Baseball — Black by Popular Demand

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and we celebrate it by continually producing movies that highlight its mythic status. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Field of Dreams (1989) baseball movies prove that there is indeed an intimate history between the sport and this country and a certain legendary-ness to a group of guys hitting balls with bats and racing around a huge diamond.

Sadly, baseball, like most other activities at some point in United States history, was also a segregated spectacle. So what is the best way (cinematically) to deal with this divided time in sports history? Why, with comedy, of course!

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What do you get when you put Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor on a baseball team in 1930s America? The answer: Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). I haven’t seen a title like that since Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965).

Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, The Empire Strikes Back) stars as Bingo Long, an enterprising, good-hearted ball player stuck in the segregated Negro Leagues under the oppressive thumb of greedy team owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross). Sick of himself and the team being underpaid and treated poorly, Bingo starts to hatch a plan to start his own barnstorming independent team of all-star African American players. James Earl Jones (Coming to America, The Hunt for Red October) is the power hitting Leon Carter, Bingo’s stoic ally and partner when they hit the road. They assemble a team of great athletes who are sick of their crappy team owners. One of the players they manage to pick up is Charlie Snow aka “Carlos Nevada” aka “Chief Takahoma”, played by comedian Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Superman III). Other players can outrun speeding baseballs and hit home-run after home-run. The film also makes several allusions to athletes like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and others with its fictional lineup.

This being the first directorial outing by John Badham (Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film needed a strong cast. And the cast is great. Williams is as charismatic and sharp as ever, Jones delivers a strong performance (as if he could deliver anything but), and Pryor is funny as the guy trying to get into the white leagues by passing himself off as Cuban (a hilarious insight and statement in itself). The ensemble baseball team of entrepreneurs is very talented and fun to watch. Stan Shaw and Tony Burton and all the rest are well cast. Ted Ross is also fine as the mean, cigar-chomping, hearse-driving Sallison Potter and Mabel King is great as team owner “big” Bertha Dewitt.

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Once the All-Stars successfully cut themselves off from their former owners they drive from town to town dancing down main street to advertise their arrival in the hopes of playing the local teams and getting paid. This goes well and everyone on the field and in the stands is having a great time, but then Sallison Potter hears of their success and will not have it. Potter starts paying people off so no one in the Negro Leagues will play them. He also has his thugs rob and terrorize Bingo’s team members. Running out of options, and low on dough, Bingo and Leon decide the only thing left to do is to play the white baseball teams.

The problem is that the good, white, Southern folk who fill the stands on hot summer days in the 1930s are not too thrilled to see black athletes screw around on the field. At first the All-Stars find themselves getting ugly stares and even boos when they make a good play. Then Bingo realizes what the white games are missing: some informality. In the Negro Leagues they would laugh and joke and have fun with the opposing team. The small-time white baseball players are too stiff and uncomfortable with their opponents so Bingo starts to lighten everybody up by adding a healthy dose of clowning to the white diamonds. It is not enough to be as good or even better than the white teams, the All-Stars have to make a show of it. One does not simply catch a fly ball. One piggybacks up on a taller player to catch it or slides between someone’s legs to catch it. They prove their athletic prowess as well as good spirits and sense of humor and soon the conservative folks up in the stands are having as much fun as the All-Stars.

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After several games, Potter’s tampering goes too far. They lose all their money, lose one of their cars (full of equipment), lose several team members, and have to pick potatoes to earn cash. Bingo tries to keep everyone together, but perhaps his ideals are just too big and unrealistic for anyone else to see. With nothing left to lose, Bingo challenges Potter to a game: his team vs. Potter’s. If the All-Stars win they retain their independence, but if Potter wins everyone goes back to their own teams. With everything riding on this one big game and Leon Carter nowhere to be found the stakes are high…but if you’re a regular filmgoer than you already know that somehow things will work out for the best.

I like the old cars and charismatic performances. I like how it interacts with history and how they recreate the look and feel of the old south. I like the energy and humor and fun it looks like everyone is having. Add all this to the fact that the story is pretty good and that makes for a pretty entertaining and lovable movie that unfortunately seems to get overlooked these days. If you like sports movies and think you’ve seen them all then check this one out.

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Top 10 Reasons to See Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

1. Just look at that title. Marvelous. Ooh! And an ampersand too!

2. See a young, svelte, bat-swinging James Earl Jones—pre-Vader voice.

3. Oh, so you like period baseball flicks like A League of Their Own and The Natural too? Watch this one.

4. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious outing to the ballpark. I love Field of Dreams, but movies like Bingo Long and the original Bad News Bears aren’t nearly as full of themselves.

5. Car chases, shootouts, sucker punches, dwarfs, amputees, classic cars, and great baseball plays. (Sorry, I guess the dwarfs and amputees thing is just the Jodorowsky fan in me talking).

6. Mabel King keeps her large ridiculous hats on even in a sauna.

7. Richard Pryor pretending to be Cuban…and Navajo. 3

8. Although it’s a bit screwball, it is still grounded in its historical setting and has a genuine affection for the game.

9. It’s such an American movie! Baseball, overcoming the odds, AND entrepreneurship?!

10. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones talking to each other. Seriously. Two of the best and most recognizable voices in conversation? Hurry, the credits are coming. Give them something else to read!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 21, 2011

More Animated Movies You Didn’t See

Awhile back I wrote about the animated movies you didn’t see I suggested you check out Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocleot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008)—all absolutely wonderful films. You may notice I write a lot about animated movies. Animation is near and dear to my heart and when it sneaks up and surprises me it is all the more precious. Today I have four more suggestions of animated films you might have missed and I strongly encourage you to check them out, and they are Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin (1975), Marcell Jankovic’s psychedelic Son of the White Mare (1981), John Korty’s screwy Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Will Vinton’s peculiar exploration into The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). . . Get ready. Things are about to get weird.

Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic) is like an X-rated Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). Both are ambitious little animation rebels that seem to have trouble finding mainstream success and consistency, yet you gotta applaud their work even when they miss. Bakshi is the man responsible for strange efforts like Wizards (rather dated), Fire and Ice (an unfortunate misfire that tries to replicate the artwork of Frank Frazetta in fully animated environments), Fritz the Cat (based on the comic by Robert Crumb who apparently hated the film), the animated Lord of the Rings (not bad), American Pop (a mess, but I liked it), and Cool World (there’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s such a shambles let’s just move on). I have to set the stage for Coonskin because only Bakshi could pull it off…or even try. He’s always done things a little differently and he’s never shied away from, shall we say, intensity. Coonskin (aka Street Fight aka Bustin’ Out aka Harlem Nights aka Coonskin No More) is the story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as you have never seen them before.* Scatman Crothers (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) sets the mood with a catchy little number called “Ah’m a Nigger Man”  (already you can see the controversy, but the song is really great and a biting jab at white ignorance and racism). As some folks in the live action world prepare for a daring jailbreak, a wise old timer (Crothers) tells the cartoon story of three animal folk heroes who take on racist cops, the Italian mafia, bad religion, and black corruption in Harlem.

The film is ugly, abrasive, gritty and excessively violent and sexual, but there’s a strange, grotesque satirical allure to it all. Something this provocative clearly had every moment meticulously planned, and its gross stereotypes might be more of a condemnation of the audience who might have thought all these horrible things all along. It’s purposely steeped in blaxploitation to force you to consider the images you are seeing. This movie is what would have happened if Robert Crumb and John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) did Schoolhouse Rock. For all its raucous abandon, there is a painful fatalism underneath. The scenes where a poor black drifter tries to woo a buxom, nude, and manipulative female representation of America are funny, but shocking when you consider the commentary behind it. Coonskin is very much a product of its time (and Bakshi’s imagination) and should offend everyone; black, white, women, gay, religious, etc. It’s a gross assault on all things right and that is entirely the point that Al Sharpton missed (he was a leader in the fight to stop this movie). It’s not racist. It’s an honest American race tragedy (but perhaps with a glimmer of hope) and you can unpack that more after you see it. It also stars Barry White, Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, and Al Lewis (The Munsters).

The next film comes from Hungary and is sure to alienate everyone at the party—unless they are hugely into Hungarian folklore and/or on magic mushrooms. Marcell Jankovic’s Son of the White Mare cured me from being wary of Hungarian cartoons (I had a bad experience with The District). It starts as a delirious mélange of colors and shapes until after about ten minutes we figure out we’ve been watching a horse give birth to human babies the whole time. She has two sons who leave, but the third wants to be able to throw trees around so he listens to the old weird guy he meets in the forest (who might be God?) and suckles at his horse-mother’s teat for several decades to grow strong. When he is fully grown and his mother is dry and dying he becomes Tree-Shaker and goes on a journey to restore the three kingdoms (and save their princesses) from the wicked rule of the three evil dragons. Along the way he picks up his fair-weather brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Iron-Kneader, and a mischievous demon who only the superhuman Tree-Shaker can outsmart. When his brothers chicken out at the gates Tree-Shaker realizes he must battle the dragons by himself. One dragon is a three-headed rock golem-type creature. The next is a seven headed battle tank and the final dragon is a twelve-headed computerized city monster. Tree-Shaker manages many other folk hero obstacles like being stuck in the under world, killing a snake, and even feeding his own legs to a griffin.

The story is very mythic and ancient feeling, but the lively, surreal animations are wonderfully superb. Even if you don’t get all the folklore stuff, the madness of the vibrantly moving illustrations will keep your attention (it almost reminded me of Yellow Submarine in a strange way). This sort of imaginative, freedom-embracing approach is what animation is all about. Seriously, lines go everywhere and colors collapse into one another like crazy! Watch Son of the White Mare and educate yourself on Hungarian folktales and have one heck of a trip. It’s like the works of Homer as realized by Vince Collins.

Ya’ll know who George Lucas is? Sure, he’s the guy who made Star Wars…and produced Howard the Duck. Speaking of Howard the Duck, as awful as that film was, it reveals a daring side to Mr. Lucas. He would give money to those crazy ideas from time to time, and I’m sure glad he did here. Such is the case for the criminally snubbed George Lucas produced film Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty. This is a wonderful comic tale with zero substance. It’s great. Written in almost nonstop puns and clever banter (Yellow Submarine again?) and animated in a technique called “Lumage,” a sort of plastic backlit stop-motion animation, Twice Upon a Time is the story of how the black-and-white live-action Rushers of Din were almost bombarded with nightmares from the Murkworks, run by the odious Synonamess Botch, until some unlikely heroes emerged out of sunny Frivoli’s dreamland. The nightmare vultures snatch up all the Fig Men of Frivoli and trick the good-hearted Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his mute companion, Mum, into stealing the spring to stop time in Din. Then Synonamess Botch plants nightmare bombs all over Din, planning to set them off all at once. Amidst the chaos Flora Fauna studies to be an actress, the Fairy Godmother blows up a telephone pole, Rod Rescueman tries to rescue something, Scuzzbopper toils away at the Great Amurkian Novel, a robot gorilla with a television for a face does stuff, etc. Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Every inch of this movie is designed to be delightful fluff.

It’s a highly imaginative and breezy little film with clever dialogue and a sense of flippant mayhem that could only be birthed on a Saturday morning eating “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” (Calvin & Hobbes anyone?). You’ll laugh and thrill as Ralph, Mum, Rod, and the whole gang do battle with the cantankerous Synonamess Botch and restore the spring to Din. The animation is strange and fascinating and the humor is adult and hilarious while being kid-friendly (depending on which dub of the movie you get, I’ve seen both and I actually think the one without the swearing is a lot better). It’s a whimsical delight that has plenty of action, grating 80s songs, and the soothing tempo of Lorenzo Music’s voice. Lorenzo Music plays the main protagonist, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, but you probably recognize this sleepy timbre from the Garfield animated series. Since the film makes no pretense of even pretending to be important it frees itself from all moral and plot confines and soars to new heights of comic frivolity and triviality. It’s a magnificent trifle that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Will Vinton is an animation legend most famous for his work with the iconic “California Raisins” commercials from the 80s. He has done many great short films (Martin the Cobbler) and TV specials (A Claymation Christmas Celebration), but his interpretation of the great American literary legend, Mark Twain, is the reason we’re here today. If you’ve ever wondered what was that weird youtube clip of a claymation Satan creating a tiny civilization in space and then indifferently murdering them, then I am here to tell you. That’s a scene from Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain! Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher stowaway on a bizarrely constructed airship piloted by an aging Mark Twain—and secretly co-piloted by Twain’s dark side. James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) provides the voice of Twain as the three stowaways learn about other great Twain tales like “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” and others. Twain was a complicated man, and the film portrays this by way of a sort of literal manifestation of bipolar disorder—there is a light Twain who is happy and eager to share a story and then there is a dark Twain who is joyless and fatalistic. Sawyer and the other kids soon learn that Mark Twain is leaving earth in an airship to make a suicide voyage into Halley’s Comet—echoing the real Twain’s words, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Despite the whimsy, languid pace, bright colors, and pleasing shapes there is a dark sense of urgency throughout. Vinton does not give us Mark Twain’s works so much as he gives us Twain himself. The film does a grand job of displaying Twain’s own sense of humor, melancholy, imagination, and wisdom. Vinton’s designs may look childish, but they are gloriously detailed and impressive. These are not George Pal Puppetoons, these are living balls of clay in constant motion and evolution and it is a pleasure behold. I personally love the design of the airship.

Live-action plus animation, traditional cel-animation with added trippiness, “Lumage,” and smooth, fluid claymation; all with very unique and distinctive styles. It’s a shame these films are not more readily available as I enjoyed them all very much and would encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them for yourself. Whether it’s gritty, obscene Coonskin, the mythically hallucinatory Son of the White Mare, the proactively weightless Twice Upon a Time, or the strange take on a literary legend in The Adventures of Mark Twain I hope one of these creative films (if not all) finds its way to your TV screen. The weirdness is out there.

*Check out my review for Song of the South.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 22, 2011

Star Whores and Other Space Oddities

1I love Star Wars (circa. 1977-1983). For all the grief we give George Lucas for the “Special Edition,” the prequels, TV spinoffs, etc, one cannot downplay how much influence the Star Wars films have had on culture and the art of filmmaking. Not only has Star Wars influenced subsequent science fiction flicks, it has also been copied quite a bit.

There are a few different approaches one can take when it comes to science fiction.

  1. You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
  2. You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
  3. You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
  4. You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
  5. You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
  6. You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
  7. Or (recognizing some of the childishness of space aliens, robots, and super-deluxe-hyper-warp-lightspeed) you can go all-out campy, flashy, trashy like Barbarella (1968).
  8. There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
You've probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

You’ve probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

After the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 there was a huge sci-fi craze. It seemed almost any movie could be made a better or more profitable movie with the institution of a well-placed spaceship. Movies like The Black Hole (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ice Pirates (1984), and Arena (1988) were cranked out by the bushel. Well, some of my personal favorite worst and also lesser known sci-fi movies made in the wake of the space craze are on my mind today so, naturally, I felt compelled to write about them.


First up is Saturn 3 (1980).

This film is actually a bit more of an Alien rip off. There are essentially only three characters and they are played by (check this out!) Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. Before I go any further I must tell you that this film is bad. Really bad. Almost not even so-bad-it’s-kinda-fun-bad. And another thing; I can’t help but feel like the title is even a little oddly derivative of Capricorn 1 (1977).

"I am Spartacus!"

“I am Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life) is Adam, an older guy who’s been stuck up on a surprisingly spacious and roomy space-base floating around Saturn. We also see him naked and, I gotta be honest, 20 years since Spartacus and the man is still in shape. Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run) is Alex, Adam’s blonde, leggy bed-buddy and his only companion. Together Adam and Eve Alex (I get it!) live quietly in space for no apparent reason (it’s something to do with the government or science or something), until the most evil and warped mind in the galaxy comes aboard. This evil and warped mind belongs to a man named Benson.

Seriously. Benson. Benson is the name of the bad guy. Well, actually he only kills a guy named Benson for some inexplicable reason and assumes his identity, but really now. Benson? Benson is a dim-witted manservant, not a malevolent space villain. Anyway, Benson is played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), but it gets better. Evidently the director was not altogether pleased by Mr. Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent and so he Keitel awkwardly dubbed by some other robot-sounding British guy (it reminded me of Andie McDowell’s awkward dubbing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).

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It’s the wacky space adventures of Benson the Sociopath and Hector the Murder-Robot!

Benson is revealed to be mentally imbalanced in the beginning of the film (because suspenselessness) and then, once aboard Saturn 3, he puts a giant suppository filled with brains into an 8-ft tall robot named Hector. He gives the robot his own thoughts and then tries to get in Alex’s pants with the most awkward space-future come-on lines since Demolition Man. Adam gets jealous and they talk about killing Benson because he is weird. Then the robot chops their pet dog in half and tries to rape Alex. The movie is a wreck and actually pretty boring despite the presence of a horny, rampaging robot. Saturn 3 also feels simultaneously unnecessarily dark and unintentionally silly. For instance, there is a scene where Hector, the robot, wears Harvey Keitel’s severed head as a hat as a disguise. A very, very bad disguise.


Next up it’s Starcrash (1978), also known as The Adventures of Stella Star. I actually love this movie. It’s near-nonstop mayhem in the same campy vein as Barbarella. But much, much cheaper.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

The incredibly hot Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) stars as the frequently scantily clad Stella Star—the only hope for the galaxy. This film is more blatant a rip off of Star Wars and it is oh-so-hokey.

Outer space looks like an awkward jumble of bad Christmas decorations hastily assembled by a one-eyed crazy person. Who knew the stars and galaxies were so vibrant and psychedelic? The special effects for the spaceships are actually pretty decent, but again, the colors are more akin to a pinball machine that has lost its mind. The malevolent Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is the bad guy and his hairdo does for evil exactly whatever the name Benson did for evil. He also has his own version of the Death Star, except his is in the shape of a big, evil robot hand that clutches into a fist when it goes into attack mode.

No one messes with the do!

No one messes with the do!

There is also an extremely sexually ambiguous sidekick for Stella. His name is Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and he apparently has a new and incredibly convenient super power in each instance of peril. He bravely dies sword-fighting a stop-motion robot when his arm gets grazed and briefly caught on fire. The film also has a bald green dude, and a good robot with a Texas accent (half the film I just wanted to give him a ten-gallon hat to go with his Dr. Phil-esque homespun aphorisms). Starcrash also boasts  lightsabers and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). The costumes are great and I couldn’t help but notice the recurring use of arrows on helmets seemingly pointing to the face of the wearer, and on belt buckles pointing to the crotch.

The movie is crazy and the plot is on crack. We go from an outer space battle to a strange planet to a space jail to the jungle and back into space and then on to another planet with cavemen or amazons and giant robots in like 4 minutes. It’s like the first 60 seconds of the Power Rangers pilot. The film does slow down occasionally. . . for overly long spaceship docking scenes. What you eventually learn is that the film is strategically conditioning you to not care about the characters so you won’t be mad when new characters are randomly introduced and old ones go away or return without rhyme or reason.

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: "Don't worry. I'll live forever."

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: “Don’t worry. I’ll live forever.”

The best part of this movie? It’s a tie between Caroline Munro’s outfits (she dresses like Vampirella) and the great Christopher Plummer’s (The Sound of Music) emotionally detached and disenfranchised line deliveries. You can actually see it in his regretful eyes how much he hates that he’s in this movie. All around the movie is awesomely bad and I highly recommend this frenetically-paced, sexist light show. It’s a great bit of 70′s Italian schlock.


Last and most certainly least is The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is known in its home country, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or as it is most commonly referred to, Turkish Star Wars (1982).

*not Darth Vader

*not Darth Vader

Every time somebody mentions the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) I fire back with Turkish Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so bad it makes you wonder how there was a successful franchise afterward.  Turkish Star Wars is so bad it makes you wonder why God has not destroyed humanity yet. Seriously, have the people who made this ever seen a movie before? It is film heresy. The whole spectacle is a noisy, raucous, incoherent Frankenstein mess of a film. It is a mind-boggling artistic travesty on all fronts. AND I LOVE IT!!!

*not racist

*not racist

A guy and his best pal (Murat and Ali) crash land on an alien desert planet and they meet an impoverished, rock-dwelling civilization that is tormented by a big, nasty, beardy space bad guy, who allegedly is a centuries old wizard who needs a human brain so he can understand stuff and conquer the universe. The two guys decide to help the people and proceed to fight the worst excuses for robots and aliens you will ever see. Toilet-paper mummies, dusty zombies, rubber robots, dudes in skeleton outfits, and great big orange stuffed animals, and even racist-looking (African, Asian, and possibly Jewish or maybe Armenian—it’s Turkey, after all) rubber mask baddies, are only the half of it.

The love story between Murat and woman-who’s-name-escapes-me is also great. You see, occasionally jarringly softer music will play and we get reverse closeups of their eyes as they longingly/indifferently gaze at each other while performing mundane space activities. This unprecedented and clashing change of pace denotes romantic interest. Understand?

*not forced romance

*not awkwardly forced romance based solely on the fact that she is maybe blonde

I’d be kidding if I said I could explain the rest of the plot of this weird movie. There are mentions of the virtues of humanity and the human brain as the key to all things (something the filmmakers ironically refused to use for the production of Turkish Star Wars), and vague references to Islam and other things, but the story is so convoluted and poorly executed that it hardly matters. One minute our protagonists are fighting monsters, the next minute they’re in space jail, then the bad guy has monsters slaughter a cave full of frightened orphan children and he proceeds to drink their blood through a crazy straw, then Murat is wielding a giant, golden Final Fantasy sword [made of cardboard] and melting it in a huge vat and then thrusting his bare fists into the molten gold only to have them emerge with clunky gold space mittens on. Seriously. Tone! You can’t murder children in a film like this. It’s like the naked suicide in Endhiran.

*not more realistic than Rocky

*not more realistic than Rocky

One particularly memorable sequence is the training montage where Murat ties boulders to his ankles and goes jogging and then works his fist muscles by slapping big rocks. Instead of the Force, Murat has the amazing power to jump kinda high and karate chop things in half (boulders, stuffed animal monsters, robot heads, *SPOILER ALERT* the bad guy…except that they just black out half the screen and show him on the ground with his eyes closed, and in doing the same for the other half—to truly indicate the pure in-halfedness of our antagonist—the filmmakers also accidentally reveal that both halves apparently have full noses, but I digress). The finale is a jarring, headache-inducing mélange of so much incoherent violence, jumping, and explosions that you will be fighting—and fighting hard—your body’s urge to roll your eyes back in your head and halt all blood-flow to the brain. It’s like Vogon poetry really. Your welcome, Douglas Adams fans.

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

The absolute best part of Turkish Star Wars is how it is edited. I know that sounds nerdy, but let me explain. Not only does nothing make sense, but the film is notorious for ripping actual stolen footage from the real Star Wars—and several other fantasy movies and even a few newsreels—and splicing them into the movie. And the transfers are just terrible, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Best of all, they do it at inappropriate times. For example, to show space travel they film a character with a stupid hat moving a wheel while scenes from the assault on the Death Star play behind him (except the real Star Wars footage keeps cutting to other shots so the backgrounds don’t make any sense). The music is also stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bunch of other popular movies as well.

If this movie weren’t so wonderfully, miserably bad  and hysterically inept it would have been facing an arsenal of lawsuits. People say I’m crazy, but I have actually watched this wretched film at least 5 times. It takes a certain constitution to enjoy bad movies like this. Turkish Star Wars is really more of an endurance test than a film. Are you ready for the challenge?

*not evil stuffed animals

*not evil stuffed animals


There you have it. Saturn 3 you might as well skip as it is the most boring and unimaginative of them all, but it does have a stupid enough plot to keep you with it and the Keitel dub is wondawful. Starcrash is awesome trash and you definitely should see it for Munro’s body and Plummer’s face. Turkish Star Wars you can watch, but this one comes with a warning: it is disorientingly bad and you may not be able to readily relate to people immediately after a viewing, but for Troll 2 and Birdemic fans I must insist you try. At least it’s not After Last Season.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 25, 2011.

Brace Yourself. It’s “Song of the South”

This ain't exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

This ain’t exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the most inflammatory movie titles one can utter is Song of the South (1946). Am I racist for liking this movie? Some people might think so. I concede that Song of the South is not Roots (1977) nor is it Amistad (1997), but it’s sensibilities are far less prejudiced than say Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s probably more artistically comparable to Birth of a Nation in that it was a surprising technical achievement, but I submit that Song of the South is not quite as racially insensitive as is commonly perceived (or at least, it doesn’t mean to be), rather it is merely uninformed and maybe not that bad of a movie.

Don't do the review, man. It's not worth it.

Don’t do the review, man. It’s not worth it.

It’s been banned in its entirety for years and Disney still hasn’t released it. Frederick Douglass would undoubtedly be appalled by Disney’s apparent lack of understanding of the plight of the American slave showcased in this film. In fact, it is in this department that the film gets the most flak, and perhaps deservedly so.

It depicts the jolly slave affably singing and toiling in the fields for his masseh. No one is discontent with the fact that they are living in human bondage. Naturally, the slave owners themselves are kind-hearted and good people too. Kindly old Uncle Remus is only too happy to oblige his masseh in any task and there are really no consequences for disobedience. I concede all of these things, but I honestly was not expecting a serious look into the harsh realities of this dark hour in American history. I watched it for the cartoons. This is a family Disney film from the 1940’s. Maybe they were ignorant and oblivious to what actually went on, but even had they known and still chosen to water it down it would still be the Disney way. In a children’s fantasy film from the Walt Disney studios you don’t show the bloody stripes on the backs of your jovial protagonists. You have to wait until the 80’s for that.

Shh...be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits.

Shh…be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.

Song of the South is not attempting to be Johnny Tremain (1957) or Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), which may take some liberties but are still trying to represent an historical time. Song of the South was an attempt to bottle some of the magic of Uncle Remus’s tales of Br’er Rabbit and I’d say they succeeded in doing that much. In fact the only real reason to watch Song of the South is for the animated segments and for James Baskett’s charismatic performance as Uncle Remus.

Well, this is a fin how do you do.

Well, this is a fine how do you do.

Some might say that Baskett was playing a stereotype just like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939), but they still both crafted lovable, endearing characters that outshone the rest of the respective films they were in. Maybe they didn’t get the complex juicy roles because the prejudices of the times would not give them much more, but they did what they could with the material given to them. It’s a damn shame McDaniel really only ever got to play slaves or maids, but don’t sell her talent short. I think she deserved that Oscar. Baskett also did receive an honorary Academy Award for his performance in Song of the South and Walt Disney himself fought very hard to get him nominated. Ironically (and sadly), Baskett was unable to attend the premiere of his film in Atlanta because of the segregation laws at the time. Let’s not forget how hard it was for ethnic actors back then.

The film itself is your typical uber-saccharine tale of a young boy who learns life lessons. The child performances are nothing to write home about and much of the live-action stuff gets boring whenever Uncle Remus isn’t around, but be patient.

Tell us the story of Django again!

Tell us the story of Django again!

Poor little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is hoodwinked into thinking his little trip to his grandmother’s plantation is a delightful vacation…until he learns that his parents are separating (still not too sure why, but I suppose that’s not important).  This actually might have fed the controversy too. If a kid’s movie is edgy enough to attack the stigma of parental separation on children, might it at least have the guts to depict racism and slavery with a little more accuracy? Instead there is no racism, only bullies, and slavery is just a footnote because the story happens to take place in Georgia in the 19th century. Ah, well.

Back to Johnny. Fortunately for Johnny he makes friends with wise, old Uncle Remus who “edutains” with stories of Br’er Rabbit and how he outsmarts Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Johnny’s mother disapproves of the stories because she feels it has a negative impact on her son and she forbids Uncle Remus from telling him any more. Throughout the movie Johnny finds a puppy, makes friends with a girl, deals with bullies, wrestles with anxiety over his parents, almost gets killed by a bull, and always tries to sneak back to his friend Uncle Remus to hear more. The story is sweet and innocent enough and if it didn’t feature slaves as content watered-down Stepin Fetchits it would probably be another much celebrated film in the Disney canon. Alas, it suffers from controversy…which I think actually makes it much more interesting and more important.

What now?

What now?

The scenes that combine live-action with animation are wonderful. Uncle Remus sings as he strolls down a dirt road and all of the adorable anthropomorphic animals sing along. It has been parodied much, but these sequences are really well done and they were huge technological breakthroughs at the time and although Song of the South might not be Mary Poppins (1964), I’d say it’s a far more stimulating accomplishment than Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The three main animated segments featuring Br’er Rabbit are magical and as finely drawn as anything the Disney studios ever produced. They brim with peril, humor, and wisdom and each tale delivers another important lesson for Johnny (and us all), but they are told with such playfulness and gusto that they are a delight to hear again and again. Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit are charming characters and the film develops them quite well. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you are probably already familiar with them from the Splash Mountain log-floom ride at Disney theme parks. And almost everyone has heard the songs “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “How Do You Do?”

So what exactly do we have here? A great technological accomplishment, a fine story, some very enjoyable performances, great iconic songs, and splendid animation thrust amidst some blindly optimistic time capsule with extreme naiveté regarding race relations and overwrought with classic Disney sentimentality. All in all, I’d say it’s nothing most people wouldn’t be able to handle with some maturity. Song of the South is guilty of depicting the happy black man who is perfectly content with his subservient status beneath whitey’s thumb. It does show a clean and delusionally optimistic version of life on the southern plantations. It is a product of its times. It was also a huge passion project for Mr. Disney. And you know what? I liked the movie. I found myself being captivated by Uncle Remus’s enchanting yarns and the beautiful animation. I also loved Dumbo (1941) too. People always told me as a kid that the crows were racist. They may portray stereotypical black speech and characteristics, but they’re really the only decent folk in the movie apart from Dumbo’s mom and Timothy Mouse.

Over there! Justin Bieber is doing something!

Over there! Something controversial!

I remember reading the stories of Br’er Rabbit and his adventures when I was a little kid. I enjoyed the stories then and I enjoyed them being retold in the movie. He was way more interesting than Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to me. He was smart and savvy, and although his wise-alec attitude got him into trouble, he always could think up a way out. The film stays true to the original characters and its not nearly as racist as the thousand other racially insensitive cartoons and movies from that era and earlier (and I’d still advocate their preservation too). So will watching Song of the South today promote racism? I’d say no. If anything it can give us an insightful glimpse into American history. Not the sad history of American slavery in the 1800’s, but the unfortunate history of 1940’s Hollywood. It’s a pretty good film on its own, but I’d say the controversy and historical context actually enhances it and provides more to discuss. Check it out if you can find it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 15, 2011.

One-Armed Man Strikes Back

Spencer Tracy is one of those actors who, no matter what, always manages to remain consistently entertaining, powerful, and strangely understated. Many of his performances were quiet and earnest, yet one might always suspect that there rested a stern bite beneath the surface.

Who couldn't love this face?

Who couldn’t love this face?

His later work in such films as the Scopes Monkey trial courtroom drama Inherit the Wind (1960); the phenomenal Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) which chronicled the trials for the Nazis war crimes following World War II; the racially charged Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) in which his white daughter is engaged to a black man (played by Sidney Poitier); and even a wryly comic role as the straight-laced Capt. Culpepper who decides that he might be entitled to more in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) to name a few are very memorable indeed.

His white hair, craggy face, and gentle, thoughtful timber added much to many films. Not terribly fond of rehearsals, Tracy would read the script once several days before shooting and not look at it again (in order to preserve the freshness). Tracy (much like Frank Sinatra) was also not fond of multiple takes.

This is comfy. I could narrate "How the West was Won" from here right now. Give me the microphone.

This is comfy. I could narrate “How the West was Won” from here right now. Give me the microphone.

Today I wish to highlight what cab be been best categorized as a “minimalist neo-western.” The Spencer Tracy vehicle, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), follows many of the familiar conventions of typical cowboy/western fare, but the added touch of taking place in 1945 gives it a uniquely contemporary flare.  The film is directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape), and also stars Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet), and Walter Brennan (The Pride of the Yankees).

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Bad Day at Black Roc is set in a quiet—too quiet—western town in the middle of nowhere. There are only a few residents and the train never stops there…that is until the mild-mannered John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) shows up one day. Macreedy, a one-armed war veteran, is greeted with hostility and suspicion by all. It seems everything the intelligent and likable Macreedy does just bothers the residents of Black Rock.
Quit bein' a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Quit bein’ a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Macreedy, a simple gentleman with a streak of hopelessness since the loss of his arm, has come to Black Rock with one simple purpose: to give a medal to the man who’s son saved his life in the war. The catch: the man is a Japanese-American named Komoko. Macreedy learns (despite many attempts to chase him out of town) that tough guy, Reno Smith (Ryan), and his racist thugs murdered Komoko. It’s a taut suspense thriller to see if Macreedy can stay alive long enough to catch the next train. Despite being handicapped and an older guy with one arm against a whole town of cowardly thugs out to get him, Macreedy is filled with a new purpose: to avenge Komoko and bring his murderers to justice, but as the Black Rock folks close in and gradually cut off communication and transportation to the outside world, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The few friends he has made in Black Rock are all too conflicted and afraid to help him so Macreedy truly is alone in the wretched desert town. It all culminates into an edge-of-your-seat final showdown (but definitely not your typical western showdown).
We don't take kindly to strangers.

We don’t take kindly to strangers.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a satisfying film with great performances and a sharp look. Director John Sturges does fine work. The suspense and feelings of isolation really boost the story into something quite special. A rather humorous and violent exchange between Borgnine and Tracy in a bar is particularly enjoyable. Macreedy’s transformation from a man whose handicap has led him to give up on himself into a man full of righteous indignation and a profound sense of purpose that awakens his will to survive is electrifying. Once again Spencer Tracy gives a very fine performance as the exceedingly polite but resolve-filled John J. Macreedy.

Why don't you just tell me where to sit.

Why don’t you just tell me where to sit.

The film deals with hard issues. Anti-Japanese sentiment felt by many Americans during World War II is manifests in a very unapologetic and ugly way. This movie is really about a viscous hate-crime being avenged. It pulls the carpet out from under the audience even more by having the long arm of justice ironically represented by a one-armed man. I strongly recommend you seek out and watch Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s a pleasurable little film with a lot of strong atmosphere, color, and suspense. I love it and I think you will too.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30, 2009.

Hail to the King, Baby

Shut up!

Yeah. The title is a line from “Army of Darkness.” So what?

One of the most iconic, important, groundbreaking, and memorable movie monsters continues to be King Kong. Any way you slice it Kong is king. Unlike the more prolific Godzilla, Kong starred in only one movie. There was only one sequel (the aptly titled Son of Kong which starred his son and wasn’t as good). Many people have tried to remake King Kong from John Guillermin to Ishiro Honda to Peter Jackson. While Jackson may come closest to the original, none have been able to capture the cinematic magic and horror of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s extravagant original vision from 1933.

Fearful Wray

Fay Wray: babe of the 30s.

Merian C. Cooper, a bold adventurous man, was inspired to deviate from his wild documentaries—shot in the remotest locations and most dangerous jungles—in favor of this landmark fantasy adventure when told a story by his good friend, Edgar Wallace. Wallace was already a prolific novelist and screenwriter and his tale of a mysterious island fraught with peril and giant monsters sounded exactly like what Cooper had been looking for in his documentaries. Capturing unexplored natural dangers untethered was irresistible and teaming up with friend and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack to make this grand fictional epic was just the icing on the cake. It may come as no surprise that the main character of the wildly ambitious and peril-provoking movie director, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), was greatly modeled after Cooper himself. . . which is also another reason I was disappointed Jack Black’s snaky performance for the 2005 version (although it is miles better than Charles Grodin’s in 1976).

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

With actress Fay Wray as the lovely damsel in distress, Ann Darrow, and Max Steiner’s grand score—that very effectively mirrored the onscreen action in addition to providing a very tone-setting overture—and actors like Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Noble Johnson, there was just one thing missing: Kong. In the thirties many special effects were still in their pioneering stages, and Willis O’Brien (who would later teach the great Ray Harryhausen his trade) was a no-brainer for the job. O’Brien’s magnificent special effects which brought to life the prehistoric leviathan’s of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) caught much attention. The finale of The Lost World, in which a brontosaurus terrorizes downtown London, would be the basis for Kong’s rampage through New York City. O’Brien, who had been having trouble and was forced to scrap several pet projects, was hired by Cooper and Schoedsack and to work they did set.

In watching Schoedsack’s earlier film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), you’ll notice not only the recurrence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson, but also many of the same sets used later in King Kong.

king_kong__1933____the_venture_crew_by_kriegdersterne77-d52mmws

Do you think they’ve spotted us?

The story is simple enough. An “enthusiastic” movie director, Carl Denham (Armstrong), wants to make the greatest wildlife documentary the world has ever seen. He wants to dazzle audiences with corners of the world never before seen by civilized men. His producers demand he get an attractive woman to throw into the picture to give it some sex appeal. Denham then takes to the Depression-era New York City streets in hopes of finding a desperate young lady who might agree to go along on their crazy expedition. He finds Ann Darrow (Wray) and they set sail for Skull Island. Let me repeat that. SKULL ISLAND. During their long sea voyage, Ann begins to fall in love with the stoic first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon the mysterious island is spotted and they disembark to investigate. A primitive tribal ceremony is disrupted by their presence and the film crew manages to get away, but that night the tribesmen board the ship and kidnap Ann to sacrifice to their mysterious and legendary jungle god known as Kong.

It's not racist if it's film history.

It’s not racist if it’s film history 🙂

Kong shows up (in what is was of the best screen entrances of all time), but rather than kill Ann he takes her deep into the jungle. Perhaps it was merely her screams that sparked his curiosity or perhaps it was her beauty that stayed his hand. Driscoll, Denham, and the crew race into the jungle to save Ann—without any idea as to what awaits them. Inside the jungle, many men are killed by territorial and bloodthirsty monsters, dinosaurs, and Kong himself. It seems the ferocious Kong just wants some time alone to perv out with Ann, but with all the little men, dinosaurs, and giant snakes attacking, he can’t seem to get any peace with his screaming nonconsensual bride.

Kong uses some awesome boxing and wrestling moves to fight a nasty Tyrannosaurus-rex. It’s pretty cool stuff. Giant ape socking T-rex in the jaw and flipping him over? This is why fantasy was invented.

king kong t rex

Just look at how gorgeous this picture is.

There’s a lot of build-up leading to the main action, but it is all well paced and ominous. The music doesn’t even start until they get to Skull Island. Once the intrepid (and ill-fated) crew passes the ancient wall and pursues the gargantuan primate into the jungle the action is pretty quick. Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, Ptersaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and imagined prehistoric horrors abound in the dense foliage, so there is plenty of violence. Life of Skull Island must be a nightmare.

Eventually Driscoll rescues Ann and Kong is captured (but not before he destroys the native village). Denham brings him back to New York City to show the public something they’ve never seen: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. Long story short; Kong breaks free of his fetters in the opera house and runs murderously amok in the strange new environment, searching for Ann. Instead of giant snakes, Kong battles subway trains. Instead of vicious pterodactyls, Kong must battle biplanes. When Kong does find Ann he takes her to where he can be alone with her: the top of the Empire State Building (and in 1933 it was the tallest building in the world. How romantic). The planes come and Kong must let Ann go as he plummets to his death.

Come at me, bra.

Come at me, bra.

The special effects (although nearly a century old) still have amazing power and wonderful charm. The titanic monster battles are some of the best and most impressive ever filmed. O’Brien and his team had to invent most of the special effects shots for this film as they went along. There are scenes that feature live action people in the foreground and background, while stop-motion monsters battle in between. Plumes of steam from geysers steadily rise, stop-motion birds fly overhead, and the environments are sometimes  miniature sets that extend several feet behind the main action with painted landscape beyond that. The violence is still shocking (as when Kong chomps people in his jaws or mercilessly pummels a passenger train into dead silence), but for some reason we still love Kong. We fall in love with this big, hairy, murderous beast. Even though his performance is only the painstaking animations of a puppet, we still feel he is alive. Unlike other monster movies where we take our point of view from one of the frightened onlookers of the grisly carnage, King Kong makes the monster the central character. Kong is all alone and against the world and the movie audience, for some reason, readily embraces him.

Why you lookin' at my woman like that?

*Samuel Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction*

Subsequent remakes have all tried to cast Kong as a softer, more sanitized, and sympathetic character; a misunderstood animal who the human protagonists eventually come to respect. . . and Kong only justifiably kills bad people. Remakes have cast him as a definite gorilla, but the original Kong’s species is somewhat more ambiguous.

In the original, Kong is a violent force of nature who murders indescriminately: cowering innocents; fleeing pedestrians; even the tribesmen who worshipped him. He doesn’t have a beautiful magical connection with Ann. He’s actually a bit more like a rapist. He is more lost ancient god than biological freak. Ann never warms up to Kong. None of the characters like Kong, in fact. Denham only wants to exhibit him to show the world something they’ve never seen. There is no awkward environmentalist or anti-capitalist message. To the contrary, the film is riddled with cultural ignorance, racism, sexism, and unsentimental depictions of animal cruelty (like the old Tarzan movies). It is very much an escapist product of its time, but for some reason I can forgive it all its faults just as I can forgive Kong for his incorrigible carnage. If it is unapologetic it is because it is a part of our history, and what an entertaining historical document it is.

King Kong 7

Acrophobic yet?

King Kong is easily one of the cinema’s most dazzling adventure stories. The colossal group effort of these daring men in the pioneering days of film, during a time when there was still a lot left of this earth that was unexplored, make King Kong something very special. In setting out to make an adventure movie to end all adventure movies—or maybe a monster movie to end all monster movies—I personally feel that the winning team behind King Kong succeeded with gusto. If you’ve only ever heard of King Kong as legend, myth, or saw him in any of the lesser remakes, I encourage you to revisit this fantastic classic. For my money King Kong (1933) is one of the best American movies ever made and not to be missed.

I am not an animal!

I am not an animal!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009

My Country White or Wong

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

221246375_9e48852774The American film industry has had a long and illustrious span with fantastic films and innovations for more than a century. A great many good things have come from American film, but let us not forget some of the darker aspects. Throughout history non-white actors have had a hard time in American movies (as well as being the victims of prejudice outside the cinema). Things have gotten a lot better, but take a moment and appreciate how far we’ve come.

Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong, was one such talented figure whose road to success was blocked by the color of her skin. Wong was born in 1905 Los Angeles. She pursued acting in the silent era and became the first Asian American international movie star, but she had a tough time keeping her spot in the limelight. In a time when many actors of European descent would put on makeup to play other races and anti-miscegenation laws prevented interracial scenes of sensuality (including kissing) and not many ethnic leading players, the studios generally did not always know what to do with Wong and she was, more often than not, cast as exotic background or as more stereotypical characters.

Thief of Bagdad

Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I first saw Anna May Wong in Raoul Walsh’s silent classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. For all Baghdad’s special effects, impressive set design, and Fairbanks’ charismatic charm and stunts, it was Anna May Wong who (in my humble opinion) stole the show. She played a shifty Mongol slave and although the role was not particularly big or racially positive, her performance left an impression on me.

wong glam

Recently I went to Hollywood’s Silent Theater for a viewing of The Toll of the Sea (1922), which was Wong’s first starring role and also one of the first films to be shot with a very early Technicolor process (so, yes, in IN LIVING COLOR). Alas, the final reel was lost to history, but the impact of the story and Wong’s wonderful performance made it well worth the price of admission.

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly” (which was turned into a pretty good operatic film in 1995), Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese girl, Lotus Flower, who finds a stranded American on the shore. They fall in love and are married, but the man, pressured by his other American friends and concerned with his public image, returns to his homeland without his bride. Promised he would return to her, Lotus Flower waits everyday for her beloved husband. Her Chinese neighbors chide her for her silly devotion because they believe she was just an exotic fling for the American. Years pass and Lotus Flower raises her son (who her husband doesn’t even know he has) and she writes letters to herself from him in broken English that tell of his love for her and his son.

Toll of the Sea (1922)

Toll of the Sea (1922)

SPOILER ALERT: The heart-breaking final act has the American at last returning to China. Lotus Flower hears of his return and puts on her best clothes and makes her son ready for his father’s arrival, but is emotionally distraught to discover he has married an American girl and forgotten about her and has only returned at the behest of his new wife to explain the situation. Lotus Flower tries to keep her composure, but soon the American woman discovers the truth and Lotus Flower gives her son to the new woman. The scene where Lotus Flower tries to tell her son that it was all fairy stories when she said she was his mother and that she was just a silly Chinese nurse is truly gut wrenching. Lotus Flower’s eyes are filled with tears and her young son does not wish to leave his mother and clings to her, kissing her and trying to dry her tears. Eventually the American wife takes the son and they return to America with Lotus Flower’s husband. Having spent her whole life waiting for her beloved’s return and removing herself from all other alliances and her son now gone she throws herself into the ocean, thus paying the toll of the sea. This film is very sentimental but it’s quite good and Wong gives a wonderful leading performance.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

Anna May Wong was a glamour girl in her time and a very fine actress, but the Hollywood system continued to refuse her roles (Asian leads were never terribly common). The last straw arrived when she was refused the role of O-lan for the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937). This was a role Wong had desired for a long time, but it was cast to the American actress, Luise Rainer (who won the Academy Award for her role). Wong eventually relocated to Europe where ethnic performers were met with somewhat less troubles. She eventually returned to Hollywood but remained chiefly a side character.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

She played a slightly more positive double-agent character in the British musical Chu Chin Chow (1934), but her role isn’t big enough. She starred in the stylish E. A. Dupont film, Piccadilly (1929); did radio; and had a supporting role in the classic Marlene Dietrich film, Shanghai Express (1932). She starred in the wartime dramas Lady From Chungking and Bombs Over Burma (both 1942) and even became the first Asian American with her own detective TV show in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (sadly, nothing exists of the show today). Later in life she sold her costumes and donated the money to Chinese aid for refugees. She died of a heart attack at age 56 in 1961. She never married.

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932)

Like Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar (as well as stealing every scene in Gone With the Wind, 1939), much of Anna May Wong’s success is marred by people who discount her and her work for portraying more racially stereotypical characters. I ask these attackers to consider the times in which these actors lived. It may not have been fair then, why should we keep it unfair now? Few can deny their talent or the obstacles that faced them. Let us celebrate them rather than belittle their legacies. Racial equality may elude us for another century, but let us not forget what steps have already been conquered or the brave, stubborn people who conquered them.

annamaywong_big

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 27, 2009