Actress Lisa Lu turns 90 today, January 19, 2017, and, according to IMDB, remains active. I’ve written about her here on four occasions and have seen everything in my collection in which she appears. The last unseen item was the 1962 feature film, RIDER ON A DEAD HORSE, a low-budget western about four characters battling each other over a buried gold stash, in which she plays one of the four. I purchased it from Warner Archive and watched it yesterday before starting this piece. I’ll discuss it further down.
Lu was active in Hollywood, in some movies but mostly television, in the years 1958-1968 and then only intermittently thereafter, while also making movies in Hong Kong, including three for Shaw Bros.—THE 14 AMAZONS, THE LAST TEMPEST, and THE EMPRESS DOWAGER. She would later reprise the role of the Empress Dowager in Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE LAST EMPEROR, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1987.
In THE 14 AMAZONS (1972), set during the Song Dynasty, she plays the role of a one-hundred-year-old female general, the great grandmother of the Yang Clan, who supervises a female army led by the 14 title warriors. She said in an interview (linked at the end of this post) that she took the role because none of the other Shaw Bros. actresses wanted to play someone that old.
She has continued to work both in Hollywood and abroad, in movies and TV, and appeared in THE JOY LUCK CLUB and LUST, CAUTION, to name her more high-profile credits of recent years, as well as some episodes of the soap opera “General Hospital” in 2011-2015. Here she is with Rosalind Chao in THE JOY LUCK CLUB:
RIDER ON A DEAD HORSE is not a particularly good movie, but it deserves note for making the film’s only female character Chinese and making her proud and focused on her own agenda throughout. She gets pushed around by the three men in the four-character drama, but she’s consistently defiant and outspoken, never the graceful, delicate flower she often portrayed in her TV western roles. Ms. Lu’s character, Ming Kwai, is a prostitute attached to the boss of a group of “coolies” (Chinese workers) laboring on the railroad. We see one shot of the railroad workers from a distance but never see any of them up close nor do we ever meet Ming’s boss.
When Adam Hayden (John Vivyan), a gold prospector who’s been shot and left for dead by his partner, Barney Senn (Bruce Gordon), turns up at Ming’s shack she agrees to care for him after he tells her about the gold and promises payment for saving his life. Ming’s major goal is to get to San Francisco where she plans to go into business for herself. Hayden and Ming go into town to get supplies for the trip back into the desert to find the rocky outcrop where Hayden and Senn buried the gold while they were on the run from Apaches. Senn had already appeared in town and told a local bounty hunter, Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen), about the gold and told him to watch out for Hayden, whom he declares is a murderer, guilty of killing a third partner, Sam (Charles Lampkin), who was actually killed in cold blood by Senn before the opening credits. When Hayden and Ming arrive, Fry locks up Hayden and takes off with Ming to look for the gold, leaving a timed fuse connected to a stick of dynamite to blow up the jail. Hayden manages to escape and follow them, eventually reuniting with Ming and pursuing the other men to the site of the buried gold.
Hayden and Ming eventually enter into an unlikely romance. Neither of them is very nice to each other before they come together in a clinch by the campfire late in the film. They both hurl racial insults at each other along the way, and she even pulls a knife on him at one point. In fact, she pulls a knife on each of the three men in the course of the film.
But she falls for Hayden and believes he’s fallen for her as well, though she correctly recognizes that he’s ashamed of it, either because she’s a prostitute or because she’s Chinese. She even flirts with him, in a somewhat taunting manner, by reciting a Chinese love poem and circling around him (“I’m more desirable than a plum blossom in spring”). By the time they’ve gotten past the contentious stage of their relationship and spent the night by the campfire together, they’re actually quite tender with each other.
I found much of the gold search implausibly handled, with the gold finally being reached by the one man of the three who couldn’t possibly have known where it was and who then fights off an entire Apache band alone with sticks of dynamite strategically placed. Hayden leaves the story with no gold but at least has found love. He and Ming, holding hands, walk off into the sunset.
Lu’s character is treated roughly throughout the film and treats the others roughly as well. Nothing is sugar-coated here, but at least she remains her own woman throughout. She’s never deferential or subservient the way she is in even some of her best TV western roles. As an actress, Lu gets to express sides of herself that weren’t revealed in the other western roles she took. I can understand why she took the role, one of the very few leading film roles she got in Hollywood, but I can’t imagine that it was widely seen or that it did much for her career. It would have been nice to have an audio commentary by her on the disc, but Warner Archive releases its titles strictly in no-frills editions.
I’ve written about other roles of Ms. Lu’s in the past, including the film, MOUNTAIN ROAD, and TV guest shots in “Bonanza,” “Cheyenne,” “Bat Masterson,” “Hong Kong,” and “Coronado 9.” This link will connect you to all of them:
And here are links to my IMDB reviews of three of her TV western roles:
Cheyenne: “Pocketful of Stars”
Bonanza: “Day of the Dragon”
The Rebel: “Blind Marriage”
The episode of “The Rebel,” “Blind Marriage,” paired her with Philip Ahn playing her father, a Chinese merchant seeking to send her to San Francisco for an arranged marriage. It can be found on YouTube:
There are still many TV episodes of hers I’d like to find, including the following:
Richard Diamond, Private Eye: “Chinese Honeymoon” (1958), which also has Keye Luke, Weaver Levy, and James Hong in it;
Mike Hammer: “Tattoo Bruté” (1959), in which she plays a client of the notorious private eye;
Hawaiian Eye: “Jade Song” (1960), co-starring George Takei and James Hong;
Hawaiian Eye: “The Manchu Formula” (1961), which reunites her with Philip Ahn;
The Big Valley: “Rimfire” (1968), which pairs her with Mako as a Chinese couple living in an abandoned mine targeted by a mine owner seeking to evict them;
Mission: Impossible: “Butterfly” (1970), a Japanese-themed episode, also with Benson Fong, James Shigeta, Helen Funai, and Dale Ishimoto.
Ms. Lu had a regular role on Season 4 of the popular western series, “Have Gun Will Travel,” as Hey Girl, who operates as something of a Girl Friday to the series protagonist, a San Francisco-based troubleshooter named Paladin (Richard Boone). She usually appeared only at the beginning of each episode helping him prepare for whatever assignment he was about to embark on. Sometimes she didn’t even have any dialogue. I have most of the episodes she was in but still haven’t watched them all. I wonder if there’s any unusual episode where she had a bigger role than normal.
I found a half-hour interview with Ms. Lu from 2015 that aired on China Central TV that covers the entire arc of her career, although the interviewer omits a lot. Still, it’s great to see a recent interview with her and one with clips of her recent work:
Finally, a gallery of shots I’ve compiled since first covering her for this blog:
From CHINA DOLL (1958):
From “Hong Kong” (1960):
From “Coronado 9” (1960):
From “Bat Masterson” (1961):
From “Day of the Dragon” (1961):
From “Cheyenne” (1962):
Her “Cheyenne” co-star, Clint Walker, turns 90 on May 30 of this year:
Happy Birthday, Lisa Lu!
ADDENDUM: In watching the above-linked interview with Ms. Lu and the PBS documentary, “Hollywood Chinese,” in which Ms. Lu is interviewed, and in recalling remarks she made on the audio commentary for the “Bonanza” episode she was in, it occurred to me that the important thing to remember about Lu’s tenure in Hollywood is that she cared very deeply about how Chinese were portrayed on screen, certainly a lot more than some of the bigger names interviewed in the PBS documentary. While she winced at some of the overly poetic dialogue she was asked to intone in some of her roles, she did everything possible to make her characters as authentically Chinese as possible. This attitude leads to a remarkable fair-minded approach when, in the documentary, she discusses Luise Rainer’s portrayal of O-lan in the film adaptation of THE GOOD EARTH (1937). While she doesn’t defend the production’s decision to cast white actors in the main speaking roles, she defends Rainer’s performance and praises her for doing the research into the role and getting so much of her portrayal right.