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.
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.”
Chinese-American actress Lisa Lu turns 88 today, January 19, 2015, and, as of this writing, is still active in the business. I’ve written about her in past entries (see THE MOUNTAIN ROAD and the Bonanza episode, “Day of the Dragon” ) and have made an effort to track down some of her numerous TV appearances in the 1950s and ’60s, finding some on Encore’s Western Channel, some on YouTube and some on DVD.
About a year ago, I picked up a DVD called “Top TV Westerns” that included a 1961 episode of “Laramie,” entitled “Dragon at the Door,” that happened to be about a troupe of traveling Japanese entertainers out west, with the lead character played by Japanese actress Nobu McCarthy. I was intrigued by the episode’s respectful treatment of its Japanese characters, avoidance of stereotype, and the honest depiction of culture clash in the interaction between the two American stage drivers, the series’ regular protagonists, and the five Japanese characters. I wondered how many other TV western episodes featured Asian guest stars like this and I did some research and found quite a few, including an episode of “Wagon Train” with Sessue Hayakawa as a traveling samurai (“The Sakae Ito Story”); an episode of “Rawhide,” in which Miyoshi Umeki played a geisha out west (“Incident of the Geisha”); and an episode of “Cheyenne,” in which the title character, working for a railroad, finds himself with a Chinese “bride,” played by Lisa Lu, whom he has to care for until he can reunite her with her father and send them back to San Francisco (“Pocketful of Stars”). After those, the one I most wanted to see was “Day of the Dragon,” an episode of “Bonanza,” guest-starring Lisa Lu and also featuring such august Asian-American performers as Philip Ahn and Richard Loo, along with series regular Victor Sen Yung, who played the Cartwrights’ cook, Hop Sing. I found this episode in a Bonanza box set of the series’ third season.
I’ve been on a World War II kick lately, seeing lots of movies and documentaries, with an emphasis on the war in the Pacific and the war in China. I watched “The Battle of China” (1944), the sixth film in the Why We Fight series, and followed up with FLYING TIGERS (1942), the John Wayne film about the famed unit of volunteer American pilots who fought the Japanese in defense of China well before the U.S. entered the war. This led to two films in my collection that were among the very few postwar Hollywood films to focus on the war in China–CHINA DOLL (1958) and THE MOUNTAIN ROAD (1960). The two films offer contrasting portrayals of Chinese women. I’ll deal with MOUNTAIN ROAD first, because it took great pains to avoid the usual formulaic approach of Hollywood war films. It’s about an American demolition crew working to blow up roads and bridges that the Japanese might use in their advance through China. There are eight men in it, driving four trucks and led by Major Baldwin, an engineer who had requested this assignment because he wanted to have at least one command on his belt before the war ended. He’s played by James Stewart as an ordinary American, a builder who’s put in with other American working joes in the interior of a country they know nothing about. He’s not used to having the power that comes with leading such a crew and making decisions that impact so many lives—there are hundreds of Chinese refugees seen constantly flowing by as they flee the Japanese—and he comes to relish that power. He picks up a Chinese officer, Colonel Kwan (Frank Silvera), to act as interpreter and liaison with local Chinese units they encounter, along with a Chinese woman, Madame Sue-Mei Hung (Lisa Lu), an officer’s widow seeking transport to the same destination as the Americans. Madame Hung was educated in America and speaks fluent English.