1929) a chance.2012
This film, written by Arnold Bennett, is notable for several reasons, but let's cut right to the chase. Anna May Wong, officially billed below Gilda Gray in a real travesty, absolutely owns this picture. This is one of the best showcases of anyone, period, not just in a silent film or for an Asian performer.
Overall, this is an excellent film drama that any fan of silents absolutely must see. Right from the title sequence, with its original parade of city buses to announce the credits, we can see that we are in for something
completely different, and we get it.
Anna May Wong stars as Shosho, an Asian kitchen worker who likes to
dance when she's supposed to be working. Looking for something original
to replace the delightful but outworn dance act of Mabel (Gilda Gray)and Victor (Cyril Ritchard), upscale club boss Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) decides to take a chance on her as his main act. This opens a doorway to the Asian world of 1920s London and shows very definitely that they (and other minorities) are plain folks like everybody else, with their own passions and predilections and faults.
For me, the real star of the show (besides Wong, who dazzles throughout) is the direction. E.A. DuPont uses so
many techniques that later became commonplace that this doesn't look
like a silent-era film at all. Tracking shots, 360 degree pans,
lingering shots of inanimate objects, it's all there, making me wonder
several times if this wasn't actually a film from the late 1930s or
even much later. The fish-out-of-water theme also is quite advanced. My
personal favorite scene is when Wilmot first enters a darkened Chinese
restaurant in order to buy Shosho her (incredibly revealing) Asian
costume, and we follow him from the street, through the restaurant,
into the back rooms. Very moody, and gives a feel for the time and
place that I find lacking in Hollywood efforts of the same vintage.
The romantic triangle at the heart of the story is engaging and
believable. Mabel, who is romantically involved with Wilmot, doesn't
take kindly to Shosho muscling in on both her professional and personal
lives. Shosho, though, is no wallflower. When she is first shown
putting her hand on Wilmot's, it is quite affecting. Later, when Mable
confronts Shosho, it gets a bit melodramatic, but everything still
looks quite realistic. The title cards brilliantly captured words that
needed to be said, without excess or redundancy. The ending is a twist
that you likely won't see coming.
Unfortunately, due to the times, there was no kissing allowed for Ms. Wong. They were going to insert such a scene, but it was cut at the last minute. I don't know what they were afraid of, some of the taboos of the past make no sense - and didn't then, either. But she doesn't have to kiss anyone to make a statement about her seductiveness.
There is an especially intriguing scene that likely will stay with you
long after you see the film, and that is when Shosho and Wilmot go out
in public to a bar and witness a woman choosing to dance with a Black
man. This gets him unjustly kicked out of the bar. The scene underlines
the risqué nature of Shosho's and Wilmot's own affair, and contributes
to the film's moody atmosphere. It shows the limits of racial tolerance
of the day and illustrates how close to the edge Shosho and Wilmot
themselves are treading.
Charles Laughton, a rising young stage star at the time, is around early on in a scene as an unhappy diner who sets the plot in motion. In fact, the film is worth seeing for that bit
alone. But stay for the entire May Wong tour de force, you will enjoy it.
|Anna May Wong doing a little dance|
|Yes, Anna May Wong was the original dragon lady|
|Anna May Wong looking seductive|
|Deep in thought....|
|Anna May Wong knew how to wear a headress!|
|In another year, the Depression began....|
|Pre-Code cinema could be quite raw|
|She was called a dragon lady....|