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.
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.