Fates Worse Than Death: Red Barry

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China is at war! In the headquarters of General Fang, the elderly Wing Fu, known in the United States as a humble importer of Chinese goods, prepares to undertake a covert mission: he carries with him two million dollars in bonds, with which he is to secretly buy airplanes for the Chinese war effort (illegal under American neutrality laws). He takes with him the dedicated young Captain Moy, but it is clear that the mission will be dangerous: the Chinatown crimelord Quong Lee has already murdered three of Wing Fu’s associates, and all that stands between Quong Lee’s gang and the bonds is police detective Red Barry, “possibly the cleverest detective on the force,” already on the case of the Pell Street murders.

Meanwhile, Detective Barry has his own problems: although his immediate superior, Inspector Scott, considers Barry a great detective, the covert nature of many of his assignments make others suspicious: the police commissioner wants to take Barry off the Chinatown case and replace him with Valentine Vane, a foppish, glory-hungry “scientific detective” on loan from Scotland Yard. Barry tries to follow orders and stay away, but he keeps getting pulled back into the action, which first takes him to a theater in which a Chinese secret service man (disguised as an acrobat) is murdered, leading Barry to the ship on which Wing Fu and his bonds are to arrive in America. Also at the theater is someone else after the bonds: Natacha, a Russian dancer, swears that the bonds once belonged to her father and were stolen from him. She and her Russian cohort are determined to get back what is rightfully hers. Before the ship even pulls into port, the bonds are stolen from Wing Fu, leading to a fight on the docks with Quong Lee’s henchmen! That’s a lot of set-up, but it’s an indicator of just how much plot is stuffed into the thirteen chapters of Universal’s 1938 serial Red Barry!

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I’ll confess I wasn’t familiar with Red Barry before I started watching and researching this serial: like many of the serials, it was first a comic strip, which were a frequent source of film adaptations, just as comic books have proven to be in the last few decades. The comic strip Red Barry first appeared in March 1934, the first of many imitators to follow the success of Dick Tracy. (The artist/writer Will Gould is no relation to Tracy‘s creator Chester Gould. He is also not William Gould, who plays the Commissioner in this serial. While we’re at it, Western actor Don “Red” Barry has nothing to do with the comic strip or serial: he took his nickname through association with popular character Red Ryder, whom he had played on screen.)

The comic strip was popular enough to receive the Big Little Book treatment in addition to a serial adaptation; had it not ended in 1939 after only five years, it is likely it would be better remembered. Apparently, it wasn’t a decline in popularity or the strip’s high level of violence that led to its end: disputes with the syndicate and the heavy workload caused Gould to leave cartooning and begin a new–and easier–career in Hollywood. For many years it was considered a difficult strip to collect (the aforementioned violence meant it didn’t run in some newspapers), but a recent edition from IDW has reproduced the complete run in two volumes, and it is that which I have consulted.

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Like Dick Tracy, Red Barry was a gritty police procedural that didn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of law enforcement; Barry faces off against criminals with his fists and his gun, frequently outmaneuvering them through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. During the Depression, when lawlessness seemed to be everywhere, this new mode of “hard-boiled” crime fiction was very popular in both the comics and the pulps. The twist was that Barry was an “undercover man,” infiltrating criminal gangs and bringing them down from the inside, with only Inspector Scott knowing his real loyalty. Gould leavened the frequent fisticuffs and bloodshed with wry humor and colorful characters (as well as some unfortunate ethnic caricatures) drawn from his extensive experience as a newspaperman.

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Modern viewers of the serial will instantly recognize the formula that has been used in so many police stories: Barry is hounded by a clueless Commissioner and defended by his boss (Wade Boteler) because “he gets results;” Barry maintains contacts in the underworld and throughout the city, including would-be Chinatown detective “Hong Kong Cholly” (Philip Ahn, brother of Buck Rogers‘s Philson Ahn, and who is the only major player of Asian descent in this serial).

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His other source of support is Mississippi (Frances Robinson), the Southern-accented girl reporter for the Daily Press, who spends so much time in the offices of the police station (and even behind the wheel of a police car!) that she might as well be an honorary deputy. Although the serial doesn’t have Barry (played by serial icon Buster Crabbe, who had already played Tarzan and Flash Gordon, and would go on to play Buck Rogers) going undercover, it’s still reasonably faithful to the setup of the strip. Many of the supporting characters–Scott, Mississippi, Cholly, and Vane–are drawn from the comics.

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Mostly set in and around Chinatown, it would be easy for Red Barry to fall prey to the clichés of exoticism and Chinoiserie I discussed in the context of Shadow of Chinatown. Indeed, Asian actors and settings are used as a colorful backdrop for much of the story, but there is very little of the “Yellow Peril” in it. With its theme of Chinese self-defense opposed to official American neutrality, Red Barry is also more explicitly political than most serials (this has limits, however; presumably the war referred to is the struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Communists, but it is primarily a spark to get the story in America going). It is still a work of its time, however: Wing Fu and Quong Lee, the major Chinese characters, are played by white men, Syril Delevanti and Frank Lackteen respectively (see the Spoilers for more on this, however).

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As Hong Kong Cholly, Ahn plays the most stereotyped role, thickly-accented and obsequious to Red Barry (this is true to the original comics). As soon as the white people are gone, however, it is revealed that “Cholly” speaks perfect English: he is, in fact, Wing Fu’s son! (The shift in his dialogue may represent that the two are speaking Chinese in private, but it’s not entirely clear: either way, the clownish simpleton he appears to be around Red Barry is revealed to be an act.) As such, like Wing Fu he plays a dangerous game, respecting and relying on Red Barry and even helping him when it is in his own interest, but knowing that the mission to buy airplanes breaks American law.

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Natacha (Edna Sedgwick) is a similarly nuanced character, taking the initiative to correct the injustice done to her family. While she practically lives at the theater where she performs her act (a ballet number set to Tchaikovsky, of course), she maintains connections with some Russian toughs who hang out at Mama Sonia’s, a Russian restaurant. The lead Russian is Petrov, played by intense character actor Stanley Price, and he and the other Russians play the typical henchman roles, tailing people, breaking into their offices, and threatening them in their search for the missing bonds.

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Quong Lee also has his headquarters, behind the “Eurasian Café” in Chinatown, and his own gang of thugs, headed up by serial stalwart Wheeler Oakman as Weaver. In typical serial fashion, all three of the people trying to get the bonds delegate to people working for them or helping them, partly to keep the mystery drawn out–we can’t have Red Barry copping to the truth too quickly–and to keep the danger at arm’s length until the last few chapters, when they all have to get their hands dirty.

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The Chinatown and theater settings provide colorful backdrops for action and intrigue; many of the locations are returned to again and again, and almost all are riddled with secret entrances and exits, allowing Barry’s quarry to stay one step ahead and leading to some surprise confrontations. The fights, traps, and cliffhangers are generally well-executed and the pacing keeps things exciting and varied.

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The real strong point of this serial, however, is in the characterization: the antagonists have clear, contrasting motives that drive the plot forward and allow the characters to bounce off one another in various combinations. The mystery, while not deep, is tangled enough to justify the length it takes Barry to unravel it, and there are some twists (discussed below) that take the plot in new directions just when it seems that things may resolve according to formula. My one complaint is the sameness of the henchmen that I have in the past referred to as the “white guys in fedoras” problem: without context, it is not always clear whether the Russians or Quong Lee’s men are on screen, and when more than two sides of the conflict collide, the result is often as confusing for the audience as for the men involved. (At least Wing Fu’s men are Chinese, but even this is not always clear in wide shots.) This is not a huge problem, however, as dialogue usually clarifies the situation sooner or later, and when they get the spotlight it is always a pleasure to watch Stanley Price and Wheeler Oakman in action.

Finally, there is Red Barry himself. Once again, Buster Crabbe (here billed as “Larry,” as he often was in his earlier roles) proves why he was so effective anchoring the serials, whether fantastic or more down-to-earth. Crabbe’s Barry is not as rough-edged as the character in the comics, but he is cool-headed, competent, and diplomatic, even when assailed by doubts or in over his head. Putting him at the center makes it easy to see why his friends are so loyal to him. Red Barry is recommended viewing.

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Spoilers: As mentioned, Wing Fu and Quong Lee are both played by white men; in the case of Quong Lee, however, it turns out that he isn’t really Chinese within the story either! In Chapter Eight (“The Devil’s Disguise”), the audience learns that the Chinatown crimelord “Quong Lee” and Mannix, the mild-mannered theater manager, are one in the same! His real identity is Frederick Lee, a renegade white man run out of China. He is a master of disguise, using his theatrical skills to lead a double life and occasionally slip under the police’s noses when things get too hot. It turns out Red Barry isn’t the only “undercover man!” (William Ruhl plays the undisguised Mannix; it wasn’t that unusual for two different actors to play the same character in disguise in serials, either to throw the audience off or to make the “disguise” conceit more convincing.)

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In fact, there is another character who isn’t what he seems: in the Red Barry strip, Valentine Vane was a self-taught amateur detective who attempted to upstage the professionals, spoofing popular series character Philo Vance. In the serial, Vane (played by Hugh Huntley) is an annoying but apparently legitimate source of competition, a Scotland Yard detective brought in by the Commissioner because he lacks faith in Red Barry. In addition to his “scientific” airs, Vane is wealthy, and his mansion, complete with butler, archery range, and collection of automobiles, is a scene to which we return several times. At one point, when Red Barry, in possession of the bonds, is knocked unconscious, Vane takes them, supposedly so he can take credit for their recovery. This makes him underhanded, but not criminal. However, in Chapter Twelve (“The Enemy Within”), Vane makes his move, knocking Natacha unconscious and pulling a gun on the seemingly triumphant Mannix, demanding to split the proceeds from the bonds. “Valentine Vane” has been playing a long con all along, and beneath his “jolly good” cover he is actually an American grifter named Harry Dicer. He’s strung the Commissioner along until he was in a position to make a big score, and now he has his opportunity! Mannix and Vane team up for a while, at least until they inevitably betray each other and receive the punishment that is the just reward for all serial villains.

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Finally, while Wing Fu’s covert mission to buy airplanes for China runs afoul of American laws, changing circumstances mean that the bonds will be directed towards food and medicine for refugees. This humanitarian purpose is not against American law, and so Wing Fu and Red Barry are able to work together from Chapter Ten on. Ultimately, Natacha relinquishes her claim to the bonds when she learns they will be used for refugee aid, as she had been a refugee herself. Thus is the conflict resolved. 

What I Watched: Red Barry (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: TCM aired this serial, one chapter a week, on Saturday mornings for the last three months. I mostly watched it week to week but recorded the chapters to my DVR so I could review them. Unfortunately, I can’t take direct screenshots from my television like I can from my computer, hence the lower quality. Red Barry is also available on DVD.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Between Two Fires” (Chapter Nine)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Ten (“The False Trail”) ends with a car chase, the villain having lain in wait in a taxi and taken Red prisoner, and Mississippi following in a police car. When the shooting starts, Red (in the back seat) takes the opportunity to fight against his captor: the two struggle until the door opens, spilling Red out onto the roadway, where he appears to be run over by Mississipi’s close-following car (the key word being “appears,” of course).

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Sample Dialogue: “You can always find people you’re not looking for.” –a policeman on the lookout for Quong Lee, watching Mannix go by (Chapter Eight, “The Devil’s Disguise)

What Others Have Said: “I have long admired and raved about Red Barry as the one successful detective comic strip and the only one worthy of consideration, from my scholarly viewpoint. Vigorously in the Hammett tradition, with first-rate characters and clean-cut plots.” –letter from author Anthony Boucher to Forrest J. Ackerman, quoted in Red Barry: Undercover Man, Volume 1, IDW Publishing

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What’s Next: In two weeks I’ll return with a look at The Adventures of Captain Marvel!

 

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Fates Worse Than Death: Shadow of Chinatown and Big Trouble in Little China

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“China is here, Mister Burton.” –Uncle Chu (Chao Li Chi), Big Trouble in Little China

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Like most fans of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, I didn’t see it during its 1986 theatrical release, but came to love it through its repeated airings on cable and home video. Starring Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a clueless trucker drawn into a supernatural battle in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and full of martial arts action, special effects, and comic banter, it was one of those movies that if I ran across it on TV, I had to watch to the end (so I’ve seen the middle and ending many more times than the beginning). It was probably the beginning of a fascination with Orientalism–both the legitimate history and art of the Far East, but also those hybrids of detective, occult, and political fantasy produced in the West and collectively referred to as “Yellow Peril.”

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Although always questionable from a perspective of accuracy and cultural sensitivity, stories set in Chinatown have proven irresistible to pulp and comic book writers and filmmakers alike (one collection of pulp stories bears the memorable title It’s Raining Corpses in Chinatown). The idea of an enclave of exotic, unknowable foreigners at one’s doorstep, perhaps possessed of uncanny abilities and ancient wisdom, was catnip for writers who needed simple, lurid story hooks and artists who were tired of drawing white guys in fedoras.

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And of course, a story set in an Asian enclave in the West has a very different dynamic from one set in a purely Asian culture: one gets the sense of a hidden world, the door to which just happens to be a cab ride or subway stop away. Such stories are inevitably told from the perspective of a white (or at least non-Asian) outsider drawn into the web, pulling back the curtain to discover whatever is really going on behind the curio shops and chop suey palaces, be it the opium trade, “white slavery” (i.e., human trafficking), or a brewing tong war. A 1909 article about New York’s Chinatown summed up this juxtaposition of the exotic and the familiar in language that could have been pulled from any number of pulp stories or movies of later decades:

There it lies, unfathomed and unknown, in the very ear of the city where all things come to be known–where a pin dropped on the other side of the world is heard an instant afterward–contemptuous, blandly mysterious, serene, foul-smelling, Oriental, and implacable behind that indefinable barrier which has kept the West and the East apart since the centuries began. Within the boundaries of the three acres which it occupies, five thousand slant-eyed children of Cathay and three or four hundred whites, who have cast their lot with them, order their existence like rabbits in a warren.

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Really, it’s all there: physical stereotyping, the “inscrutability” of the Orient, even the “foul” smells of another culture. Hinted at in this excerpt, and persisting throughout the article (“Slumming in New York’s Chinatown,” reprinted in the book Tales of Gaslight New York), is the unshakable belief that the Chinese population is up to something, that they hide their real intentions and loyalty, and that their influence on whites can only be a corrupting one. Framed as an exposé, “Slumming in New York’s Chinatown” presents many of the same arguments that were used to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and which today target other immigrant populations. In this point of view, summed up nicely by the quotation with which this article began, Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves are really extensions of the Old Country: step in, and you are effectively in foreign territory.

So how can I justify being a fan of a genre frequently steeped in ugly stereotypes and often pointedly racist in its political undertones? Were I of Chinese descent, I am sure I would not be so blasé about such issues, and I would surely take them more personally. Here, at last, I must address an issue that I have circled and sometimes approached in this series, but never taken head on.

The serials (and the other pulp fiction and comics that I write about) were made during a time in which racism was not only a tolerated but an actively endorsed part of life–not by everybody, of course, as even in the days of Jim Crow laws and the kind of housing discrimination that led to the formation of Chinatowns and other ghettos in the first place, there were brave voices willing to speak up for equal treatment of their fellows–and their content often reflects prevailing attitudes, some of which seem merely quaint today and some of which were downright ugly. I hope it is clear to my readers, however, that I don’t bring up these attitudes to burnish my own image or simply congratulate myself for living in a more enlightened time. I genuinely enjoy the entertainment of this period, and while I may take a good-natured poke at the sillier contrivances I encounter, I wouldn’t bother with it if I didn’t find that it rewarded the time I’ve invested in watching and researching these films. If the writing, production, and cultural context of serials are worth taking seriously, then so are the issues of representation they bring up.

To me, this is an appropriate place to deploy the word “problematic:” it may be overused, but I think it accurately describes art that provides substantial entertainment or edification but which has issues that can’t simply be dismissed. After all, if a work has no redeeming value at all, that’s not really a problem, is it? It can be safely dismissed as racist trash. Rather than perform mental gymnastics to prove to myself that a given representation isn’t really offensive, just because I happen to like the work it is a part of, it’s probably healthier to simply acknowledge that we can enjoy works without endorsing every part of them or the politics that underlie them. (And here I’m not so much referring to Big Trouble in Little China, which I consider a knowing riff on Chinese fantasy themes, as I am the pre-war serials and stuff like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels; however, others may draw those lines in different places, and that also comes with the “problematic” territory.) For fans of the pulp era, that requires some self-examination to ensure that we’re not nostalgic for the wrong things (or for a world which was largely a simplified, fictional construct in the first place).

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Anyway, this is all preamble to this week’s serial: knowing that I would be attending a theatrical screening of Big Trouble in Little China (thanks to Big Screen Wichita’s Return of the Cults series) last week and that a remake of the film starring Dwayne Johnson is scheduled for 2016, it seemed like a perfect time to look back at a serial on a similar subject: Victory’s 1936 serial Shadow of Chinatown, starring Bela Lugosi. It turned out to be an even more illuminating comparison than I expected.

Lugosi, of course, needs no introduction: he’s an icon for his performance as the title character in Tod Browning’s Dracula, a role that fit him so perfectly he never really found another one to match it. The story of his decline is also well-known, as changing styles and his own drug addiction forced him into smaller, tackier films, including some truly awful garbage (and I’m not even referring to his final films with Edward D. Wood, Jr., which at least have their own kooky charm). Lugosi escapes Shadow of Chinatown with his dignity intact, however: while it’s not high art, the serial provides him with a role that allows him to purr seductively, rage and monologue, and employ the famously intense gaze (“more sinister than sinister” in the words of one character) that made him such a compelling vampire.

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Lugosi is first billed, but as the villain of the piece; the hero is played by Herman Brix (who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett). This is the third serial with Brix that I have watched, and the first one in which I was acutely aware of his shortcomings as an actor. Although John Taliaferro characterized Brix’s performance as the title character in The New Adventures of Tarzan as “stiff,” I thought he was fine in what was primarily a physical role; in the same vein, Brix was part of a trio of leads in Daredevils of the Red Circle, and had more stunts and fight scenes than spoken lines. Shadow of Chinatown gives Brix much more dialogue than either of those films and asks us to believe that he is simply a writer, unwillingly dragged into the action; and, much worse, gives him the task of engaging in “playful” banter with his female co-star, Joan Barclay, that would sound mean-spirited even if delivered by Cary Grant. Needless to say, Brix is no Cary Grant.

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As Shadow of Chinatown begins, Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters), the representative of a European department store syndicate, is scheming to eliminate competition from the merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She hires Victor Poten (Lugosi), a “Eurasian” scientist in need of funds, to help her destroy the merchants (at first by hiring white gangsters to dress up as Chinese and riot in the streets of Chinatown, scaring tourists away; later, the plans get more elaborate). It isn’t long before Poten is running things, controlling Rokoff through intimidation and (later) hypnosis. Although her plan was to put the Chinese out of business for her employers, Poten is motivated by hatred of “both the Oriental and Occidental races;” his ultimate goal is to begin a race of his own.

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It’s an interesting transformation for Lugosi’s character: in the first chapter he is little more than a henchman, with Rokoff calling the shots, and he wears a telephone repairman’s coveralls as he sneaks from place to place executing Rokoff’s orders. As his power and confidence grows, so do the abilities he displays: his technology becomes more like magic; he’s a master of disguise; he controls people by hypnosis. By the last few chapters, he has miniature spy cameras planted in the homes and offices of every prominent person in Chinatown: nowhere is safe from his prying gaze. In effect, he grows into a particularly intense version of the all-powerful, all-seeing mastermind of paranoid fantasy, Fu Manchu in all but name.

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The central joke of Big Trouble in Little China is that Jack Burton, for all his John Wayne swagger, is actually the comic relief sidekick: it’s his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who understands what is going on and has the connections and skills to rescue the damsels in distress and defeat the evil Lo Pan, while Burton loses his knife, forgets to take the safety off his gun, accidentally knocks himself out, and struggles to move after the one bad guy he kills falls on top of him. Burton has his moments, to be sure, but his role is summed up by an exchange in which he complains that he feels like an outsider and is told in no uncertain terms, “You are.”

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Surprisingly, Shadow of Chinatown plays with that dynamic as well, although not to the same degree. When Rokoff’s and Poten’s schemes start causing trouble in Chinatown, the mayor of San Francisco invites author Martin Andrews (Brix) to consult with the merchants on the basis of a book Andrews has written that makes him an authority on Chinatown. In reality, everything Andrews knows has been gleaned from his Chinese man servant, Willy Fu (Maurice Liu), who has been feeding him gossip (and his own fabrications) for use as story ideas.

Willy is the most clichéd character in the serial: he speaks with a heavy accent, addresses Andrews as “honorable master,” and is given to pseudo-Confucian aphorisms (“Detective instinct bloom like beautiful chrysanthemum in your honorable head!”). Willy is capable (especially at pushing Andrews to doing the right thing when he rather sensibly balks at getting involved with things the police should handle), but he never meets a stereotype he doesn’t lean into with gusto. In a final irony, Rokoff and Poten draw the methods of their attacks on Chinatown’s merchants from Andrews’ book, causing a suspicious police captain (Forrest Taylor) to treat the reluctant author as his number one suspect.

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The fact that most of the lurid preconceptions about Chinatown turn out to be false largely passes without comment, but it’s hard to miss. When eager reporter Joan Whiting (Barclay) tries to pump a police officer for information, she’s certain she’s on the trail of the kind of sensational story quoted above, rattling off the thrilling scenes she (and the audience) expect to see: “I want to know who started the trouble, which tongs are fighting, are there any hatchet men, how many people killed. . . .”

As the audience already knows, the “hatchet men” are impostors, and the troubles are completely the work of the Russian-sounding Sonya Rokoff (who may wear a “dragon lady” dress, but who doesn’t look Asian at all, and is described as being of “mixed blood”) and the “Eurasian” Victor Poten. In fact, the message (typical for the inter-war years) seems to be that the Chinese people want only to live in peace without trouble, but must remain vigilant against “foreign” agitators. Of course, this message of brotherhood with the Chinese comes at the expense of demonizing those of mixed heritage (and as I have argued, “Eurasians” and other unnamed foreigners were often code for powers with which America was not yet at war, left conveniently indeterminate), but baby steps, I guess.

In fact, the serial’s treatment of its female lead is more striking (and not always in a good way) than its Chinese window dressing (although again I don’t expect it to stand up to twenty-first century gender norms). Joan Whiting is a fantastic character, a gutsy woman who’s determined to get her story with a combination of chutzpah, gumption, and moxie. She pushes her way into rooms where she thinks she can get information, doesn’t take no for an answer, and, like Willy Fu, isn’t afraid to push other people into danger if it means getting to the bottom of the mystery. She and Martin Andrews have a combative relationship, with him continually insisting she should stay out of danger (even convincing the police and her editor to order her to stay away) and her finding ways to get back into the action, even as they secretly worry for each other’s safety.

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The banter between the pair (and this serial as a whole has a lot of memorable dialogue, including some absolutely cold put-downs) aspires to the irreverent and breezy, but too often it veers into mean-spirited: when Joan wonders if Poten is a mind reader, Martin says, “He’d draw a blank if he tackled you.” Boom, roasted! There’s a lot more where that comes from, and with Brix’s whitebread personality and rather flat delivery, it comes off like Bing Crosby at his most paternalistic, shutting down the little woman for her own good.

The His Girl Friday dynamic is much more successfully pulled off in Big Trouble in Little China, in the characters of Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Margo Litzenberger (Kate Burton), a crusading lawyer and reporter (with the Berkeley People’s Herald) looking for her big break respectively. Rewatching the film again this week it was clear how much Cattrall’s Gracie is a direct descendant of the brassy, fast-talking reporters of which Joan Whiting is a prime example. John Carpenter in his director’s commentary mentions his desire for a Howard Hawks-like “pop” to scenes where Gracie and Jack spar verbally, and expresses admiration for the speed with which Cattrall could spit out rapid-fire exposition. (It’s Margo who gets the real mouthful, however: “You mean David Lo Pan that is chairman of the National Orient Bank and owns the Wing Kong Import/Export Trading Company, but who’s so reclusive that no one’s even laid eyes on this guy in years?”, one of many moments that call attention to the film’s B-movie heritage).

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As an aside, one of the true pleasures of revisiting so many old favorites in the Return of the Cults series after having delved into serials and learning more about the history of film in general is in making these kinds of connections and adding new layers of enjoyment to movies I thought I knew well. Big Trouble in Little China is usually cited as Carpenter’s take on Wuxia (martial arts fantasy) movies; it is undoubtedly that, but realizing that it also falls firmly into the “Chinatown exposé” genre has allowed me to see it from a whole different angle, almost like a brand new film.

To return to Shadow of Chinatown, the most striking quality of this serial is its breadth of tone: although the ingredients are not always combined completely successfully, there are elements of action, suspense, horror, romance, comedy, and noir threaded through its fifteen episodes. That in itself is not so unusual for a serial, but the degree of change many of the characters undergo is striking. Often the formulas of pulp storytelling don’t allow for much character development (except in the sense that the villain might change from alive to dead by the end of the last chapter), but most of the characters are in very different places at the end of this serial and have revealed sometimes surprising truths about themselves through their actions. According to John Carpenter, one of the complaints leveled against Big Trouble in Little China was that audiences never felt the lead characters were really in any danger: there were no stakes. The same criticism could easily be leveled against most serials, including Shadow of Chinatown, but more than one character undergoes changes that couldn’t be predicted from the first chapter, and in all of this the original motivation–the European department store trying to eliminate Chinese competition–is little more than an afterthought. Towering above it all, Lugosi gives a performance that is bigger than a mere serial can contain.

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What I Watched: Shadow of Chinatown (Victory, 1936)

Where I Watched It: This serial is on YouTube, but the audio was badly out of sync in some of the chapters, so I ended up watching it at the Internet Archive.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death on the Wire” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: There are several good ones, including a few classics like the room with walls closing in (Chapter Two, “The Crushing Walls”) and a gruesome trap involving a poisoned needle embedded in a telephone receiver (the aforementioned “Death on the Wire”), but I think the cliffhanger most worthy of comment is at the end of Chapter Five (“The Sinister Ray”). Martin Andrews is knocked out in his home and Poten prepares a gruesome fate for him: he adjusts a suspended fishbowl so that the sun’s rays are focused on Andrews’ face, where it will burn him to death . . . eventually. Before moving the bowl, Potens orders his henchman, “Don’t hurt the fish!”

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Most Tragic Character: Special note must made of Poten’s henchman, Grogan (Charles King). Grogan starts out as a typical enforcer, doing Poten’s dirty work and taking his boss’s abuse when he fails to eliminate the meddling Martin and Joan. Sensing that he’s working for a madman, he appeals to Sonya, who is at first happy to have someone she might be able to keep on her side in the event of a split with Poten. When it’s clear that Grogan wants more than steady employment from her, she rebukes him and he threatens her. Then it starts getting weird: Grogan attempts to kill Poten on board a ship, but Poten manages to put Andrews in Grogan’s noose (at least temporarily). When Grogan is ready to talk to the police, Poten shoots him with a poison dart that makes him appear dead. Taking him from the ship’s sick bay, Poten revives Grogan and disguises him as an old man. From then on, he is a broken shell, susceptible to violent outbursts and nonsensical raving, but he is still in Poten’s thrall, taking orders to hurl a live grenade at our heroes or attacking Andrews on the roof of Sonya’s apartment building: a strange and gruesome fate for a character who at first seemed like just another disposable henchman.

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Sample dialogue: Grogan: “I’ll get him next time. He can’t make a sap out of me!”
Poten: “No, your parents already did an excellent job of that!”
–Chapter Three (“13 Ferguson Alley”)

What Others Have Said: “Yellow Peril . . . how can a phrase that reeks so of racism and paranoia yield a body of fiction so . . . cool?” –F. Paul Wilson, Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong (Foreword)

What’s Next: I haven’t decided. Maybe I’ll let it be a surprise. If you have any suggestions or requests for future serials, feel free to list them in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter. (Edit: I ended up covering Panther Girl of the Kongo.)

Film Review: Following the Ninth

It’s easy to be desensitized as a defense against hype; all around us we are being sold, told that something is the biggest, the best, the newest. Folding our arms and saying, “Oh, yeah? Prove it!” isn’t just reflexive cynicism, it’s practically a self-defense mechanism, the only way to protect ourselves against the barrage of pitches clamoring for our attention.  Arts advocacy, sadly, isn’t immune to hyperbole, and even well-meaning statements like Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Mozart Effect can overstate their cases, ringing hollow.  I’m as guilty as anyone else: music can be a powerful experience, and difficult to put into words. If we sometimes go overboard when speaking on its behalf, it’s because we have been transported, and words are rarely big enough to explain it.

Kerry Candaele (the director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and other documentaries) described himself in his 20s as full of “angst, existential dread, and spiritual maladies,” before his discovery of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically a cassette recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  The music touched him so deeply that he became a convert, digging into Beethoven’s music and wanting to pound on people’s doors, asking them, “Do you have Beethoven in your life?”  Fortunately, instead of doing that, Candaele wrote and directed Following the Ninth, which takes a different tack (I caught the film at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre Wednesday night, co-presented by the Tallgrass Film Association and Wichita Symphony Orchestra).

Following

Before Wednesday night’s screening of Following the Ninth, Candaele spoke briefly to those brought to the screening “not under their own free will,” seeking to allay their fears by stating up front that his film is not a biopic, and not an academic analysis of the music.  Indeed, as the film proceeded there were relatively few pronouncements from musical experts and almost no references to Beethoven’s biography, other than the fact that by the time he composed the Ninth (his last completed symphony) in 1824, he was completely deaf.  The film focuses squarely on individuals from China, Japan, Chile, and Germany, speaking in their own words (and with the support of copious historical and newly-filmed footage) about what the Ninth Symphony has meant to them.  Candaele makes his case for the power of art by example.

Following the Ninth celebrates the communal nature of Beethoven’s masterpiece, concentrating on times and places in which the complete work (especially the famous “Ode to Joy” of the last movement) gave solace or energy to people desperate for freedom, equality, brother- and sisterhood.  In 1989, mere months apart, demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and crowds celebrating the dismantling of the Berlin Wall adopted the Ninth as anthems under very different circumstances: the Chinese student demonstrators, represented by student leader Feng Congde, hijacked public PA systems and blared the Ninth Symphony to drown out official announcements and threats; in East Berlin, Lene Ford grew up being forced to sing Beethoven’s work in school, taught only that he was a “social revolutionary.”  After the collapse of the Wall (only two months after Lene’s brother had been shot trying to escape to the West!), the Ode to Joy symbolized a moment of sudden openness: for a young woman who had been spied upon by the Stasi simply because she had pen pals in other countries, “who were like fiction to me, because I knew I would never see them,” the experience of freedom was overpowering.

While the Chinese student demonstrations would be crushed by government force, and East Germany would be reunited with the West as the Soviet system crumbled, both Feng and Ford speak to the transformation they underwent during those events: the sense that they could do anything, that both they and the world had changed.  Ford comments that the feelings she experienced, and the welcome she received from West Germans the first day the border was opened, have stayed with her, forming a reserve of strength she has drawn on throughout her life since then.  At a concert after the Wall fell, conductor Leonard Bernstein famously changed a single word in the Ode from freude (joy) to freiheit (freedom)–a change not without some controversy; while both words were appropriate for the moment, it is the sense of utter joy that comes through as Ford recounts her story.  As for Feng, when he describes the plaster statue of a woman holding a torch aloft that the students erected in Tiananmen Square–an iconic image that was interpreted as a Chinese Statue of Liberty in the U. S.–he refers to her as Joy personified.

Feng’s recollections of his role in the protests dwell on the liberation of the students’ artistic impulses during the protests, and emphasize that the restriction of the Communist system was not only physical, but a sort of prison of the mind: while the protesters faced physical violence, they were protesting against a more pervasive “violence of culture,” in which art, music, and dance were all “bourgeois,” forbidden.  A sad irony of totalitarianism is that the same creative outlets were forbidden under the fascist government of Chile under General Augusto Pinochet: in the words of one activist, “there was no culture, because all culture was Left culture.” It was forbidden to sing Chilean folk songs or the “Himno de la Alegria,” as the Ode to Joy is known in Spanish, because of their association with popular socialist movements, or simply because the majority of musicians were known to have leftist sympathies. It is a reminder that, as Czech author Josef Škvorecký pointed out (in “Red Music”),

when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled–slavers, czars, führers, first secretaries, marshals, generals and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum–then creative energy becomes a protest. . . .  Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s) because it cannot be totally controlled; they loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that too evades control.

Some of the most harrowing passages in the film describe the paranoia and secrecy that marked Pinochet’s Chile, as suspected dissidents were “disappeared,” rounded up by the government for torture and (sometimes) execution.  Indeed, many of the public protests against Pinochet were led by women: so many of the men had been taken that the women left behind became the public voices of dissent, keeping the names and faces of the “disappeared” in the public eye and leading non-violent demonstrations (including singing the forbidden “Himno”).  Although Pinochet is gone, the recollections of the Chilean activists are bittersweet, with a sense of grievous loss that can only be processed through wry humor or simply by moving on.

Unlike the examples of the Ode taking on heightened significance at moments of political crisis, the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth has been an established tradition in Japan since World War I: professional orchestras, schools, and Daiku (“great nine”) associations stage hundreds of performances of the symphony every year in December, where it is associated with the New Year, similar to choral societies in the West that perform Handel’s Messiah and other works annually.  Candaele sits in on rehearsals with some of these groups, made up of amateurs who sing for both musical fulfillment and camaraderie; as in the West, Daiku choruses are civic and social as well as artistic in function, with a great emphasis placed on the value of cooperative endeavors.  Following the Ninth was six years in the making; at the outset of filming, Candaele could not have expected the horrific earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan in March 2011; but in the aftermath, Beethoven’s Daiku was an obvious symbol for the Japanese people to express their resilience and solidarity.

Following the Ninth is not a straight concert film, but it does roughly follow the order of Beethoven’s symphony, with the Ode to Joy as a recurring touchstone, introduced at the very beginning and referred to throughout the film (whereas in the symphony it is heard only in the final movement).  The four countries’ stories are intertwined, cutting back and forth, leaning on the similarities more than the differences (after all, the theme of the Ode is universal brotherhood).  Beethoven’s music is frequently heard in the background under dialogue or in tandem with footage of crucial events, but longer passages are also played over montages of images cut to match the rhythm of the music.  It’s in these sections that Following the Ninth comes closest to being outright manipulative: scenes of children playing, people marching, and breathtaking natural vistas are like cinematic candy–tasty but not very nutritious–and Beethoven’s music doesn’t need the extra juice.  Likewise, the scenes of goose-stepping German soldiers, Chinese tanks rolling over student encampments, and massive walls of water bearing down on the Japanese coast are chilling enough without Beethoven’s timpani or ominous harmonies making the point.

Still, even those scenes contribute to the film’s theme: the unity of mankind in all its diversity, as optimistically celebrated by poet Friedrich Schiller in the Ode that Beethoven would set to music in his monumental symphony; and the ways in which Beethoven’s music has been adopted and given meaning in settings quite different from that which he experienced.  Candaele opens the film with punk/folk singer Billy Bragg telling the story of the time he was invited to rewrite the words to Schiller’s Ode; like Bernstein’s change of a crucial word, that is sacrilege to some people, but it is similar to the way in which each person interviewed in the film has made Beethoven their own, and the way Candaele has used the symphony as a vehicle for telling their stories.  I think that’s the reason so little of Beethoven’s specific history is included in Following the Ninth: it’s already well-known, sure, but more importantly it’s beside the point.  For the Chilean and Chinese protesters, for the suddenly liberated East Germans, and for the Japanese coming together in the face of disaster, Beethoven’s music wasn’t history, or even a convenient symbol: it was alive and it was speaking to them in that moment.  I suspect that’s what we really mean when we say a work of art is “timeless,” and it’s the reason it’s so difficult to put into words after the moment is over.