Kung Fu on 42nd Street

28 Sep

I recently came across files of ads for kung fu movies that played New York theaters back in the 1970s, material I’d accumulated while researching a proposed book in the early 2000s on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and its movie culture. I had planned to include a chapter on kung fu movies and even questioned several friends who’d regularly attended these movies on 42nd street. Add these files to a couple of original newspaper ads I’d saved myself from 1973 and I see that 42nd Street theaters are listed in 95% of them. In fact, all eleven theaters on both sides of the legendary Deuce (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) are represented in the ads. What struck me as I researched the titles listed was how many I was unfamiliar with. No matter how much I think I know about kung fu movies of the 1970s and ’80s, there are always more to discover. And I never fail to be impressed by the sheer number of these movies that played in Deuce theaters in those years.

The above double feature was cited by rap artist The RZA in an interview in Details Magazine in January 2000 as his introduction to the genre that inspired his rap group, the Wu Tang Clan:

Here’s the culture as described by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford in Sleazoid Express (Simon and Schuster, 2002), their landmark chronicle of “a mind-twisting tour through the grindhouse cinema of Times Square”:

At the genre’s peak in the mid-to-late 1970s, hundreds of kung fu movies were hitting the Deuce each year, and each grindhouse worked them into their fare. The whole kung fu look became a fashion statement, with karate robes, “Ninja” T-shirts, and China-bowl hats becoming frequent sights around the Deuce—it wasn’t unusual to see a dude decked out in an entire black belt’s outfit, holding lethal silver balls and nunchaks. As you walked down 42nd Street, you could often hear Carl Douglas’s one-hit wonder song “Kung Fu Fighting” booming from ghetto blasters.

A friend of mine recalled a typical response at the time when someone started showing off martial arts moves: “Do you know kung fu or are you just a 42nd Street Black Belt?”

I had seen a number of kung fu movies in theaters in 1973-74, but gradually lost interest in the genre once they stopped getting reviewed in the press due to the sheer ubiquity of them. There was no internet back then to tell me what I was missing and no fan press devoted to the genre. I didn’t yet know what I was missing. The last time I saw kung fu films in a theater in the 20th century was in the spring of 1980 when a friend and I went to see a double bill of Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON and the “Brucesploitation” entry, FISTS OF BRUCE LEE, at the Cine 42 Twin on the Deuce.

I did a little bit of catch-up when I discovered several worthy Shaw Bros. films on broadcast TV in the early 1980s when Channel 5 in New York (WNEW-TV) began showing them on Saturday afternoons (with much of the R-rated violence trimmed) in special film slots dubbed Black Belt Theater and Drive-In Theater. These included such future favorites as BLOODY AVENGERS (the English release title for a cut-down version of BOXER REBELLION, 1976), DEATH CHAMBERS (aka SHAOLIN TEMPLE, 1976), FOUR AVENGERS (aka MARCO POLO, 1975), and THE AVENGING EAGLE (1978). This was at a time when many of these films were still playing 42nd Street.

I took this picture of a 42nd Street marquee, the Rialto 1 on the right, showing a triple bill of kung fu films in September 1985 during a 42nd Street Festival:

It didn’t occur to me at the time to take pix of the film posters or to even get a solo shot of the kung fu marquee. As it turns out, I would eventually acquire and see all three of the films on the marquee, two on both VHS and DVD, and the third title on the marquee, so far, only on VHS. That title, DEATH KICK MASTER, was released on VHS as THE LEG FIGHTERS.

BORN INVINCIBLE (1978) would become one of my favorite kung fu films, belonging in my top ten or top 15, depending on how recently I’ve re-watched it. It was directed by Joseph Kuo, shot in Taiwan, and stars Carter Wong and Lo Lieh as two powerful villains who target an old master and his school, forcing the surviving students, Jack Long and Mark Long, to go into hiding and learn new techniques to combat their invincible enemies.

Eventually, I would rediscover old-school kung fu and become a full-fledged aficionado in the late 1990s when I was attending comic book shows held every month in New York hotel ballrooms and visiting vendors’ tables offering bootleg VHS tapes of these films and asking lots of questions. I then found a regular source of such films open seven days a week in a re-configured newsstand called The 42nd Chamber at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue,  just yards away from where these films once played all day and night.

When the redevelopment of 42nd Street went into full swing, the shop was forced to relocate to a larger storefront on 43rd Street just west of Eighth Avenue, rechristened The 43rd Chamber, that actually lent itself to a more communal experience and I would show up after work (less than three blocks away) and chat with shop owner Shah and various regulars and take notes on their recommendations and, later on, ask about their experiences seeing these movies in 42nd Street theaters. It was like an exclusive club just for fans who shared this interest.

The place was even profiled in the Village Voice in 1998:

The New York Times mentioned the 43rd Chamber in a piece on a Shaolin monk visiting New York who stopped in to visit the place (March 7, 1998):

I built up a huge collection and began reviewing these films for Amazon and IMDB and writing about them on various internet discussion forums. Eventually, I bought a DVD player and began visiting stores in Chinatown that offered Hong Kong import releases of classic kung fu movies, finally allowing me to see them in Mandarin with English subtitles. And then, in late 2002, Celestial Pictures started releasing Shaw Bros. films in remastered editions, which was like seeing these films for the first time: letter-boxed rather than pan-and-scan, uncut, and in their original language. (Well, not always uncut. See my piece on Chinatown Kid.)

And now for a look at some of these ads.

DEEP THRUST was the release title for the English-dubbed version of the Angela Mao vehicle, LADY WHIRLWIND (1972), the first of her films to be released in English in 1973. As the ad shows, it played the Lyric Theater on 42nd Street, which happened to be the first 42nd Street theater I attended.

It would be 30 years before I finally got to see the film when I picked up a bootleg DVD of it in 2004. I finally got a legit HK import DVD, letterboxed and in Mandarin with English subtitles, in 2008 and, more recently, the higher quality Shout! Factory DVD edition that came out in 2014. (I bought it for $10.73 from Amazon in 2015; it’s now selling on Amazon for $149.95!)

I watched it again in preparation for this piece and consider it the fifth best of Mao’s top five films, covered in my birthday tribute to her two years ago. In the film, Angela Mao plays a female martial artist, traveling alone, who seeks out the man (Chang Yi) who’d gotten her sister pregnant and abandoned her, causing her to kill herself. She finds him in a rural village living with a new woman, but he’s embroiled in a fight with local gangsters led by a Japanese fighter (Pai Ying) who makes life terrible for the local people, so Angela postpones her vengeance to help him take on the bad guys.

DEEP THRUST opened in New York on May 4, 1973, the same day that Bruce Lee’s first starring film from Hong Kong, FISTS OF FURY (a retitled THE BIG BOSS), opened in New York. Both of them were reviewed the next day in The New York Times and were, as far as I could tell, the last two kung fu films of the ‘70s reviewed there. (Variety, the entertainment industry trade paper, was much more diligent about reviewing these films.)

DEEP THRUST and FISTS OF FURY were the first two English-dubbed Hong Kong kung fu films to be released in New York following the surprise box office success a month earlier of FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (aka KING BOXER, 1972), a Shaw Bros. production starring Lo Lieh that premiered on March 20 at a free screening at the Loew’s State Theater on Broadway and 45th Street, which I attended. I don’t have a newspaper ad for that screening, but here’s the handout they gave us:

Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock shares this piece of key information with me:

DUEL OF THE IRON FIST was the second dubbed kung fu movie to get released in the U.S., after FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH. It premiered in Chicago on April 22, 1973 but didn’t reach the New York City area until July 4th (where it was co-billed with CUT-THROATS NINE). The distributor, Serafim Karalexis, claims he made the deal with Shaw for THE DUEL first and told the buyer from Warners about it, who then made the deal for KING BOXER.

The next Bruce Lee movie, THE CHINESE CONNECTION (a retitled FIST OF FURY), opened in New York in either late May or early June 1973, although I can’t locate the exact date.

I know that I saw it on June 8, 1973 at the Earl Theater near Yankee Stadium, where it played on a double bill with the Italian western, THE MERCENARY (1968). It was the one Bruce Lee movie I’d see while he was alive. In the film, Lee plays a kung fu expert who returns to Shanghai in the early 20th century to find that his teacher was poisoned on orders from the head of a Japanese dojo and he resolves to take on the Japanese and their henchmen, including a Russian fighter.

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For the record, THE BIG BOSS was supposed to be released in the U.S. as THE CHINESE CONNECTION because of its drug theme and FIST OF FURY was set to be released as FISTS OF FURY, but the U.S. distributor got the labels mixed up and they made a mistake which has persisted to this day. I should also add that both of these movies had played in Chinatown theaters, in Mandarin with English subtitles, months before the English-dubbed versions were released.

 

THE HAMMER OF GOD was the release title for the Shaw Bros. movie, THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), written, directed by and starring Jimmy Wang Yu, whose earlier film, ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), directed by Chang Cheh, revolutionized the Hong Kong martial arts film and established a template that would be used for hundreds of films over the next two decades. THE HAMMER OF GOD was a particular favorite on 42nd Street and the Lyric Theater, again, is listed in the ad. It opened in New York on June 13, 1973 and was, I believe, the very next kung fu release in New York after DEEP THRUST,  FISTS OF FURY and THE CHINESE CONNECTION.

THE CHINESE BOXER is considered by many aficionados, including me, to be the first true kung fu film, i.e. the first to focus primarily on hand-to-hand martial arts combat and include training and new techniques as essential parts of the narrative. (There is, however, some swordplay in one scene late in the film.) In the film, Lei Ming (Wang Yu) survives an attack on his school by a disgruntled rival (Chao Hsiung) and three Japanese karate experts, played by genre stalwarts Lo Lieh, Chen Sing and Wang Chung. He goes into hiding to perfect his mastery of the Iron Palm and Light Leaping techniques, reputed to be the only effective way to overcome karate, and eventually takes on five Japanese opponents and an army of the rival’s thugs in a series of grueling battles.

I didn’t get to see THE CHINESE BOXER myself until I purchased a VHS copy of the English-dubbed edition from the 43rd Chamber in 1998 and then the remastered Celestial edition, in Mandarin with English subtitles, on R3 DVD in 2004.

Here’s an interesting double bill I have a story about:

THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK opened at the Penthouse on 47th Street and Broadway on November 13, 1974 and, as a reviewer for my college newspaper, I went to an advance screening of it on November 7, where the three-hour film ran in between this double feature. A college friend was with me and we came in during the final fight scene of ATTACK OF THE KUNG FU GIRLS. When BILLY JACK ended, we stayed for at least the first half-hour of STING OF THE DRAGON MASTERS, which included the classic scene where Angela Mao fights the Japanese inside the Catholic church.

Years later, I would learn that STING OF THE DRAGON MASTERS was a retitling of WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES (1973). I bought a VHS copy of STING in 1999 and was appalled at how poor the print was–severely cropped and with a music soundtrack dominated by strains of Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” that drowned out the dialogue. Truth to tell, I kind of remember that being the case with the music when I saw part of the film at the Penthouse. It wouldn’t be until late 2007 that I finally got a DVD edition of WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES in its proper aspect ratio and original language (Mandarin), with English subtitles, and a properly mixed music track. That same year, I finally got a copy of ATTACK OF THE KUNG FU GIRLS, under the title, KUNG FU GIRL, starring Cheng Pei Pei, and was able to see it again. To this day, I have never seen THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK a second time.

In any event, the floodgates opened in 1973-74 and kung fu movies flooded into neighborhood theaters and grindhouses over the next several years. Most of the ads I found have 42nd Street theaters listed. Many of them list Bronx theaters as well, including several that were my neighborhood theaters at the time (Art Jerome, Deluxe, Kent, Luxor, Surrey, RKO Fordham, etc.). I’m somewhat alarmed at all the missed opportunities I had to see these films theatrically back then, but there was no one around, no fan group, no press outlet, no fanzines, no internet, to tell me which ones were better than others. Besides, I was in film school and busy seeing classic films at revival theaters in Manhattan as well as, by the spring of 1974, diligently attending Japanese film series at the Regency. Samurai films had a greater priority over kung fu for me at the time and some of them even came to these shores dubbed in English to capitalize on the kung fu craze. I saw two of them, LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH (aka LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART TO HADES) and THE STEEL EDGE OF REVENGE (aka GOYOKIN) in neighborhood theaters in the Bronx in 1974. One of the Zatoichi Blind Swordsman movies opened as well, playing at the New Amsterdam on 42nd Street, as listed in this ad, and was released in the U.S. under this title:

Chris Poggiali at Temple of Schlock has determined that this Zatoichi film was the fifth in the 25-film series, ZATOICHI ON THE ROAD (1963).

Here are two of the great films of the kung fu genre in side-by-side ads, with one playing the Cine 42 and the other playing at the Lyric.

THE 7 GRANDMASTERS was a particular favorite of fans at the time and played the Deuce for years. It was directed by Joseph Kuo, who operated in Taiwan and was one of the best independent directors of these films, never having worked for the two biggest companies making these films at the time, Shaw Bros. and Golden Harvest. 7 GRANDMASTERS starred Jack Long and the apparently unrelated Mark Long in a tale of a kung fu master (Jack Long) seeking to consolidate his status by seeking out and challenging other grandmasters, traveling over great distances with an entourage of students and only gradually learning that one of them has a secret agenda.

DIRTY HO (1979) was directed for Shaw Bros. by Lau Kar Leung, arguably the best director of kung fu movies of all time, and starred Gordon Liu as a prince of the royal family who has to hide his kung fu skills while paired with a peasant sidekick, played by Wong Yu (not to be confused with Jimmy Wang Yu), whose rough manners earn him the sobriquet, “Dirty Ho,” hence the film’s title.

Here’s a pair of ads for “10”-themed movies, one at the Selwyn and one at Cine 42.

10 BROTHERS OF SHAOLIN (1979) was an independent kung fu movie co-produced with and shot in Taiwan and featuring some of the most dependable mainstays of the genre, including Wong Tao, Chang Yi, Phillip Ko, Leung Kar Yan and the second greatest female kung fu star of the 1970s, Chia Ling, aka Judy Lee.

TEN TIGERS OF KWANGTUNG (1980) is an all-star Shaw Bros. film starring Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Wang Lung Wei and four of the actors making up the Five Venoms (of FIVE DEADLY VENOMS fame), and directed by Chang Cheh, easily the most prolific director of Shaw Bros. kung fu films and, after Lau Kar Leung, arguably the best of them. (Lau got his start choreographing the fight scenes for Chang’s earlier movies.)

Here’s a memorable Shaw Bros. double bill at the Lyric:

KUNG-FU WARLORDS is actually a retitling of Chang Cheh’s THE BRAVE ARCHER (1977) which starred Fu Sheng and most of the studio’s dependable character actors, including four of the Five Venoms. It was based on a serialized story by Louis Cha called “Legend of the Condor Heroes” and, when released on DVD in 2008 by Media Blasters, included an audio commentary by me. The film had three sequels.

MASKED AVENGERS (1981) was also directed by Chang Cheh and was an unofficial Venoms film with three of the Five Venoms.

STREET GANGS OF HONG KONG (1973) is a retitling of Shaw Bros.’ THE DELINQUENT, a contemporary gangster drama about a youth (Wang Chung) caught up in a robbery caper only to turn on the gang and use his kung fu skills to try to fight his way out.

Movieland on 47th Street and Broadway (formerly the Forum) ran a month-long Shaw Bros. festival at some point, as promoted in this undated ad.

Chris Poggiali at Temple of Schlock informs me that this festival ran in November 1983. Read more about it here. Four of the five films were directed by Chang Cheh, while THE DEADLY MANTIS was directed by Lau Kar Leung. The original titles for the five films are BLOOD BROTHERS (1973), DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN (1973), BRAVE ARCHER 2 (1978), SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978) and FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982).

 

Proof that Sammo Hung was already getting top billing in the early 1980s when this double bill played the Cine 42. ENTER THE FAT DRAGON (1978) is a contemporary Hong Kong comic tale starring Hung, who also directed, as an aspiring martial artist and fan of the late Bruce Lee who wreaks havoc on the set of a fake Bruce Lee movie (of which there were dozens back then).

The co-feature, MASTER OF DISASTER, is a retitling of the Shaw Bros. kung fu comedy caper, THE TREASURE HUNTERS (1981), which starred Gordon Liu and Alexander Fu Sheng.

This triple feature at the Liberty includes two films I have, THE TONGFATHER (1974, titled HANDS OF DEATH on Mill Creek’s Martial Arts 50 Classic Features box set) and QUEEN BOXER (1974), which I only have on VHS and stars the inimitable Chia Ling (Judy Lee) in her single best role, as Ma Su Chen, the grieving, kung fu-fighting sister of Ma Yung Chen, a martyred fighter in 1920s Shanghai who has been played in other films by Chen Kuan Tai (BOXER FROM SHANTUNG) and Jimmy Wang Yu (SUPER DRAGON).

However, the woman in the poster for QUEEN BOXER looks nothing like the lead actress in the film:

THOU SHALL NOT KILL…BUT ONCE (1975), at the New Amsterdam, later turned up on VHS as FEROCIOUS MONK FROM SHAOLIN and is one of the few films to feature perennial villain Chen Sing in a lead heroic role. I reviewed it on IMDB.

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BLOOD ON THE SUN, at the Lyric, turns out to be THE BIG FIGHT (1972), as it’s titled in Mill Creek’s Martial Arts box set, a Hong Kong-Taiwan co-production about a Chinese village under Japanese occupation and the efforts of kung fu-fighting guerrilla warriors to undermine the Japanese oppressors.

Tien Peng (LONE NINJA WARRIOR) is the only actor in it familiar to me. I was not even aware of this film until I looked up the actual titles of the films in these ads and then cross-checked them with my own inventory and found I had it in this box set. The film’s description makes it sound better than it is. The print featured in the box set is pan-and-scan, quite worn and badly dubbed in English.

 

BLOOD OF THE DRAGON (1971), at the Apollo, starred Jimmy Wang Yu as White Dragon, a wandering spearman in old China who gets involved in a battle between Imperial guards and a band of rebels seeking to overthrow the Mongol-backed Emperor.

 

I was surprised to learn about this film, DRAGON SQUAD, because it offers a quartet of four of the best kung fu actors of the era: Jimmy Wang Yu (who also directed), Chang Yi, Kam Kong and Chen Sing. How had I not heard of it before? I’ve since found it on YouTube under its original English name, FOUR REAL FRIENDS (1974).

Bruce Lee was, of course, a permanent fixture on the Deuce.

Even when it wasn’t the real Bruce Lee:

Here are some more random ads from the era, mostly for films I was unfamiliar with:

I don’t have original ads for many of the biggest kung fu hits of the era, e.g. MASTER KILLER (36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN), FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (THE FIVE VENOMS), TRIPLE IRONS (THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN), SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON (THE WATER MARGIN), DUEL OF THE IRON FIST (THE DUEL) and THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING, to name a few, but I did find some posters from the American releases of four of them:

In 1993, the closing of the theaters and the installation of the (thankfully) brief 42nd Street Art Project led to this sad headline in The New York Times:

In the years since, the building of two multiplexes across the street from each other on 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, the Regal 42 St. E-Walk and the AMC Empire, meant that we could see Asian martial arts films on the Deuce again, either American-made films like ROMEO MUST DIE (2000), which featured Jet Li’s first starring role in Hollywood and was the first film I saw at the then-brand-new E-Walk, or large-scale Chinese martial arts films like Zhang Yimou’s HERO (2002), which was shown at the E-Walk in 2004 and also starred Jet Li, and more recently, the Chinese action/martial arts/propaganda blockbuster, WOLF WARRIOR II, which played at the AMC Empire.

5 Responses to “Kung Fu on 42nd Street”

  1. Skeme Richards November 12, 2018 at 10:03 PM #

    Nice read! The Five Deadly Venoms poster was actually created by my partner The Elroy Jenkins which we sold at New York Comic Con a few years back.

    • squeesh April 22, 2019 at 7:42 AM #

      I’ve seen most of those films over the years, so this was real fun to read. Some of the color posters are impressive to look at, too.

  2. JAMES J LAWRENCE February 21, 2021 at 11:47 PM #

    wow,,,,,,,an era long gone

  3. Ben Nagy April 9, 2021 at 9:08 PM #

    Thank you for this thorough and great post. What publications did those ads come from? Doubt it’s the New York Times…

    • briandanacamp April 10, 2021 at 4:45 PM #

      Thank you! Glad you liked it. The ads came from both the New York Post and the Daily News.

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