BOOTLEG FILES 626: “Daughter of the Dragon” (1931 thriller starring Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Politically incorrect content makes it difficult to sell in today’s too-touch environment.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe someday.
In 1913, English writer Sax Rohmer published the crime thriller “The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu,” focusing on the elaborate homicidal activities of the brilliant yet deranged white-hating Chinese criminal mastermind. At a time when Western attitudes to the Chinese ranged from suspicious to violently hostile, the outlandish Fu Manchu was politically incorrect long before that toxic phrase was coined.
Of course, an over-the-top villain like Fu Manchu was a natural for the movies, offering audiences both a great villain and an excuse to perpetuate anti-Chinese sentiments. Due to the attitudes of that bygone era, Fu Manchu was always played by a white actor wearing fairly ridiculous yellowface make-up and speaking in broken English.
The 1931 Paramount Pictures “Daughter of the Dragon,” which was based on Rohmer’s characters, retained the white man in yellowface make-up shtick by having Swedish actor Warner Oland as Fu Manchu, a role he played in “The Mysterious Fu Manchu” (1928) and “The Return of Fu Manchu” (1929). But “Daughter of the Dragon” was unique because it also featured a pair of actors of Asian heritage in the leading roles: Chinese-American star Anna May Wong and Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa.
Hayakawa broke barriers in Hollywood during the silent era as the first nonwhite actor to achieve recognition in starring roles, most notably in the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille drama “The Cheat.” By 1922, Hayakawa felt stifled by limited options in Hollywood and resettled in Europe, continuing to headline in British and French productions.
In the year that Hayakawa left for Europe, San Francisco-born Anna May Wong achieved her own film stardom in “The Toll of the Sea,” which was also notable as the first Technicolor feature film. Wong’s subsequent roles were supporting parts that played up her exotic looks, including the Douglas Fairbanks version of “The Thief of Bagdad” (where she played a slave girl in old Iraq) and “Peter Pan” (where she was the American Indian Princess Tiger Lily). Not unlike Hayakawa, she felt that Hollywood was stifling her fullest potential, and she moved to Europe to star in film and theatrical productions where she was not trapped by racial boundaries.
Both Hayakawa and Wong highlighted successful silent Paramount features during their Hollywood years, and the studio expressed interest in having them return for the sound film era. Wong had already starred in a few British films and appeared on stage, so there was no problem with her speaking voice. Hayakawa had returned briefly to Hollywood in 1929 to star in the Vitaphone short “The Man Who Laughed Last,” and the studio seemed confident that he could handle a dialogue-heavy role.
It would be tonic to report that having Hayakawa and Wong together could erase the yellowface antics of Warner Oland and raise “Daughter of the Dragon” to a higher level. Alas, the film is a rickety mess that traffics in tiresome stereotypes and offers very little of value in terms of entertainment or sociological progress.
Set in London, the film continues Fu Manchu’s long-running hatred of the Petrie family, a British clan that he blamed for the deaths of his wife and son in China’s Boxer Rebellion. Although it was believed Fu Manchu died 20 years earlier, Chinese secret agent Ah Kee (Hayakawa), who is working with Scotland Yard, insists that he saw Fu Manchu alive in a London street. What Ah Kee and his British counterparts do not realize is that Fu Manchu is in town to find his daughter, a theatrical performer known as Princess Ling Moy (Wong). She is in love with Ronald Petrie, the handsome son of Sir John Petrie, who is Fu Manchu’s enemy. But Princess Ling Moy doesn’t know that she is the daughter of Fu Manchu.
Are you confused yet? Well, it gets worse. Fu Manchu poisons Sir John through his tobacco, but Ah Kee shoots Fu Manchu, but the Chinese fiend manages to escape and reunite with his daughter. When she learns her heritage, she agrees to become the “man-daughter” who will carry out her father’s homicidal plans for revenge against the Petrie clan. Father and daughter stage a scene that will allow the police to kill him, thus enabling her to carry out his plan to kill Ronald without arousing police suspicion. But, alas, Ronald is the fey blonde Englishmen that women in the 1930s were mad about, and Princess Ling Moy is too gaga over him to end his life. Oddly, she is less interested in Ah Kee, who is gaga for her. You don’t need a degree in mathematics to figure out how this all adds up.
For a film running under 70 minutes, “Daughter of the Dragon” packs a ton of plot into a tight running time. Alas, director Lloyd Corrigan – better known as a comic actor and writer – did not seem comfortable with the material. As a result, “Daughter of the Dragon” has a stodgy, stagy style that makes it look like a filmed play rather than an original motion picture, with a supporting cast given to overacting and a production that puts more emphasis on costumes and sets than on credible screenwriting. By today’s standards, the racist Yellow Peril aspects of the script makes it near-unwatchable, even though it also features a heroic Chinese law enforcement character working one step ahead of his white counterparts and a Pre-Code suggestion of interracial love.
As for the acting, Oland is perversely entertaining in his yellowface act – he would go on to immortality as Charlie Chan in the 20th Century Fox’s long-running series – while Wong’s sexy personality compensates for the weakly drawn character that she was required to play. Unfortunately, Hayakawa’s line readings are stiff and burdened by his heavy accent – he obviously realized his shortcomings and left Hollywood for Japanese and European films, not returning to an English-language role until “Tokyo Joe” in 1949.
“Daughter of the Dragon” is also recalled today for one of the post appalling examples of inequality in actor pay: Wong, while top billed, received $6,000 for her input, compared to $10,000 for third-billed Hayakawa and $12,000 for second-billed Oland, who only appears in the first third of the film.
Paramount controls the rights to “Daughter of the Dragon,” but it never considered it worthy for home entertainment release. Some blurry copies can be found in unauthorized YouTube postings, while a clean print can be enjoyed in a TCM broadcast of the flick on March 4. However, any attention given to “Daughter of the Dragon” is strictly for its curio value and not for any artistic considerations. Quite frankly, this dragon has no flame.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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