The Dastardly Past: The Front Page.
On August 14, 1928, a new kind of play debuted at the Time Square Theatre in Manhattan. Called The Front Page, it was a raucous comedy about unscrupulous pressmen and crooked politicians, set against the impending execution of a wrongly convicted criminal. The playwrights, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, drew from their own days as journalists in the Chicago of the 1910s and 1920s. While some critics complained of the play’s coarseness and cynicism, it was nevertheless a smash hit. It has been revived successfully on Broadway numerous times and made into successful films, including Howard Hawks’ deft adaptation entitled His Girl Friday (1940), with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the lead roles.
The Dastardly Past: Robert Shaw.
On August 9 in 1927, actor and writer Robert Shaw was born in Lancashire, England. Known for playing tough guys, Shaw was a Bond villain opposite Sean Connery in From Russia with Love (1963). My favorite of his roles, however, is Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster who menaces Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting (1973). His character’s distinctive limp was an actual injury Shaw sustained a week before filming began. He wore a leg brace throughout the movie’s production, which somehow made his character even more threatening. Shaw went on to play several more distinctive parts until 1978 when his life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 51.
The Dastardly Past: Revisiting Charlie Chan.
Several weeks ago, I posted about Charlie Chan at the movies in The Scarlet Clue. The question came up about why the world’s most famous Chinese detective was played by European-American actors? This led me to pick up a book by Yunte Huang entitled Charlie Chan: the Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (2011). The book itself is well written in an academic way although, as some reviewers have mentioned, it regularly strays from its subject. Nevertheless, I found much of interest. Charlie Chan fans should definitely take a look at it.
So why didn’t they use Asian actors for Chan? Well, in the first two Charlie Chan productions, filmed in the silent era, they did. The first starred George Kuwa, the second Kamiyama Sojin. So, on the plus side, the first two Charlie Chans were Asian. On the minus side, they were both natives of Japan—and let’s not delve any further into the thought processes of the producers who cast them. As it turned out, neither of these Chan films proved popular at the box office.
So when it came to sound motion pictures, why did Hollywood break with recent precedent by casting European-American actors? If I understand him correctly, Huang attributes the reason to what he calls “cultural ventriloquism.” He uses 19th century minstrel shows to illustrate what he means. In minstrelsy, black and white entertainers alike put on blackface to “safely” caricature African Americans and diminish their perceived threat to the social order. In the 1930s and 1940s audiences concerned about immigration and international unrest would pay to see racial stereotypes, but the real thing was far too scary. So in the same way that Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood caricatured a real theatre in China, Warner Oland and Sidney Toller provided a caricature of what a real Chinese detective might be.
To his credit, Warner Oland did study the philosophy and art of China and worked at learning Mandarin. He also wore minimal make-up, attributing his appearance to his Russian mother’s central Asian ancestry. In contrast, Sidney Toller’s ancestry derived from central Missouri, and he relied on heavier treatments from the make-up department.
The Dastardly Past: James Cagney.
How do you write a short piece on one of classic Hollywood’s most notable personalities? On June 17, 1899, James Cagney was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His career spanned thirty years—fifty if you count the years between his penultimate move, One, Two, Three, and his last production, Ragtime. During his career he demonstrated an uncanny ability to succeed in most genres, from gangsters to song-and-dance men to westerns. His comedic timing was brilliant, and he brought a frightening intensity to his non-gangster dramatic roles.
Perhaps the best way to acknowledge his life and talent is to ask for peoples’ top three favorite Cagney films. Mine are One, Two, Three, 13 Rue Madeleine, and The Public Enemy. Or perhaps their favorite Cagney moments, like tap-dancing down the stairs of the White House in Yankee Doodle Dandy, snickering over a comic book in Mr. Roberts, or shoving a grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy.
So for the record, what are your Cagney favorites?
The Dastardly Past: Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour
On July 12, 1931, the movie Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour was released (it was entitled The Sleeping Cardinal in Great Britain). It starred Arthur Wontner in his first Holmesian role, with Ian Fleming (no, not that Ian Fleming) as Watson. Wontner starred in four more Sherlock Holmes stories during the 1930s. His second Holmes movie, The Missing Rembrandt (1932), is officially considered a lost film. Luckily, however, the Internet Archive has made the others available for viewing online https://archive.org/
The Dastardly Past: Background to Danger (1943).
On July 3, 1943, Warner Bros. released espionage thriller Background to Danger, starring George Raft, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. Critics agreed that it was an above-average World War II adventure. Eric Ambler’s novel Uncommon Danger provided the basis for the script, which was another of the Warner screenplays to which William Faulkner contributed during his time as a contract writer in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Dastardly Past: Robert Traver.
June 29 marks the birth–1903–of attorney John D. Voelker, pen name Robert Traver. Traver’s best-known work is Anatomy of a Murder, which producer/director Otto Preminger promptly adapted for the screen (starring a scruffy James Stewart and sultry Lee Remick). The book is as riveting as the movie. Noir author James M. Cain, reviewing it for the New York Times in 1958 condemned the writing as naive, the subject as stale, and the organization as “jackleg” (???). “Nevertheless, however, and yet,” Cain continued, “it held me as few books have. I couldn’t put it down.” The public agreed. Anatomy of a Murder, both book and movie, have remained classics for nearly 60 years.