“Dragon at the Door,” the first episode of Season 3 of “Laramie,” was the TV episode I watched back in January 2012 that first stimulated my interest in exploring the topic of Asian characters in TV westerns. It was included on a DVD called “Top TV Westerns” and it prompted my search on IMDB for other TV episodes with similar themes. This episode also aired, in a much better copy, on the Encore Western Channel on September 29, 2015. I watched it in high-def and took screen shots from it.
“Dragon at the Door,” which first aired on September 26, 1961, and was the first Laramie episode to be filmed in color, is one of that rare group of such westerns with Japanese characters rather than Chinese characters. An earlier example would be “The Sakae Ito Story,” a 1958 episode of “Wagon Train” with Sessue Hayakawa as a visiting samurai, capitalizing on his success in the previous year’s Best Picture winner, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. A later example would be “Incident of the Geisha,” a 1963 episode of “Rawhide” with Miyoshi Umeki as a geisha stranded out west. (Umeki had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1957 for SAYONARA.)
The Laramie episode includes five Asian actors in it, four of them Japanese or Japanese-American, and one presumably Chinese-American. The plot involves a traveling troupe of Japanese entertainers out west and a confrontation with would-be thieves seeking what they think is a shipment of opium hidden on their wagon. The series heroes, Slim Sherman (John Smith) and Jess Harper (Robert Fuller), intervene and assist the travelers when their wagon breaks down, prompting an overnight stay at the stage relay station managed by Slim and Jess. More confrontations with the thieves ensue, but the heart of the episode is found in the cross-cultural encounters between American westerners and their Japanese guests. There is a general tone of respect for the visitors throughout. The insertion of outlaws hoping to pull a caper is the only major contrivance in the episode, added, no doubt, to satisfy a TV western’s demand for dramatic conflict and the requisite action scenes spaced evenly apart (beginning, middle, end).
The big difference between this episode and the other episodes I’ve written about and reviewed in my study of Asian performers in TV westerns is the ensemble nature of the Asian cast. Three of them have major roles in the action and none is played by a well-known star like Sessue Hayakawa or, to name two that I’ve written about here in the past, Anna May Wong and Lisa Lu (check the Asian Stars in TV Westerns tag for past entries). The actors in “Dragon at the Door” are: Teru Shimada as Tajima, leader of the troupe and father of the three young women accompanying him; Robert Kino as Tomomi, an acrobat and juggler in the troupe and fiancé of the eldest daughter; Nobu McCarthy as Haru, the eldest daughter and the one who attracts some serious romantic interest from Jess Harper; Anita Loo as Yuki; and Joanne Miya as the youngest daughter, Kiku, who has no lines whatsoever. (Aside from Anita Loo, whom I’m guessing is Chinese, the others are all Japanese or Japanese-American.) Of these, Nobu McCarthy was easily the best-known and had been doing TV roles regularly since 1958 and had been in a few Hollywood movies, including leading roles in GEISHA BOY (1958) opposite Jerry Lewis and the western, WALK LIKE A DRAGON (1960), opposite Jack Lord and James Shigeta.
We first see one of the Japanese characters when Tomomi, in a wounded state, pounds on the door of the station house on a rainy night rousing Slim and Jess who at first think he’s an Indian. They soon figure out he’s an “Oriental.”
The action shifts to a wagon containing the other Japanese troupe members that is under attack by three robbers. Tomomi takes Slim and Jess to the disabled wagon and scare off the outlaws.
They meet Tajima.
Jess is startled to see a woman looking out the back window of the wagon.
They manage to tow the disabled wagon back to the station and set about the process of fixing the axle.
Tajima’s daughters are introduced: Haru, Yuki and Kiku. Tajima refers to them as his “miserable, lowly daughters.” Slim and Jess gaze with awe at them, a natural reaction given their isolated location and the dearth of beautiful women in their immediate community—and the fact that they’ve surely never met women like this before.
We also meet an unconscious young boy who was rescued by the troupe, Mike Williams (Dennis Holmes), whom we later learn was the survivor of an Indian attack that killed his parents.
In fact, when he finally wakes up and first sees the Japanese, he thinks they’re Indians and yells out that they killed his parents.
When all this gets straightened out, the guests are allowed to make themselves at home, which leads to Haru taking a shower in the outdoor shower stall, the boldness of which startles Jess no end, especially when she comes out in a towel and he starts waxing poetic with her, trying to make some kind of connection.
Jess: It’s a strange thing, Haru. We’re about as far apart as two people can get. I mean, the way we think, the way we believe.
Haru: I do not feel that way somehow.
Jess: That’s what I mean. I don’t feel that way either. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time.
But then a jealous Tomomi yells at her: “Haru, you shame yourself before him.” And he tells Jess, “Do not trifle with our women!” Jess tries to assure him it’s all a misunderstanding, but when he goes to shake his hand, Tomomi does a judo move on him, a rare example of Asian martial arts showing up on American television in the years before Bruce Lee’s portrayal of Kato in “The Green Hornet.”
After the fight has been stopped, Tajima tells Slim and Jess: “Perhaps it will take time for East to know West.” Slim (looking at Jess), responds: “Or the West to know the East.”
Meanwhile, the outlaws watch from a distance, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the troupe’s wagon and search for its presumed contraband.
As Slim and Jess change clothes following the judo fight, it becomes clear that Jess’s ardor hasn’t been dimmed by Tomomi’s aggression.
Slim: They’re throwing a show for Mike. We gotta get ready.
Jess: And you’re gonna get all slicked up for the ladies, hah?
Slim: Y’know, it seems to me that you’re the one that’s been walking around here wall-eyed ever since they got here.
Jess: Yeah? Well, that Haru, the oldest one, she’s prettier than all get-out.
Slim: I guess I’m just gonna have to get a pair of blinders for you.
Slim points out that Haru has gone to a nearby lake to look for water cress for the evening meal and suggests that Jess go and help her. A jealous Tomomi follows. The outlaws are nearby and see Haru alone and get the idea to take her hostage. First Jess and then Tomomi intervene and save her and fight the outlaws and drive them away.
That evening the Japanese women prepare a Japanese dinner for everyone. They even show Slim and Jess how to use chopsticks.
Three of the troupe, Tajima, Haru and Tomomi, even stage part of their act. Tajima throws knives at Haru and then does magic tricks. Tomomi balances teacups and juggles apples. Kiku plays a shamisen in the background.
I was actually hoping to see a song and dance performance by the girls. I would rather have seen that than the knife-throwing and juggling act, although I suspect that the knife-throwing act was inserted simply to justify Tajima’s skill with knives demonstrated in an early scene where he scares off the outlaws by throwing knives at them and just missing. As it is, Haru does nothing but stand there while her father throws knives around her and Yuki does nothing at all. In any event, at some point, Haru leaves the party to get stuff from the wagon for Tajima’s magic show and Jess accompanies her. Outside, Jess gets romantic, in his awkward but charming way.
Jess: I can’t figure out why it’s so different, Haru.
Haru: Why it so different, Jess-san?
Jess: The way I feel about you. I don’t get a chance to meet many really beautiful women.
Haru: Haru believes there have been many. You’re strong, but you’re gentle.
Jess: I guess that’s what I mean. You know, I’m afraid if I touched you you’d break.
Haru: Haru not break. Perhaps bend a little, but not break.
Jess: Haru, there’s somethin’ I want to tell you.
Haru: Please, do not speak. I, I did not tell you before, but something—
They’re then interrupted by the outlaws who approach them with guns drawn.
The outlaws have already searched the wagon and have found nothing. They hold everyone captive and threaten to rough up the women until Tajima reveals where the opium is. Tajima finally tells them it’s well-hidden and takes the lead outlaw (Ed Nelson) out to the wagon to show him. It’s all a ruse to set off the act’s fireworks and distract the robbers so that Slim and Jess can get their guns back and overpower the gunmen. Tomomi is shot and wounded in the commotion.
At the end, Jess says goodbye to Haru.
Haru: Haru did not mean to mislead you. Did not know what kiss meant.
Jess: You seem to know how to do it.
Haru: Haru knew how, but not why.
Jess: That’s all right, Haru, I don’t think I’ll ever forget you, though.
Tomomi: Haru, we go!
Jess: Tomomi is sure a lucky guy.
Haru: When he save Haru’s life, I knew that I love him.
Tajima offers the Americans the gift of a shamisen, a stringed instrument from their act.
And they ride off, continuing their tour.
It does seem to me that the writer of the teleplay may have gotten certain Chinese and Japanese cultural clichés mixed up. Fireworks are usually associated with Chinese and Japanese men do not tend to refer to their daughters as “miserable” and “lowly.” Also, the outlaws think the Japanese have opium, which is also usually associated with Chinese, although that could simply be a function of the outlaws ignorantly thinking all Orientals are alike. Finally, the knife-throwing act doesn’t appear to be something I’d associate with Japanese culture. Isn’t that more common in European circuses?
In any event, even though there’s not a lot of actual Japanese culture on display in the episode, it’s still nice to see an example of cultural exchange between East and West in a TV western episode that doesn’t resort to stereotype and manages to maintain the dignity of its Asian characters, none of whom behave in a subservient manner. It’s also nice to see Asian males and females on an equal footing in the narrative. And the Asian males are assertive. One of them is indeed the intended husband of the lead Asian female and that doesn’t change by the end of the episode. One of the white leads does show understandable interest in the lead Asian female, but it’s handled in a sensitive and gentle manner. He’s experiencing feelings way out of his normal emotional range and he’s trying to process them. He doesn’t come off as entitled, the way so many white Hollywood heroes did in the postwar era when romancing Asian female characters. In this regard, he’s similar to the other western heroes I’ve highlighted in this blog series, chiefly Little Joe (Michael Landon) in the Bonanza episode, “Day of the Dragon,” opposite Lisa Lu, and Cheyenne (Clint Walker) in the Cheyenne episode, “Pocketful of Stars,” also with Lisa Lu and covered in last week’s blog entry. Neither of those characters behaved in an entitled manner either. In fact, all of these heroes are strong and courageous, yet gentle and respectful in their dealings with women. This was true of a lot of heroes in TV westerns at the time. They weren’t all trigger-happy gunmen.
And now a few notes about the actors in this episode. Teru Shimada (1905-1988) was born in Japan but had an active Hollywood career from 1932 to 1975, with less activity, understandably, during the 1940s, with only one credit between 1941 and 1949, according to IMDB, and that one being DRAGON SEED in 1944, at the height of the war with Japan, when Japanese on the west coast would have been placed in internment camps. During the war, Chinese actors were routinely cast as Japanese in war films, since there were, presumably, no Japanese actors free to work. So I’m not sure how Shimada managed to get that job. As far as I’ve been able to determine, if this IMDB credit is correct, he’s the only Japanese actor to appear in a Hollywood film that was made while the U.S. was at war with Japan. There is possibly an intriguing untold story here. Shimada is best known to me as Osato, the Japanese industrialist working with SPECTRE in the fifth James Bond film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967).
I’ve also recently seen him in OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA (1935), in which he appears in the Yokohama sequence as a teahouse proprietor hired to prepare a wedding dinner for the hero, Pat O’Brien.
Robert Kino (1921-1999) had an active Hollywood career from 1950 to 1995, usually in supporting roles on TV shows and bit parts in movies. He was Sessue Hayakawa’s traveling companion in the aforementioned “Wagon Train” episode, “The Sakae Ito Story,” and has the key guest star role in a 1960 episode of “Wanted Dead or Alive” called “Black Belt,” in which he plays an Asian fugitive from the law sought by bounty hunter Josh Randall (Steve McQueen). In the course of it, he uses karate to overpower Randall and avoid capture. (McQueen, of course, would famously become a student of martial arts under the instruction of Bruce Lee and would serve as a pallbearer at Lee’s funeral.) I seem to remember Kino’s character, Sammy Wong, being identified as Korean, although I’ll double check that when I re-watch the episode for a future entry in this series. “Black Belt” preceded the Laramie episode, in which Kino also uses Asian martial arts.
Nobu McCarthy (1934-2002), a Japanese actress born in Canada but raised in Japan and married to an American serviceman (hence the name McCarthy), was active in Hollywood from 1958 to 1990, with only five intermittent credits in the decade afterwards. She mostly did TV guest shots, with occasional films, including, as mentioned above, THE GEISHA BOY and WALK LIKE A DRAGON, but also FIVE GATES TO HELL, WAKE ME WHEN IT’S OVER, TWO LOVES, and LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER. FIVE GATES TO HELL and WALK LIKE A DRAGON were written and directed by James Clavell, who later wrote the novel, “Shogun.” She also played a lead role in a TV movie about a Japanese internment camp, FAREWELL TO MANZANAR (1976). I like her work in THE GEISHA BOY (in which Jerry Lewis chooses her over Suzanne Pleshette, although I’m not sure McCarthy comes out ahead in that one), but I’ve seen few of her other credits and would most like to see WALK LIKE A DRAGON and some of her TV work, including a Wagon Train episode called “The John Augustus Story,” in which she plays a Chinese worker whose contract is won in a card game by the title character (Joseph Cotten) and shares a wagon with him on the wagon train. Interestingly, McCarthy later played opposite one of the Laramie stars, John Smith, in a stage production of “The World of Suzie Wong” in 1965. She was also in a couple of “Perry Mason” episodes.
Joanne Miya was a dancer who appeared in THE KING AND I and WEST SIDE STORY and was a regular on “Arrest and Trial” (1963-64). In addition to those credits and this episode of Laramie, she appeared in two other TV shows and two other feature films.
Anita Loo, who I’m guessing is Chinese-American, has only a handful of credits on IMDB, from 1960-67, two feature films and eight TV appearances, including four different roles on “Hawaiian Eye.”
The print of “Dragon at the Door” that ran on Encore Western was much better than the one on the “Top TV Westerns” DVD. Compare these screen grabs from the DVD with comparable screen shots from the Encore Western cablecast posted above.
Check out the IMDB review of “Dragon at the Door” that I posted when I first saw the episode back in 2012.
Finally, here’s how the guest performers are billed in the end credits: