Hollywood Looks at China: Two Films from 1955

26 Sep

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE and BLOOD ALLEY are two Hollywood films made in 1955 with contemporary Chinese settings. SOLDIER OF FORTUNE starts out in Hong Kong and moves to Mainland China late in its narrative before coming back to Hong Kong. BLOOD ALLEY takes place almost entirely in Mainland China before ending up in Hong Kong. Both are in color and Cinemascope. Both are based on best-selling novels and both were adapted for the screen by their authors, Ernest K. Gann and A.S. Fleischman, respectively, a practice that was not very common in Hollywood. Both had top movie star pairs at the head of their casts, Clark Gable and Susan Hayward in SOLDIER and John Wayne and Lauren Bacall in BLOOD, all American and all playing Americans. Both films had large supporting casts of Asian-American performers. The lead male characters in both films speak Chinese, Cantonese in SOLDIER and, I’m assuming, Mandarin in BLOOD, although I’m not sure, given how awkward the actors are with their phonetically spoken lines. The lead female character in BLOOD speaks it also. Chinese-American actors Victor Sen Yung and James Hong are in both films. Hong plays a Communist soldier in both. (SOLDIER was Hong’s film debut.) Both were produced by major studios: SOLDIER by 20th Century Fox and BLOOD by Warner Bros. and both are out on DVD from their respective studios, which is how I watched both films. I’d seen parts of each film before, on television, but these DVD viewings marked the first time I’ve seen each of them in its entirety.

 

Now for the differences. SOLDIER had extensive location shooting in Hong Kong and four of its Hollywood cast members are clearly seen on Hong Kong locations: Gable, Michael Rennie, Alex D’Arcy and Jack Kruschen. (Most of its scenes, however were shot on the Fox backlot and soundstages back in Hollywood, where Susan Hayward did all her scenes.) BLOOD was shot entirely in California, mostly on location. (IMDB lists several locations including the San Francisco Bay Area.) SOLDIER had a number of significant speaking parts for Asian performers. BLOOD cast white performers in the roles of the two Chinese characters with the biggest speaking parts and white performers in two other supporting roles. Only two Asian performers have significant speaking parts in BLOOD.

The most significant difference is that SOLDIER is chiefly about its two romantic leads and their budding romance, while BLOOD is about the efforts of an entire Chinese village to flee communist oppression and find freedom in Hong Kong. The two leads in BLOOD do have a romantic relationship but it tends to take a back seat to the action. The action in SOLDIER is driven by the white characters, while the action in BLOOD is driven by the Chinese characters. In SOLDIER, Hayward plays an American woman trying to get her photographer husband (Gene Barry) freed from the Communist Chinese prison in Canton in which he’s being held on spying charges. Gable plays a local smuggler and underworld big shot in Hong Kong who’s got the connections to get the husband out. In the course of Hayward’s efforts to get Gable to help her, a romance develops between the two. Like so many romantic star vehicles in Hollywood at the time, the movie is less about its setting than about its stars. In BLOOD, Wayne plays an old China hand, a boat skipper who has plied the waters of the region for decades and is a prisoner of the Communists when we first meet him. He makes good his escape after the Chinese villagers bribe the guards because they want him to pilot the village’s ferry boat to transport them to Hong Kong. Bacall plays the daughter of an unseen alcoholic white doctor who has lived in the region for decades and is employed by the Communist officials but is eventually killed by them after an official dies under his care. She knows the villagers intimately and helps look after their needs on board the ferry boat. The significant difference here is that in SOLDIER the Chinese characters work for the whites, while in BLOOD, the white characters work for the Chinese.

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE has an orchestral love theme play over the opening credits, a melody that we hear pretty much every time Gable and Hayward share a scene. It’s a lovely piece of music, composed by Hugo Friedhofer, but it has “Hollywood love theme” written all over it and has absolutely no connection to its setting or its theme of political intrigue and international Cold War tensions. BLOOD ALLEY has a Chinese female singer perform a song in Chinese over the opening credits. In addition, BLOOD ALLEY opens with the title first seen in Chinese characters before fading into its English title. That was quite a statement for its period. In addition, BLOOD has a few scenes where the Chinese characters speak in Chinese which is then translated for the audience via English subtitles.

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE

Although BLOOD has the more advanced racial politics, SOLDIER has the more interesting Asian cast. What initially drew me to the film was the presence in the cast, per IMDB, of Hong Kong star Grace Chang in the role of “Prostitute.” So I looked for her as I watched the film. There’s an early scene where Michael Rennie, in the role of a British Colonial police officer assigned to marine patrol, boards a sampan in the harbor to question the girl living there and clearly plying her trade. It turns out the girl had been photographed by an American photographer, a fact that later makes her suitable for questioning in determining the chain of events that led to the American’s capture in China. Rennie even tells her, after looking at her photo, “You should be in films.” The girl speaks a few lines in English and is never seen again after this scene.  The actress in the scene didn’t immediately resemble Grace Chang in my eyes and I wasn’t sure if it was her or not. However, when I viewed the stills in the Photo Gallery that is offered as an extra on the DVD, I spotted pictures of the actress, including one where she posed with the director, Edward Dmytryk, and she is definitely Grace Chang. It’s kind of amazing how different Hong Kong stars look when they’re photographed for Hollywood films. (See also Jet Li in any of his Hollywood films or Li Li-Hua in CHINA DOLL in my entry of June 30, 2012.)

Michael Rennie, Grace Chang in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE

 

After this film, Grace Chang went on to star in a whole series of Hong Kong musicals and melodramas, many of which I have on DVD and at least five of which I’ve seen. She’s quite a dynamic presence in the black-and-white musical comedy, MAMBO GIRL (1957) and the musical melodrama, THE WILD, WILD ROSE (1960), which has echoes of 1940s Hollywood melodramas with intertwining elements of noir and music. I’ve reviewed two of her films on IMDB:

Sun, Moon and Star Part 1

Sun, Moon and Star Part 2

While CHINA DOLL (1958) remains the first Hollywood film with a Hong Kong star in its cast, i.e. someone who was already a star in Hong Kong, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE deserves some distinction for being the first Hollywood film to feature a future Hong Kong star.

Midway through SOLDIER, Hayward’s character journeys to Macao to question a local underworld character of Portuguese descent, Fernand Rocha (Mel Welles), about her husband’s disappearance. Rocha has a Chinese mistress, Luan, who is ordered to keep Hayward in her room, locked, while Rocha takes Hayward’s traveler’s cheques and gambles with them. Rocha is physically abusive with Luan and eventually gets his comeuppance at the hands of an angry Gable who has come to rescue Hayward from his clutches. Luan is played by the Chinese-American Noel Toy (1918-2003), who had quite an interesting history of her own. She had been a dancer at the famed Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco’s Chinatown and had performed a notorious fan dance, in which feathered fans covered parts of her anatomy as she danced nude on stage. She eventually performed at other venues including the Latin Quarter in Manhattan and went on to marry a white American serviceman not long after the end of the War in 1945. That serviceman was an actor named Carleton Young who was a member of John Ford’s stock company and is most famous for playing the newspaper editor who delivers the famous line to James Stewart at the end of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962): “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ms. Toy was most active as an actress in 1955-56, mostly on television, and only intermittently after that in the subsequent four decades, including a recurring role in four episodes of “M*A*S*H” in the 1970s. I’ve seen a couple of her other credits but this film was the first time I’d noticed her. (Noel Toy obituary)  Here are two shots of her from SOLDIER OF FORTUNE:

Frances Fong is a Chinese-American actress I’d never heard of before seeing this film. SOLDIER OF FORTUNE is her first film credit. She plays a shop owner in Hong Kong named Maxine Chan, a sympathetic character who shares one scene with Hayward and proves quite useful to her in setting up contact with the notorious Hank Lee (Gable). Hayward compliments her on her excellent English and Ms. Chan responds that she’d studied in the U.S. and been a cheerleader for UCLA. (Which raises the obvious question to me: did UCLA have any Asian cheerleaders in the 1940s and ’50s? Not sure how one can answer that easily.) Ms. Fong was active in Hollywood, off and on, from 1954 through 1982, mostly in TV roles, with only intermittent credits after that, including her last two in the late 1990s: RUSH HOUR and an episode of “Martial Law.” As of this writing, she is still with us. Here she is with Susan Hayward in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE:

Soo Yong (1903-1984) plays an elderly Chinese priestess whom Gable calls on for help in learning where Hayward’s husband is being held by the communists. The character’s name is Dak Lai and it’s not clearly stated what religion she is. (Danforth Prince, the audio commentator on the DVD, thinks it’s Confucian, which is actually a philosophy and not a religion.) She has two substantial dialogue scenes with Gable. The Hawaiian-born actress was only about 51 when she made this and is made up to look much older. Her credits go back to 1934 and include such films as CHINA SEAS, also with Gable, THE GOOD EARTH, THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO, and CHINA (1943) starring Alan Ladd, which I wrote about here on September 3, 2013. Ms. Yong had intermittent credits, mostly films but some TV roles, from 1934 to 1981, when she appeared in an episode of “Magnum, P.I.” She died in 1984 at the age of 80. She also made LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING the same year as SOLDIER OF FORTUNE. More on that film in a moment. Here she is with Clark Gable in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE:

Richard Loo, one of the reigning quintet of Asian actors in Hollywood from, roughly, the 1930s to the 1980s (the others being Keye Luke, Philip Ahn, Victor Sen Yung and Benson Fong), appears in SOLDIER as General Po Lin, an ex-officer who’s fallen on hard times and hangs around the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong where Hayward is staying in hopes of picking up work as a guide. It’s never clear what army he commanded as a general. If it was the Nationalist army under Chiang Kai-Shek, then why is he in Hong Kong and not in Taiwan with his former boss? In any event, Mr. Loo appears in several scenes and eventually offers his services to Hayward as her guide when she travels to Macao. On the deck of the ship to Macao, Loo waxes philosophic and quotes Keats to Hayward. Unfortunately, a Red Chinese spy in Hong Kong has informed the Chinese navy of General Po Lin’s presence on the ship and they stop it en route, board the ship with guns and take the poor General away. As he’s being led down the stairs to the Reds’ waiting boat, he says to Hayward, “Enjoy Macao, Madame. Remember your friend Po Lin and do not think all Chinese are barbarians.” It’s quite a poignant little moment and the only time in the course of the film that I felt any twinge of emotion for any of the characters. Here is Loo in his first and last scenes with Hayward:

Loo acted in Hollywood from 1932 to 1981 and died in 1983 at the age of 80. He was born the same month as Soo Yong, also in Hawaii, and the arc of his career paralleled hers although he worked at a much more steady pace for most of that period. They acted together more than once and died a year apart. Loo’s wife, Bessie Loo, was a prominent agent for Asian performers in Hollywood and her clients included Lisa Lu, whom I wrote about here on June 30, 2012 and January 8, 2013, and James Hong.

Minnesota-born Chinese-American actor James Hong is the currently reigning dean of Asian-American film performers. He has 390 film and TV credits on IMDB and is still going strong at the age of 85. He began his career with SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, followed immediately by roles in both BLOOD ALLEY and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. These are his first three credits on his IMDB filmography. In SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, he plays a Communist Chinese soldier and is seen in only one shot speaking over the phone, in Chinese:

Victor Sen Yung, who acted steadily in Hollywood from 1937 to 1980, plays the waiter in the hotel’s dining area in this film and looks different from his normal appearance. He appears to have false teeth here and it changes his look somewhat. He only has a couple of scenes and is not a significant supporting character. He is also in BLOOD ALLEY. Here is with Alex D’Arcy in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE:

Kam Tong plays the Chinese Communist who interrogates Hayward’s husband in his Chinese prison and tries to persuade him to admit to being a spy, promising early release if he does so. The Chinese-American Tong had a long and active career in Hollywood from 1936 until his death in 1969, with films dominating the first two decades of his career and TV dominating the last. He’s most famous for playing the role of Richard Boone’s manservant, Hey Boy, in the western series, “Have Gun Will Travel.” (For one season, Hey Boy was replaced by Hey Girl, who was played by Lisa Lu.) Kam Tong is also in LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. Here is Tong as the interrogator in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE:

Interestingly, the director of SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, Edward Dmytryk, was once a member of the Hollywood Communist Party and had been one of the Hollywood Ten, a group consisting of seven screenwriters, one producer and two directors who all served time in jail for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about their party membership or activities. Dmytryk was the only one of the Ten to recant and give names, thus allowing his re-entry into Hollywood to make anti-Communist films like this one. That same year, he also directed THE LEFT HAND OF GOD, another widescreen color drama about life in China, this time in the pre-war era.

BLOOD ALLEY

BLOOD ALLEY has the more advanced racial politics but a more retrogressive casting strategy. There are only two Asian performers with major speaking roles. Joy Kim plays Susu, Lauren Bacall’s maid, a character who speaks in a kind of pidgin English. (“Sailor man likee Miss Kathy?”) When she points out that Wayne needs a haircut, she offers to do it for him: “My cuttee, all light?” Despite that, she’s actually one of the livelier, more positive characters in the film and has some charming scenes with both Bacall and Wayne and displays a generally warm rapport with them both.  Here are scenes of Wayne with Ms. Kim from BLOOD ALLEY:

She is also very helpful when the villagers board the ferry and even sings to them in one scene. I’m guessing she also sings the Chinese song heard under the credits. Here she is in that scene:

I don’t know much about Ms. Kim, not even her ethnicity. She only made one other film besides BLOOD ALLEY and that was THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954), also directed by William Wellman. She played a plane passenger in that one, a dignified Chinese-born Korean immigrant named Dorothy Chen, on her way to the U.S. In BLOOD ALLEY, she is fourth-billed behind Wayne, Bacall and Paul Fix, the only Asian performer in the cast to be included in the credits. I don’t know why she did no other films. Her delightful presence would have been most welcome.

Japanese-American Henry Nakamura plays Tack, the ferry’s engineer and the nephew of the village elder. He speaks English fine and proves a big help to Wayne throughout the perilous journey. He has an ever-present cigar in his hand or mouth at all times and has an easy rapport with the boisterous Wayne. The Hawaiian-born Nakamura had been interned during the war as a teenager with other Japanese-Americans before joining the U.S. Navy to work as an interpreter. He acted in seven films, three of them directed by William Wellman. His first film was GO FOR BROKE! (1951) about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit composed of Nisei (Japanese-American) soldiers which fought in Europe during the war. Here is Nakamura with John Wayne in BLOOD ALLEY:

Victor Sen Yung and James Hong are both in BLOOD ALLEY, as they were in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, but they share their scenes here. As in SOF, Hong plays a Chinese Communist soldier. Here he is partnered with Sen Yung and together the two search Bacall’s home, where Wayne is forced to hide. They each have lines, but only in Chinese. Sen Yung has the bigger role since he stays behind after the other soldiers have filed away and tries to rape Bacall. Wayne comes out of his hiding place and takes the man’s bayonet and stabs him to death with it. Interestingly, Bacall’s reaction is to tell Wayne that he didn’t have to kill him; she would have dealt with it one way or the other. His absence will surely raise an alarm. Here are shots of Yung and Hong in BLOOD ALLEY, and the two with Bacall in the third shot:

There is a large cast of additional Asian performers in BLOOD ALLEY, but few have any lines or register as distinguishable characters. There are, instead, four Chinese characters played by white actors and two of them are significant speaking roles. Mike Mazurki, a one-time professional wrestler, plays Big Han, Wayne’s muscular sidekick and First Mate, who gets Wayne out of plenty a jam in the course of the film. Mazurki was born in an area of the world that’s now part of the Ukraine, so at least his origin is geographically closer to China than any of the other white actors. Paul Fix, who played in a lot of westerns with Wayne, plays the Village Elder, Mr. Tso, the chief spokesman for the village and the one who recruits Wayne to pilot the ferry boat. Fix was the son of German immigrants and acted regularly in films from 1930 to 1981, the same year that Richard Loo and Soo Yong had their last credits. Fix died the same month (October 1983) as Loo. Mazurki’s and Fix’s characters speak English quite well.

Mazurki as Big Han in BLOOD ALLEY:

Paul Fix, center, with George Chan and W.T. Chang in BLOOD ALLEY:

Texas-born Berry Kroeger plays Old Feng, the patriarch of a large and wealthy clan in the village who happens to be the only citizen in town who eagerly embraces the Communists. When it’s time to flee, the villagers force Old Feng and his extended family to join them on the boat, an act of compassion, as it turns out, since the villagers believe that if they leave the Fengs behind the Communist soldiers will kill them. How do the Fengs repay the villagers? By poisoning their food supply, which means everyone has to go hungry for most of the journey. Old Feng only speaks Chinese and tends to behave in the most stereotypical fashion. Here is Kroeger as Old Feng in BLOOD ALLEY:

Finally, there is a Chinese woman on the ship who appears to be Big Han’s wife or lover. She comes in pretty handy in operating a machine gun when a fight with the Chinese navy looms. She’s clothed from head-to-toe in peasant garb throughout, has only one line of dialogue—in Chinese—and is never seen in closeup. She is played by none other than Anita Ekberg, a voluptuous blond Swedish actress better known for sexy roles in such films as LA DOLCE VITA. I have no idea why she was cast in this. Here she is seen as Wei Ling in BLOOD ALLEY, joined by Mike Mazurki in the second shot:

I don’t understand why more effort wasn’t employed to cast Chinese actors in the speaking roles of BLOOD ALLEY. Certainly Keye Luke or Philip Ahn could have played the Village Elder, Mr. Tso. Either Mr. Luke or Richard Loo could have played Old Feng. I’m not sure if there were any Chinese performers in Hollywood at the time who could have played Big Han, although Weaver Levy, who usually played tough guy or henchman roles, was active in Hollywood at the time. Still, Mazurki is such a strong and reassuring presence, it’s hard to envision someone else in the role.

LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING

Now I need to say something about another Hollywood film in color and Cinemascope that was set in Hong Kong and China and was also made in 1955: LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. Like SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, it was produced by Buddy Adler for 20th Century Fox and boasts lots of location shooting in Hong Kong. Also like that film, it is centered on a romance between two top-ranked movie stars, in this case Jennifer Jones and William Holden, with Hong Kong and China mainly serving as an exotic and romantic backdrop. The big difference here is that the lead female character, a doctor named Han Suyin, is Eurasian, the product of a marriage between a Chinese father and an English mother. The film was based on an autobiographical novel, A Many-Splendored Thing, by the real Han Suyin, whose mother was Flemish, not English. It was set in 1949-50, a few years earlier than the time periods in the other films discussed here. In the film, William Holden plays an American war correspondent who is based in Hong Kong and meets and falls in love with Suyin but is sent on assignment to cover the Korean War and, after sending dozens of letters from the front, comes to a tragic end. In real life, the correspondent was Australian, not American. Unlike Susan Hayward in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, the lead actress here, Jennifer Jones, went on location to shoot her scenes. So there was less of a need for rear screen projection. John Patrick wrote the screenplay for this film and would do the same five years later for THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960), which also featured extensive location shooting in Hong Kong and also starred William Holden.

Jennifer Jones, William Holden in LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING

Also, like SOLDIER, LOVE has a large cast of Asian and Asian-American performers. Richard Loo and Soo Yong, who were both in SOLDIER, here play an affluent married couple who are friends of Suyin. Soo Yong plays a character close in age to herself and is allowed to look quite attractive. Philip Ahn and Keye Luke both show up in this as well, as members of Suyin’s extended family in Mainland China in a region about to fall to the Communists. Neither Ahn nor Luke were in either of the other films from 1955 discussed here. James Hong is in all three of these films and has a non-speaking role here as another family member. Kam Tong, from SOLDIER, is on hand as Dr. Sen, Suyin’s colleague at the hospital who, it turns out, is pro-Communist and discourages her romance with a foreigner. He’s an interesting character and represents quite an intellectual contrast with the other Chinese characters we see, from the more westernized Hungs, played by Loo and Yong, to the more traditional Chinese family members played by Ahn, Luke and Beulah Quo, who plays Third Aunt. (Ms. Quo had a long career in Hollywood also; this was her first film and she acted right up to her death in 2002.) The Chinese are not a monolithic race here, but are made up of different character types with different political, social and cultural outlooks. The character of Suyin’s sister, Suchen, is played by another white actress, Donna Martell, whose dark hair and features led to being cast in a variety of “exotic” roles in the 1950s, including Indians, Latinas, and South Seas island girls.

Jones is a white actress playing a half-Chinese woman. She tries to make it believable and I think she shows great respect for the character, the setting, and the other Chinese characters, moreso than either of the stars did in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE. I thought she looked very good in her makeup and Chinese dresses. But something was off. She seemed to be trying too hard to be aloof and unemotional, in an “inscrutable, oriental” way. And I think it affects the quality of the onscreen romance. A Chinese actress wouldn’t have done that—unless forced to by the director. And Jones wouldn’t have done it in any of her other romantic dramas. (Think DUEL IN THE SUN and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.) When Jones does succumb to Holden’s persistence and enters into a love affair, complete with introducing him to her Chinese relatives, I never quite bought it. Holden seems to fall in love a little too easily himself. The chemistry just isn’t there. I didn’t see what the two had in common, other than being movie stars. I get the feeling that if Jones had just behaved like Jones the movie star and she and Holden had a typical onscreen movie star romance, like Gable and Hayward in SOLDIER, it would have been more effective as entertainment, although a little more distanced from the specific time and place of its setting. As it stands, I think it gets points for being a little truer to the setting.

William Holden, Jennifer Jones in LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING

Like SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING has a catchy love theme, this time composed by Alfred Newman, and one further enhanced by having lyrics added to it at the end of the movie. In fact, the song became a major pop hit that year, as sung by The Four Aces. The melody plays endlessly during the movie, even when someone turns on a phonograph. The music is designed for a Hollywood romantic melodrama and not for a film about racial and cultural identity in a society torn by civil war.

I managed to scrounge some images from LOVE, but I don’t have any screen grabs because I don’t have a DVD of it, only a couple of different VHS tapings of it, first off American Movie Classics in pan-and-scan, and second off TCM in Letterbox. Unfortunately, I could only find the AMC tape in preparation for this piece.

Holden’s performance in this film resonates in a wholly unexpected way in Hong Kong cinema. In Peter Chan’s COMRADES, ALMOST A LOVE STORY (1996), there is a character named Aunt Rosie who’d gone on a date with Holden decades earlier when he’d come to Hong Kong to make LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. She keeps a shrine to him in her cramped apartment, including various souvenirs she swiped from the dining room of the Peninsula Hotel where they’d had their date. Aunt Rosie was played by Irene Tsu, who had a long career in Hollywood dating back to FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) and including Elvis Presley’s PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE and John Wayne’s THE GREEN BERETS. In the week after I saw COMRADES back in 1997, I came across references to William Holden’s affinity for Hong Kong in two different places.

I should point out one curious omission in both SOLDIER OF FORTUNE and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. Neither film mentions their Hong Kong location shooting in the credits. Usually in those years when a Hollywood film went overseas to shoot a significant portion of its footage, there would be a thank-you to whatever agency or entity enabled the location work or there would simply be a note telling the audience where it was filmed. This was a selling point in the age of television because it meant the audience was getting something it couldn’t get on TV. Why there is no mention of it in either of these two films is a mystery.

One film I could have added to this mix was THE LEFT HAND OF GOD, also set in China, also in color and Cinemascope, and also produced by Buddy Adler for 20th Century Fox in 1955. It had no location filming outside the U.S. It had two significant Chinese speaking parts played by white actors, including Lee J. Cobb as a Chinese warlord, but also major supporting roles for Philip Ahn, Victor Sen Yung and Benson Fong, among other Asian performers. But it was set before the war, so I felt it didn’t belong with the other three. Also, I feared that I would then feel I had to watch INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, and FLOWER DRUM SONG before I was finished and I wanted to reach a good stopping point. But I will get to those eventually.

To sum it up, BLOOD ALLEY gets the most points for being a story about its Chinese characters and not a romantic melodrama about movie stars in love. But it loses points for having four supporting characters played by white actors and for basically glossing over the internal conflicts that must have ensued in the village over the decision to have everyone pack up and leave. SOLDIER OF FORTUNE gains points by having a wide range of Chinese supporting characters, all played by Asian actors, as well as at least one local Hong Kong actress, and for having a good portion of location shooting in Hong Kong, but it loses points for requiring the Chinese characters to basically serve all the needs of the two American leads and for Hayward’s failure to go on location. (She was in the middle of a custody battle and couldn’t risk leaving the country.) LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING gets points for on-location shooting in Hong Kong, including scenes with the lead actress, and for providing an explicit context of events that were happening in China and Asia in 1949-50. In addition, it gets points for a solid cast of Asian supporting players, although it loses points for casting a white actress in the lead. Granted, there were no Eurasian stars in Hollywood big enough to cast in a big-studio romantic melodrama in color and Cinemascope at the time. (If they’d waited a few years, they could have cast France Nuyen, but how could they have known?)

Now to watch some Cathay films from that period to see how Hong Kong filmmakers filmed themselves back then. Grace Chang in MAMBO GIRL (1957), anyone? Linda Lin Dai in CINDERELLA AND HER LITTLE ANGELS (1959)?

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3 Responses to “Hollywood Looks at China: Two Films from 1955”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Evening with Nancy Kwan | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - October 19, 2014

    […] of the Asian actors discussed in last month’s blog entry on Hollywood Looks at China also appear in FLOWER DRUM […]

  2. Asian Stars on American TV: Lisa Lu in “Bat Masterson,” “Hong Kong” and “Coronado 9” | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - January 19, 2015

    […] by the 1955 20th Century Fox film, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, which I wrote about here last year on September 26, and includes one cast member from that film, Jack Kruschen, playing a slightly different, somewhat […]

  3. Joe E. Brown, Comic Hero of Small-Town America | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - June 16, 2015

    […] The novelty value of POLO JOE is found chiefly in two scenes in which star Joe E. Brown sings songs in Chinese. He also frequently resorts to using Chinese phrases in the course of his frenetic activities throughout the film, even talking to a horse that way in one bit. This is all a result of his character having worked in China for the previous decade in a job that’s never defined. The first song is heard in the very first scene as he sits in a train car on his way to his Aunt Minnie’s home, where he will be staying. Later, at a dinner party welcoming Joe, Aunt Minnie (Fay Holden) reveals that she’s hired three Chinese musicians, performing traditional instruments, to accompany Joe as he sings. One of the musicians, played by Dong Yuen Jung, even sings a duet with Joe, who has wisely made sure, before his performance, that the musicians speak the same Chinese dialect that he does, a rare acknowledgment of China’s multiple languages in a Hollywood film referencing China. (I’m assuming Joe speaks Mandarin in the film, although he never identifies his dialect and the way he speaks it is not clear enough for me to rule out the possibility that it’s Cantonese.) This isn’t the only time I’ve heard Caucasian Hollywood stars speak Chinese in a Hollywood film. Shirley Temple does it in STOWAWAY, the same year as this film. And twenty years later, Clark Gable does it in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (1955) and both John Wayne and Lauren Bacall do it in BLOOD ALLEY the same year. [See Hollywood Looks at China: Two Films from 1955] […]

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