Daughter of Shanghai (1937) Starring Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn

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No, this isn’t an alternate universe. There really was a film from the 1930s starring both Anna May Wong and Phillip Ahn. They’re not just supporting players or bit parts to fill in a few stereotypical roles, either, but actual leads. More amazing still, they both speak English without a hint of an accent. They are Asian-American, intelligent and brave — in an era lacking comparable heroes.

Ahn is a G-Man sent by the government to investigate a smuggling ring bringing in hordes of aliens from foreign locales. Wong is front and center as a woman whose father, a local merchant, will not cave to the strong-arm tactics.  He ultimately becomes a casualty of the clandestine syndicate looking to elbow its way further still into the illegal trade.

Lan Ying Lin (Wong) escapes her captors and is intent on infiltrating their racket and putting an end to it, once and for all, to avenge her father’s death. She ends up going undercover as a dancer at an exotic dive in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. She does not know the meaning of the word danger, her finest attributes being a certain stubbornness and resiliency.

She makes quite the impression bringing her “Daughter of Shanghai” act to the seedy exotic cantina. Her boss (Charles Bickford) is a grungy braggart who discloses that he is instrumental in helping sneak certain people in through Uncle Sam’s backdoor. Bingo.

Meanwhile, Kim Lee (Ahn) takes up with a mangy sea captain who’s on the other end of the racket supplying the “cargo.” The inside man convinces his not too bright superior that he can speak Russian — a sample of his linguistic skills include those useful Russian phrases, “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Epsilon.” Being as “exotic” as he is, it’s easy enough to swallow and not another inquiry is made on the subject.

Despite being a quickie, clocking in at barely over an hour, Daughter of Shanghai still manages to have enough time for a couple murders, a barroom brawl, some exotic dance numbers, gambling, and copious amounts of alcohol. The dialogue’s a bit shoddy and there’s no time to waste so the story operates in very straightforward, uncomplicated turns. It’s B level without a doubt, but it utilizes everything at its disposal to draw up the punchy melodramatics necessary to make a story such as this impressionable.

In the end, our two heroes are reunited in their quest only to make the chilling discovery that villainy is a little closer than they ever dreamed. Ahn gets a chance to slug it to Anthony Quinn in a very early spot in the actor’s career. But he gets some much-appreciated help from a pug-nosed, good-natured chauffeur who makes up for his lack of brains with brawn.

One of the strangest dichotomies comes at this point because although Wong has been our guiding heroine thus far, she nevertheless watches the fighting between the men all but powerless to intercede. Regardless, justice is enacted. It’s a group effort.

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for the leads, maybe we would quickly forget The Daughter of Shanghai, but such a cast is so few and far between that this is a historical relic certainly worth unearthing and therefore worth remembering. That doesn’t imply it’s perfect by any means.

The road toward nuanced representation is a long and arduous one requiring baby steps only to be impeded with various obstacles and inevitable steps backward. Because it’s easy to be homogenous, unimaginative, and flat. The outliers are where we find intriguing artifacts suggesting exceptions to the rule, cultural documents that dared to give us a different portrait of humanity. In my labyrinthian odyssey to discover hidden gems, those are the ones I’m invariably drawn to.

Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn should have been bigger stars if not for the perceived impediment of their ethnicity. Daughters of Shanghai is a tantalizing taste of something altogether groundbreaking. That makes it worthwhile even as there’s an air of disappointment. Oh, what might have been. However, we must be thankful this treasure still exists.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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We know the score. Two drifters ride into town. They sidle up to the bar for some shots, looking for something to do in a lazy Nevada dust-hole. Their faces are equally familiar to anyone who has ever seen even a few of the old oaters. Feisty Henry Fonda as Gil Carter and his more even-keeled pal Art (Henry Morgan). Though folks question what they’re doing around, it comes to nothing except an exuberant fist fight for Fonda just itching for some thrills. He’s not disappointed.

Soon the community catches wind of the death of a beloved local named Kincaid at the hands of cattle rustlers. The wheels are set in motion as the sleepy town awakens and a lynching mob forms under the guise of a posse. With the sheriff out of town doing his duty and the local judge incapable of stopping them, they ride off looking for vengeance and some excitement to liven up their one-horse town. As the deputy illegally swears in the entire crowd as temporary deputies, our boys Gil and Art reluctantly sign on as not to draw more suspicion to themselves.

A Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) tries to take charge forcing his callow son (William Eythe) to join in as they begin their hunt. The two most reluctant and subsequently the most interesting additions to their party are the African-American preacher named Sparks (Leigh Whipper), whose own brother was lynched when he was a boy, and then the rational-minded Old Man Davies (Harry Davenport) who desires for true justice to be upheld. He is wary of the repercussions of a mob mentality.

Ultimately, they happen upon three strangers and circle them like ravenous wolves practically willing them to be guilty. In these crucial interludes, Wellman deliberately focuses on close-ups instead of scenery to ratchet the tension. It’s evident the bread and butter of this picture are within the characters themselves.

The crowd begins peppering the suspects with questions though they’ve already drawn up their answers for them. It doesn’t help that the trio’s leader (Dana Andrews) must try and explain some extenuating circumstances, namely how he acquired some of Kinkaid’s stock, which he purportedly bought off the murdered man without a bill of sale.

True, the posse doesn’t go off absolutely nothing but the integrity of democratic justice, as flawed as it might be, in the day-to-day, still maintains people are innocent until proven guilty. It’s not the other way around. That’s key. It also calls for not dealing in emotions like anger and hatred but impartial wisdom. Again, that might be impossible to attain but we must try our best. Otherwise, the consequences are potentially dire.

William A. Wellman was so eager to adapt Walter van Tilburg Clark’s original novel he agreed with Daryl Zanuck to direct two other pictures that are now all but forgotten. The Ox-Bow Incident might be small but it’s no less mighty thanks to the teaming of Wellman and Lamar Trotti. In fact, its volatility was so great no one knew how to market it during the war years. How do you try and redeem the debasement of humanity originating out of our own traditions, even as we try and reconcile that with the evil going on overseas? It’s a tall order.

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The equally horrifying thing is the fact lynchings had yet to be exterminated from American society and the blood of such injustice still soaked American soil. Though this is a showing of three men getting hung, one white (Andrews), one old (Francis Ford), one Mexican (a defiant Anthony Quinn), this could have just as easily been racially charged with African-American victims.

Regardless of guilt or innocence, justice was never meant to function in this fashion where lawlessness is masked by perceived legitimacy. Nothing good can come of it. Fonda’s own memories drew him to the material as he supposedly witnessed the lynching of a man named Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska on September 28, 1919. You can only imagine how the images scalded him for life. 12 Angry Men (1957) is indubitably another film which dealt with comparable themes very close to his heart.

His part, along with Morgan by his side, remains crucial because they essentially act as impartial bystanders and their choice is faced by anyone at the crossroads of such an issue. Because good can be quantified by commission and omission just as evil can be perpetrated through action and inaction.

The final wallop of the film is, of course, finding out what the actuality of the matter is — knowing full well they acted in error. To cap off the most moving showing of his generally hardboiled career, as the dying family man, Dana Andrews touches them from the grave with his words one last time:

“A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ’cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”

Even if his words serve the film more than they are the authentic words of a husband, their affecting nature is undebatable. Every man standing around the bar sullenly has been given a costly lesson — a lesson requiring the lives of three men. It’s fitting for our two drifters to ride out of town just as they came in the same hound dog sulking across the road. And yet so much has changed. If anything our hero has found his conscience in a sea of injustice.

4/5 Stars

La Strada (1954)

220px-La_Strada_PosterFederico Fellini’s La Strada is in the tradition of other films like Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) and even Nightmare Alley (1947). He even goes so far as to feature two regular Hollywood performers in Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart. This film is prominent for helping the Italian master achieve mainstream success, and it functions as a sort of crossroads. It still has one foot planted in a neorealist world with the other slowly entering a world of whimsy. It also suffered a production schedule that was as plagued with problems as the characters depicted therein.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward following a volatile strongman (Quinn) who buys a shy young woman off her mother to travel from town to town with him. He’s a real entertainer, and he teaches her most of what he knows so she can assist in the act. However, when they’re not working together, and the show is done, he goes right back to treating her badly and making life quite miserable for her. Zampano’s not the understanding sort.

Giulietta Masina has a starry-eyed quizzical face that elicits not so much a negative response, but one of perplexment. It’s the perfect visage for say a clown (which she masquerades as) since it can be so jovial and in the same instant sad and somehow distant. As her life on the road progresses she finally forgets loyalty and goes on her own to get away from Zampano’s abuse. While being alone she comes across the performance of a skilled acrobat (Richard Basehart) and what follows is a rocky partnership in a rat tag act that once again includes the strongman. But the constant heckling and joking of “The Fool” gets on Zampano’s nerves until things start to get violent. Once he gets out of prison for his behavior, he and Gelsomina get back together, but a run-in once more with his old nemesis turns out badly.

This time all the wind is taken out of her sails after what happens. She is a mime without any emotion, hardly any life left in her. One night Zampano leaves her behind in the night never to see or hear from her again. His existence from then on is as dismal as Gelsomina’s outcome.

Fellini himself suggested that La Strada was a very personal film, and it brings into question if he had a bit of Zampano and Gelsomina inside himself. La Strada also lacks the excess of his later films, instead contenting itself with simple roads and humble people — a stream of beautifully austere images without much extravagance. Also, with the character of Gelsomina comes a wistfulness that drives the tone of the film. As she contemplates with “The Fool,” everything must have a purpose, because if even a pebble has no purpose then everything is pointless. It’s in many ways a dismally bleak film, but still enduringly interesting.

4/5 Stars

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, Anthony Quinn, and many more, the film begins with two drifters (Fonda and Morgan) who enter a small western town. Soon it gets around that a man is dead and some of his cattle were also stolen. Hurriedly, a posse is put together and they ride off to find the culprits even though the Sheriff is looking already. They come upon three men and the majority of the posse believes the men are the perpetrators even though the trio profess their innocence. The posse votes on the spot whether to hang them or give them a trial and then they act. Only afterward do they discover the whole truth. Although the plot is simple, this western brings up some interesting and difficult questions. It certainly seems to blur the lines between the good and bad guys.

4/5 Stars

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


A film of truly epic proportions, in length, scenery, and brilliance, Lawrence of Arabia is essential cinema. Peter O’Toole delivers a stellar performance as T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier during World War I. The movie begins with his death from a motorcycle crash, which gives an early glimpse of the character.

Then, a flashback goes to his time in Arabia where his task was to unite the Arab tribes, and lead them in rebellion against the enemy so the British might win. Against the better judgment of his commanding officer, a Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau suggests Lawrence be sent to assess the possibility of an Arab revolt against the Turks. Lawrence heads with his guide to pay a visit to Prince Faisal. However, his guide is shot by another man and Lawrence resolves to make the journey alone. Their paths cross again in the camp of Faisal. There Lawrence interests the Prince because his ideas are far different from his commanding officer.

Showcasing his audaciousness Lawrence suggests a bold attack on Acaba which would allow the British to bring in supplies. He leads a group of men across the brutal desert knowing that this will be less expected. Sheriff Ali (Omar Sharif) doubts it will work and disapproves that Lawrence takes two young outcasts as his servants. It is later during the journey that Lawrence truly wins over the other men, including Ali, because he is relentless, even going back for a lost straggler. With some luck, Lawrence is able to gain the help of Auda Abu Tayi, but it is not without tension. Ultimately, his forces are able to take out the Turks, and Lawrence heads back to Cairo to relay his progress. However, on the way back he must struggle with the loss of a servant and the guilt of executing a man.

Lawrence is sent back to Arabia and there he leads his forces in guerrilla operations against the Turkish railroads. His exploits are documented by an American newsman, and by this point, he has become a mythical hero among his followers. However, after going to scout a town the seemingly invincible Lawrence is ultimately flogged and tortured, leaving him a broken shell of a man. He insists on leaving Arabia but his new commander, General Allenby orders him back for one final push towards Damascus.

This final mission sees a change in Lawrence, who has hired killers and missionaries to help him in his siege. Against the better judgment of Sherif Ali, Lawrence leads a massacre of Turks as they move onward. He takes Damascus, but his fragmented counsel of Arabs are unable to unite, and the city is given back to the English. Major Lawrence is promoted once more to Colonel, and then gets shipped home because his services are no longer necessary.

This is one of those films you want to see on the big screen because the scenery and cinematography is just that impressive by itself. David Lean had a skill at making epics, and this is perhaps his masterpiece. The desert is often stark and desolate, and yet striking in the same instance. The expanse of space that is viewed in a single shot is often mind-blowing. A human being on the horizon is hardly a speck, and the ever-present camels are hardly any more substantial. To complement these grand images is an equally magnificent score by Maurice Jarre, complete with overture and all. The cast must be mentioned too with such supporting stars as Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Quayle.

Then, of course, there is the man who played Lawrence. As portrayed so wonderfully by Peter O’Toole, Lawrence is an intelligent and, at times, arrogant man, who can be odd, distant, audacious, and also unscrupulous. That being said, he was an extraordinary man who was a mover and a leader of men. A very unique, at times controversial, and long unheralded man, who contributed to the war effort in a far different way.  In many ways, he was an adopted brother to the Arabs, and their country was also his. He was “Lawrence of Arabia.”

5/5 Stars

Road to Morocco (1942)

58f0c-roadtomorocco_1942Starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour in this third installment in the Road Series, this film has the boys floating towards Morocco as castaways. They finally reach land, hitch a ride on a camel, and just like that they are off on the Road to Morocco. They wander the streets looking for food at first then Jeff (Crosby) sells Orville (Hope) for money. Little does he know that Hope has been taken to the castle of a beautiful princess (Lamour) to be married in order to fulfill a prophesy. Jeff finds out soon enough and he tries to win the affections of the princess as well, but trouble arrives in the form of the jealous suitor of the princess. He takes the girl and the two lovebirds are left to chase after mirages in the desert. They are imprisoned, but after a daring escape they come up with a comedic solution to turn a visiting sheik against Kasim (Anthony Quinn). In the chaos both Jeff and Orville get away with a girl of their own. This has to be my favorite road picture. The title song is great, Hope has some great one liners, Crosby croons nicely, Aunt Lucy makes an appearance, there are talking camels, Hope tries to win an Oscar, and I love it when the three stars sing together in the desert.  Unfortunately the film is stereotypical, but as far as the Road pictures go it is a good one.
 
4/5 Stars