Wellman’s last silent/first talkie: Chinatown Nights (1929)

Florence Vidor in 'Chinatown Nights'

No time tonight to write a long posting, but I just wanted to say that I’ve seen yet another Wellman pre-Code. This one, Chinatown Nights, a romantic gangster melodrama starring Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor and Warner Oland,  isn’t a great film – though I saw it on an extremely grainy unofficial DVD, and I’m sure it would look much better in a restored print on the big screen. I know it has been shown at one or two festivals so presumably there must be a better print available. The cinematography, by Henry Gerrard, who also worked on Wellman’s classic Beggars of Life, was clearly stunning, with haunting scenes full of dramatic shadows – even though a lot of this has been lost in the print I saw.

Wallace Beery and teenager Jack McHugh

Anyway, even in shades of grey with loads of background noise, it is a fascinating movie for anyone interested in Wellman’s career. It is based on Tong War, a story by Samuel Ortiz, who was later one of the Hollywood Ten, and continues Wellman’s theme of focusing on the poor and dispossessed in society. One character in particular, a homeless, wandering boy known only as “the Shadow”, played by 15-year-old Jack McHugh, very much shows the way forward to Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road he is first seen sticking his head out of a dustbin, just as a young boy does in a memorable scene in that great film of the Depression. I also believe this is probably Wellman’s first surviving gangster film – his earlier Ladies of the Mob is sadly a lost film – and there is a spectacular shootout at a Chinese theatre, where the gunfire merges with the sound of fire crackers, as well as a tragic scene where McHugh’s character is shot down in the street while running away.

As well as being interesting to Wellman fans, this is also a key film for anyone looking at the change from silents to talkies. He started off making it as a silent, but I’ve read that when it was a third completed Paramount and associate producer David O Selznick decided to turn it into a talkie. Filming was completed and then the synchronised dialogue was added afterwards, together with music and sound effects. Because the dialogue was added later, the film doesn’t have the static quality of so many early talkies – as there was no need to stand around near a microphone. However, some of the strongest scenes are still silent, despite the cinema ads proclaiming the movie as “all-talking!”  – and according to the Silent Era website’s entry on the film, it was  initially released in the US in both talkie and silent versions. I must say I suspect the silent version would have been better, since to me the dialogue often feels clunky and tagged on. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that silent film star Florence Vidor refused to dub her own voice and retired from acting at the end of filming, not willing to work in talkies. So uncredited actress Nella Walker, whose voice sounds rather prim and harsh, was drafted in to record the dialogue in her stead. (I don’t know what Vidor’s own voice was like, but find myself hoping it wasn’t like this.)

Of course, the uneasy juxtapostion of silent and talkie sequences isn’t the film’s only problem to a modern audience. As you might guess from the title, and the casting of Warner Oland as a sinister Oriental, the movie is full of  stereotypes of Chinese characters, which is probably a reason why it is largely forgotten. New York’s Chinatown is presented as a dangerous and sinister dark underworld, where white people are half-frightened to venture – although they can’t resist buying tickets for coach tours through the shadowy streets, peering at people wandering into clubs and opium dens. Both the beginning and the ending of the film feature these tours. It struck me that Wellman, and the writers, rather have their cake and eat it by tempting the audience to watch this lurid version of Chinatown, but at the same time mocking them through the portrayal of the white tourists within the film, who are characterised as ignorant “rubberneckers”.

Despite the Chinatown setting, the main characters are in fact white and most of the Chinese characters are kept in the background. Florence Vidor stars as society woman Joan Fry, who goes on one of the coach tours but sees a gangland shooting and stops to help. She is then abducted by the white leader of a Chinese gang, Chuck Riley (Beery), promptly falls wildly and improbably in love with him, and gives up her comfortable life to become his moll. However, when he tires of her and throws her out into the streets, she becomes a prostitute and also hits the bottle. The situation is complicated by Chuck’s bitter conflict with rival Chinese gang leader “Boston” Charley (Oland)  – and by an interfering newspaper reporter, played by Jack Oakie, who has one or two enjoyable comic scenes.

The film is very episodic and bitty, but there are some great episodes – like the scene where Vidor is trapped in Chuck’s room and keeps staring out through a square window, as well as a surprising moment where she and Beery declare their love by showing each other their favourite verses from Shakespeare. Vidor is reported as saying that it was ridiculous to cast her opposite Beery – and they certainly seem an odd couple, but I suppose that was the point.

For further reading, here’s a link to a great piece at the Vitaphone Varieties blog.

Florence Vidor in 'Chinatown Nights'

Wallace Beery behind his desk

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8 thoughts on “Wellman’s last silent/first talkie: Chinatown Nights (1929)

  1. What an interesting post, Judy. Another Wellman I’m not familiar with, though it sounds like a seminal point in his career since it’s probably his first gangster movie and also his first talkie. Does it bear any resemblance to THE HATCHET MAN in any way? And another question (written facetiously): who could fall in love with Wallace Beery? :) Florence Vidor looks much too pretty to make that mistake. As you said, it’s improbable. Over all, CHINATOWN NIGHTS sounds like it’d be worth a watch. Thanks for the review.

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    • Thanks, CagneyFan – interesting question, I was on the lookout for similarities with ‘The Hatchet Man’, but didn’t really spot many, to be honest. I suppose both films have a feeling of Chinatown being a separate world with its own laws, and also Beery and Robinson are both isolated by their roles as underworld boss, but that’s about it… though if I watched ‘The Hatchet Man’ again I might notice more.

      I didn’t mean to comment on Beery’s looks, but on the unlikelihood of a woman falling in love with a gangster who has abducted her – but, having said that, I agree there is something incongruous about the two of them as a couple, although I get the impression they were deliberately cast together for that reason. Anyway, if you do get to see this one I’d be interested to hear what you think, but must warn you again that the print I saw was terrible! Many thanks again.

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  2. “I must say I suspect the silent version would have been better, since to me the dialogue often feels clunky and tagged on.”

    Aye Judy, that’s a vital point there, and the main thrust of your review (where you further elaborate on the film’s episodic thrust) indicates this film was a carry over that may have been more comfortable remaining the way it was originally conceived. The further revelation that Florence Vidor (yes, she’s a very pretty woman) refused to cross the line to talkies indicates the production wasn’t really ready for the change. Still, your thorough review (and you said you wouldn’t write much? Ha!) unearths some rewarding components, and segments -like the one where they repeat verses from Shakespeare.

    “New York’s Chinatown is presented as a dangerous and sinister dark underworld, where white people are half-frightened to venture – although they can’t resist buying tickets for coach tours through the shadowy streets, peering at people wandering into clubs and opium dens. Both the beginning and the ending of the film feature these tours. It struck me that Wellman, and the writers, rather have their cake and eat it by tempting the audience to watch this lurid version of Chinatown, but at the same time mocking them through the portrayal of the white tourists within the film, who are characterised as ignorant “rubberneckers.”

    The stereotyping of the Chinese characters is of course unfortunate as is the rather over-the-top depiction of Chinatown as a shady place of menace and danger. I guess from a visual standpoint this stands out, but it presents a rather scandelous portrait.

    You’ve penned a fascinating essay here Judy. I hung with every word.

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    • Thank you very much, Sam, much appreciated! Well, this review is shorter than a lot of mine, and I didn’t get on to the film’s ending, which has a few rather sentimental twists – but I’m trying to write more concisely at the moment. Yes, I’ve said that before! I believe the studio insisted on converting the movie to a talkie at a late stage and so I’m sure you are right it would have been better staying as a silent, as it was originally conceived.

      You are absolutely right about the portrayal of Chinatown standing out from a visual standpoint but the stereotyping and scandal being unfortunate. I should have said that I am taking it to be set in New York’s Chinatown because Mordaunt Hall said so in his review on release in the New York Times, but I’ve also seen a review which claims it is supposed to be San Francisco’s Chinatown! I don’t think this is ever stated either way in the movie. Florence Vidor was also in Wellman’s earlier silent ‘You Never Know Women’, which is one sometimes shown at festivals.

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  3. Just saw this intriguing film last night at the Film Forum Theatre in New York City in a wonderful print and it was great. The idea of dubbing in the dialogue after the fact works great here and I’m surprised it wasn’t done more often in the early days since it enables all the visual flexibility of a silent film and the dialogue somehow packs more of a wallop because of the acoustical immediacy, probably one reason it was frequently done that way in Europe for decades thereafter. Beery delivers his usual powerful and nuanced performance, not just carrying the picture but rocketing it forward. Any Wallace Beery admirers (he’s my own favorite actor) should make a point of seeing this. I’ve been thinking about it nonstop all day.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Michael – it must have been great to see this in a good print and on the big screen. The whole Wellman festival at the Film Forum sounds great; pity I’m on the other side of the Atlantic.. but maybe some of the films featured will turn up in London in the future and I might get a chance to go along.

      I’m interested to hear that you feel dubbing the dialogue later worked so well – my memory is that I felt this film might have been better if left silent, but I really haven’t seen it to full advantage, as you have. I definitely agree with you that Beery admirers should check it out. Thanks again!

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  4. The big problem with leaving it silent (and Beery made scores of silent films, of course, starting at least as far back as 1915) would be that the audience would miss the impact of his unique voice. (I guess the closest I’ve ever heard to Beery’s voice would be 1950s American television/radio host Arthur Godfrey, who was also quite Irish.) And the dubbing worked amazingly well when viewed with a good print on a big screen, very similarly to the long-term European approach I cited earlier. I have no idea why they didn’t do more of this. For some time, they’d shoot a foreign language version of a Hollywood film at night on the same sets before it occurred to anybody that dubbing would be a lot easier. Of course that’s why there’s a Spanish “Dracula” (1931) with a different cast and two or three different versions of Raoul Walsh’s stunning “The Big Trail” (1930; John Wayne’s first film) with different languages and casts shot on location all across the American West.

    I skipped another Wellman movie with Wallace Beery, “Beggars of Life,” this past Monday because I was so irritated that they were going to run another partly-sound film completely silent with piano accompaniment instead of using the soundtrack, which doubtless features a magnificent orchestration along with the first onscreen recording of Beery’s voice. I hated to miss it because it also featured another favorite, Louise Brooks, and she and Beery work wonderfully together (it was their second movie) but I literally can’t stand it when they take a transitional film with an orchestral soundtrack and run it silent with a pianist. The Museum of Modern Art here in Manhattan actually did that to “The Wind,” if you can possibly believe such a thing! At least, thankfully, they’ve never butchered Murnau’s “Sunrise” that way.

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  5. Oh, and two more things. Another forgotten Beery picture that you should definitely have a look at is Raoul Walsh’s “The Bowery” (1933), the most refreshingly politically incorrect movie I’ve ever seen. The homicidally underrated George Raft is particularly fine in it as well, along with Fay Wray during the same year she did “King Kong” as well as “Viva Villa” with Beery. If you haven’t beheld it, you’ll have to pinch yourself that you’re really seeing some of the things that go on in it, like 10-year-old Jackie Cooper throwing rocks through the windows in Chinatown and hitting a kerosene lamp, with the resultant fire burning the building to the ground, killing everybody in it as they scream desperately for help out the windows. When Beery tells Cooper not to do that again, the child responds, “They was just Chinks.” It ranks with “Manhattan Melodrama,” made the following year and in which Myrna Loy leaves Clark Gable for William Powell (before “The Thin Man”), as my two favorite forgotten films. Both are towering masterpieces, utterly forgotten (except that Dillinger had just seen “Manhattan Melodrama” immediately before being murdered).

    The Museum of Modern Art did a Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. retrospective here several years ago that amazed me, and I have to note that the actor in this year’s great film “The Artist,” made like a transitional film, captured Fairbanks’ astonishing joie de vivre perfectly. I can’t overstate how much I love that movie.

    And also, I enjoy your site enormously and hope that you keep it up! I’ll be reading.

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