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.
“Mifune: The Last Samurai” is a documentary on Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune that recently played at the IFC Center in New York. To fans of Japanese film, Mifune needs no introduction. He is easily the best Japanese film actor of all time and, to many of us, arguably the greatest film actor in history. He is best known, of course, for his starring roles in films by Akira Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO), arguably the greatest Japanese director of all time, but he also made numerous films for other noted Japanese directors, including Hiroshi Inagaki (The SAMURAI trilogy), Masaki Kobayashi (SAMURAI REBELLION), Kihachi Okamoto (SAMURAI ASSASSIN), and Kinji Fukasaku (THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI), among others. He also made films in Hollywood and Europe, including GRAND PRIX, HELL IN THE PACIFIC, RED SUN and MIDWAY. I’ve written about one of his films here, JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY. He’s got 182 acting credits on IMDB—both film and television–and they extend from 1947 to 1995, two years before he died.
Once upon a time Asian super-sleuths, independent crime-fighters of Chinese or Japanese origin who were usually one or two steps ahead of the police in solving murders, were quite popular in Hollywood. They were, with one notable exception, played by Caucasian actors. There were three distinct characters around whom series of films were created in the 1930s: Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong. The Chinese Chan was portrayed by Swedish-born Warner Oland in the 1930s, Sidney Toler in the late ’30s and early 1940s, and Roland Winters in the late ’40s. The Japanese Mr. Moto, an agent working for the International Police, was played by Austro-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. The Chinese Mr. Wong was played by British actor Boris Karloff. Lorre and the Chan actors played their roles with distinct Asian accents while Karloff played the Oxford-educated Wong with his normal voice. All three characters drew on the stereotype of the exotic, inscrutable Asian sage with depths of knowledge and wisdom derived from ancient traditions. Chan, in particular, was given to issuing frequent fortune cookie-style aphorisms that were often played for laughs. (E.g. “Mind like parachute – only function when open” and “Inconspicuous molehill sometimes more important than conspicuous mountain.”)
Charlie Chan (Warner Oland):
Around ten years after the end of World War II, Hollywood made a number of films that aimed to rehabilitate Japan’s image in American pop culture and give our new ally and onetime enemy a kinder, gentler makeover in the eyes of a public once stirred up to see Japan as barbarism incarnate. While there had been earlier Hollywood films shot in postwar Japan, beginning with the Humphrey Bogart vehicle, TOKYO JOE (1949) and the low-budget thriller TOKYO FILE 212 (1951), the years 1955-58 saw quite a wave of Hollywood productions filmed partly or entirely in Japan, all involving significant interaction between Americans and Japanese, including HOUSE OF BAMBOO, THREE STRIPES IN THE SUN, TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON, SAYONARA, STOPOVER TOKYO, JOE BUTTERFLY, THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA, and the film I’m covering today, ESCAPADE IN JAPAN.
“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.
When I first began exploring the subject of Asian actors guest-starring in American TV westerns back in January 2012, the first such episode I watched that featured Lisa Lu was “Pocketful of Stars,” an episode of “Cheyenne” that first aired on November 12, 1962. I’ve since seen her in a number of other TV episodes and have written about her here in three previous entries: Asian-American Stars on TV: Lisa Lu in “Bat Masterson,” “Hong Kong” and “Coronado 9” Asian Stars in TV Westerns, Part 1: Lisa Lu in “Bonanza” and THE MOUNTAIN ROAD and CHINA DOLL: Rare Hollywood Films about the War in China. When “Pocketful of Stars” re-aired on the Encore Western Channel last week, I re-watched it and took some screen shots so I could do a piece on it here.
“Pocketful of Stars” is set against the background of Chinese workers employed to build the railroad. As with the Bonanza episode, “Day of the Dragon,” a certain amount of contrivance is required to get the Chinese woman played by Ms. Lu into an alliance with the series protagonist, Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker). But once they’re together they have a number of excellent scenes together and Ms. Lu has quite a substantial part, although not as dominant in the narrative as her character was in “Day of the Dragon.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan is currently showing an exhibit called “China Through the Looking Glass,” which runs until September 7, 2015. It takes up space on three floors (including the Anna Wintour Costume Center) and offers dozens of outfits and costumes by famous designers based on Chinese motifs and inspirations, along with other art objects (vases, sculptures, installations) and other commercial objects (e.g., perfumes).
What grabbed my attention most were the various screens in the galleries on which were projected film clips from famous Chinese, Hong Kong and Hollywood films. I counted a total of 24 films represented, most of them well-known, with only one completely new to me. They were grouped by eight chosen themes. Six of the themes ran montages of three to five films each on continuous loops, while two themes stuck to one film each. The screens showing these film clips accompanied display cases featuring costumes or art objects related to the theme.