Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Daughter of the Dragon

Before he was Charlie Chan, Warner Oland essayed the role of Fu Manchu in three movies from Paramount Studios in the early talkie days: “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu” (1929), “The Revenge of Fu Manchu” (1930) and “Daughter of the Dragon” (1931). (Oland also played Fu Manchu in a skit in “Paramount on Parade” (1930), a film I’d love to see someday).

I had never seen any of these until last night, when I pulled out a tape of “Daughter of the Dragon”, which TCM ran several months ago as part of their examination of Asian portrayals in cinema.

It was a lot of fun. It’s deliriously pulpy in a way that so many early 1930s movies can be. Unfortunately, Oland’s Fu Manchu checks out early, about the 20-minute mark, leaving daughter Ling Moy (Anna May Wong) to carry out his vengeance against the Petrie family. Fu Manchu holds Dr. Petrie (Holmes Herbert) responsible for the death of his family, and is going to return the favor with Petrie’s son (Bramwell Fletcher).

In the series of Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu’s opponents were the imitation Holmes and Watson characters of Sir Nayland Smith and his assistant Dr. Petrie. Nayland Smith makes no appearance in “Daughter of the Dragon”, which is disappointing to followers of the books. In fact, it’s been years since I read “Daughter of Fu Manchu” but nothing in “Daughter of the Dragon” looked familiar to me so I suspect that, like the much more elaborate “Mask of Fu Manchu” produced by M-G-M a year later, only the title of the book survived.

“Daughter of the Dragon” is eminently watchable for its 70-minute running time, but it really kicks into high gear during the last 20 minutes, what with kidnappings, poisonings, secret passageways, dramatic last minute rescues and a (potential) eye torture scene that had me squirming.

I would like to see Oland’s other Fu Manchu performances. He’s OK here, but not the gloriously evil Fu Manchu I remember from the books. Here he’s too easily dispatched; the Fu Manchu of the books is more of a mysterious, unstoppable presence. I also prefer my Fu Manchu creating elaborate plans to take over the world, rather than a mere revenge story told here.

Interestingly enough, the hero of the film is not whiny Bramwell Fletcher, but a Scotland Yard detective played by the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa. He becomes immediately smitten with Ling Moy – who wouldn’t? – but doesn’t forget that she is carrying on her father’s wishes. Their final scene is quite poignant and moving, and a good reminder that the more these Pre-Code gems are unearthed, the more we see that Hollywood did allow minorities to play roles beyond the stereotypical servant. Not often of course, but enough to say that not ALL Hollywood movies dealt in stereotypes.

For fans of Universal horror films, we get Bramwell Fletcher, unforgettable in his opening mad scene in “The Mummy.” (1932). His Petrie Jr. is stunningly ineffectual; it’s a good thing Hayakawa is around to take care of Ling Moy, because Petrie isn’t up to the task. Petrie’s romantic interest, before Ling Moy enters the picture, is played by Frances Dade, who played Lucy to Lugosi’s Dracula the previous year.

Rumors abound that TCM is negotiating with Universal, holder of the rights of the pre-1948 Paramount library, to show more early 1930s Paramount titles. I hope so, and I hope that package includes the earlier Fu Manchu movies. I bet they’d be fascinating to see.

Rating for “Daughter of the Dragon”: Two and a half stars.

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