Claudine West from a play by George M Scarborough and David Belasco, with dialogue by Leon Gordon. The cast similarly shuns able ethnic actors of the day, like Anna May Wong or Sessue Hayakawa, for westerners, whether used to yellowface, like Lewis Stone, Warner Oland and H B Warner, or not, such as Helen Hayes, First Lady of the American Theater, and Ramon Navarro, son of a Mexican dentist.

During a popular rebellion against the Manchu dynasty, we find ourselves among sympathisers in San Francisco 'while Imperial hatchet men, hirelings of the tyrant, watched and sprang from furtive corners.' One prominent sympathiser, Sin Kai, is tasked with bribing American sailors to smuggle weapons back to China. He's played by the ever respectable H B Warner, one of the few westerners who could almost get away with acting in yellowface, most famously in Lost Horizon. His nemesis is Fen Sha, the Sea Crab, who has become the richest gambler in Chinatown partly by selling out his countrymen to the Emperor's envoy. He's Warner Oland, who despite being Swedish had played eastern roles as far back as Mandarin's Gold in 1919 and he would continue to do so throughout his career. This stereotypical villain role came after three turns as a more surprisingly believable villain, Fu Manchu, and three of his sixteen outings as Charlie Chan.
I had some vague expectation that The Son-Daughter was a well regarded film of the time that had merely aged terribly. What I found with Oland's early scenes is that it's a pulp adventure in delusion about being a work of art. After watching the Sea Crab open fire on the plotters, then torture them with an inane grin on his face, I couldn't take it seriously, and that's before we get to the leads. Trust me, while I could never buy Oland as Oriental, he's leagues ahead of what we see in the early scenes with Helen Hayes, Lewis Stone and Ramon Navarro. Hayes is Lian Wha, known as Star Blossom, and she sounds about as Chinese as I do. Lewis Stone is her father, the unfortunately named Dr Dong Tong, and he is much like Lewis Stone usually is, whatever race he's playing. Ramon Novarro looks painfully like Peter Sellers as university student Tom Lee, especially as he's so adoring of Star Blossom from afar that he walks into lamp posts.

The courtship between these two is so giddy and overblown that it's acutely painful to see. Their first actual meeting, after many slipped notes, sets us in motion with neither Hayes nor Navarro able to shed their accents. Tom Lee is supposed to be native born Chinese, whose father sent him to college in the US to prepare for the new China, yet he sounds like the Mexican American that he was. Hayes does a far better job than Katharine Hepburn, Luise Rainer or Renée Adorée in yellowface, and she does improve as the film runs on, but to begin with she's embarrassing, as stereotypically fragile an Oriental flower as could be conjured up in nightmare. The best thing about their love is that it's doomed. Sin Kai comes to Dong Tong to ask for $25,000, a quarter of the $100,000 he needs to continue to bribe the smugglers. He doesn't have it, so he's asked to give his daughter up for betrothal to a rich merchant as any true patriot would.

And so to the conveniences, which riddle this script like holes in Swiss cheese. Dong Tong sells Lian Wha to the highest bidder, who is of course the dastardly Sea Crab. Useless Star Blossom magically transforms during the betrothal auction into a dangerous and courageous enemy to the Emperor. Sin Kai tells Dong Tong that the son of Prince Chun is in the city and of course that's Tom Lee. One more scene and his father is dead in a hail of Manchurian bullets. He must go home to take up his father's fight, but he doesn't. Sin Kai is captured by the bitter Fang Fou Hy, the Sea Crab's superior, the Emperor's envoy, and brings him to the Sea Crab's lair. Facing torture to give up Prince Chun he commits suicide with a poison Dong Tong has secreted under his fingernail. For some reason, H B Warner is replaced with a wax head just for a moment so Fang Fou Hy can throw tea in his face to prove his death.
And I'll give up here. I love pulp literature and I have a fondness for politically incorrect yellow peril stories, so I should be the target audience for something like this. Yet what in print can be an exotic tale of high adventure tends to become an offensive embarrassment on screen. Most of it is that that our imaginations can picture Fu Manchu however we like and we naturally go for authentic ethnicity. On film that's impossible, because Hollywood made insane casting decisions like rejecting the magnificently talented Chinese American actress Anna May Wong because she was too Chinese to play Chinese. So we get Helen Hayes and Ramon Navarro, H B Warner and Warner Oland, Lewis Stone and Ralph Morgan, even Louise Closser Hale as Toy Yah, confidante to Lian Wha and servant to Dr Dong Tong. Even imagining a better storyline with these actors becomes a painful concept, and the one we have is painful to begin with.

Not everything is bad here: the marriage procession is capable and the costumes are interesting. However this was an MGM film, the richest of the studios, and this is hardly the peak of their set design. Mostly it just goes horribly wrong. The music is as overblown as the story, which is worst of all. Writer George Scarborough filed a lawsuit against MGM over alterations to the play it was based on. It's not clear how that turned out, but the film's script doesn't fail at odd points, it fails consistently throughout. The casting is terrible, only Warner Oland winning out as the Sea Crab and then only through authenticity as a pulp villain not a Chinese gambler. The only fight scene is poorly handled. The romance is embarrassing. The tragedy is wasted. Even Clarence Brown's direction is uninspired though capable. I've found his films inconsistent: for every Flesh and the Devil or A Free Soul, there's an underwhelming star vehicle like Anna Christie or Chained.

The most interesting things I can relay about The Son-Daughter are things you wouldn't see if you watched the film. Apparently the crew used special lighting techniques to make Chinatown appear drab at night but gaudy by day, though I didn't notice this while watching. Instead it's a little exotic throughout with some elevation during the marriage procession. Just as with most Hollywood productions centered around Oriental themes, many genuine ethnic actors were cast as extras, probably with the aim of making the background look realistic even if the foreground didn't. There were many here and a full four hundred of them went on strike until they could be served the sort of food they expected. The lesson is that it's more interesting to read about The Son-Daughter than to watch it. You'd be honestly better off watching Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, Peter Lorre as Mr Moto or even Boris Karloff as Mr Wong.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I have not heard of this film! How might I get hold of a copy?

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I got to see it on Turner Classic Movies, about the only place you're likely to see it outside the grey market unless Warner Archive decide to release it.

Anonymous said...

The Son-Daughter is available on DVD now, through Amazon, and the print is nicely restored. The above review is accurate in its criticism, but I liked the film more than I expected to, especially the film noir lighting of many scenes.