The Inconsequentials 2: Inconsequentialier

You may recall an article I wrote earlier called The Inconsequentials wherein I attempted to circumvent the ubiquitous essentials trope. Rather than plug great films everybody should see because of their power, depth, craftsmanship, and iconic status I chose instead to highlight some pulpier films that might not get as much attention as say It’s a Wonderful Life or Chinatown. I confess that I felt somewhat disingenuous with my previous selections of The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie. Perhaps these films were not obscure enough for the discerning Alternative Chronicle audience, I thought. Hence, I decided to extend my affections once more to the so-called “inconsequential” films of the past. This time, I tried to find movies that might be even less well-known, but still deserving of remembrance for different reasons.

They can’t all be classics, but that does not mean they cannot all entertain.

This time around we will venture into the dense forests of India with Elephant Boy (1937) then take a steamship to a deadly jungle island where they hunt The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and finally we’ll wash up on the suspicious shores of Japan to experience The Wrath of the Gods (1914). So you should know the drill by now. These are movies that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing, but I challenge you to enjoy them nevertheless. A common theme of interesting race relations lurks in all three of these films and I think it makes them even more worthy of study.

As a huge fan of iconic Indian actor, Sabu (The Thief of the Bagdad, Jungle Book, Black Narcissus) how could I resist plugging his very first movie, Elephant Boy (1937)? Nope, it’s not a prequel to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Sabu was one of those special rare cases of a non-white performer who gained notoriety in America and the United Kingdom during the 1930s and 40s. He had a naturally engaging persona and exuberance that was immensely enjoyable to watch. He’s still my favorite Mowgli. Before he played Mowgli in Zoltan Korda’s 1942 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, however, he played Toomai of the Elephants. Toomai was another Rudyard Kipling character and the movie was directed by Zoltan Korda and documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North). The Flaherty wildlife photography has been praised and it is pretty wonderful—as when the film takes the time to lollygag around a watering hole just observing a playful baby elephant run laps around its reclining mother—but the rest of the movie is just as fun. Toomai (Sabu) is a young elephant driver (Sabu’s father was one himself) and he has a special kinship with his elephant, Kala Nag. He talks to it, scolds it, scrubs it, and climbs all over it like Kala Nag is a giant puppy dog. When Toomai and Kala Nag join a party led by a British gentleman, they journey into the jungle to find wild elephants. Toomai wants to be a great hunter, but the older Indian elephant drivers tease him and say he will never be a great hunter until he sees the elephants dance. Tragedies strike and eventually Toomai must save Kala Nag’s life before it is too late. If he succeeds, Kala Nag will most assuredly repay Toomai with the secrets of the elephants.

Elephant Boy features a great debut performance for Sabu (whose life ended far too soon) and some nice jungle photography. The animal performances are pretty good too. Say what you like about Kipling’s “white man’s burden” form of racism, I still enjoy his writing. I like how in touch he tries to be with the jungle. Elephants are not just elephants for this British author and resident of India. Elephants are “the wise ones.” He captures mystery and wonder in the jungles and beasts and this film attempts the same. Another interesting thing about this movie is that Sabu is the only Indian actor. He is virtually surrounded by white actors in makeup and beards. The other odd thing to note is that the Kala Nag character is essentially selling out his untamed elephant brothers and even after he is antagonized by human captors. Maybe the wild elephants screwed him over and he’s just settling the score. Who knows? Elephant Boy could be the pachyderm equivalent to Get Carter if taken from the animal’s point of view. So why don’t people celebrate this film more? Because Jungle Book was better. The film’s story is only adequate and some might say it hasn’t aged very well, but for Sabu’s charming performance and the great elephant footage, I’d hesitate not to recommend it.

If you like King Kong (1933) then names like Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Ernest B. Schoedsack ought to be familiar to you. Schoedsack (Mighty Joe Young, Dr. Cyclops) co-directed this next project with Irving Pichel. Based on the famous short story by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starts with a horrific shipwreck complete with leaks, explosions, sharks, the works. Suck it, Titanic. The last survivor, Bob (Joel McCrea), swims to shore only to discover a jungle island with a castle on it. Upon investigation of said castle he meets the eccentric Russian, Zaroff (a particularly hammy Leslie Banks), and a cadre of mute cossacks acting as butlers. Zaroff introduces Bob to his guests, two former shipwreck survivors, Eve (Fay Wray) and her incessantly inebriated brother Martin (Armstrong). Honestly, Bob seems to be taking the grisly death of all his friends on the ship pretty well, and he doesn’t even seem to be a little perturbed by Zaroff’s odd insistence on ominous secrecy. He likes Eve though. Bob does finally get riled up when Zaroff’s plans are revealed: he’s a manhunter! Tired of the lack of challenge with hunting wild beasts, Zaroff craves a foe who can outsmart him. He has human heads mounted on the wall in his trophy room from his games of “outdoor chess.” Soon the hunt is on and Bob and Eve are set loose in the forest. They set traps for Zaroff, but Zaroff upgrades from bow and arrow to rifle and then he sets the dogs on his prey. The Most Dangerous Game is extremely melodramatic and silly, but the jungle settings are great (it even has the infamous log from King Kong) and the fights are fun. I really liked the castle too.

Yes, it’s hammy and the villain is oh-so-obvious and over-the-top, but I really liked this movie. It’s quick, breezy, pulpy, and fun. No one is going to confuse The Most Dangerous Game with a “great movie” but it does everything it needs to do and it’s entertaining from start to finish. So what’s the weird racial thing in this one? Here it is. It’s Americans vs. disgruntled Russians, right? Well, the head butler-cossack, Ivan, is played by African American actor, Noble Johnson (he’s the chief in King Kong), in white-face and a funny beard. As a big fan of the movies of the 1920s and 1930s, I’m used to seeing white actors in black-face, yellow-face, red-face, etc., but it’s not often you get to see a black guy in a supporting role in white-face. It’s kinda cool in a weird way. This movie obviously gets overlooked living in the shadow of the far superior and grander King Kong, but this more modest film has a lot of the seeds that would grow into Kong and it’s a fun little adventure to boot.

When you hear The Wrath of God what do you think of? Wener Herzog? Carl Theodor Dreyer? Robert Mitchum and Frank Langella? Skip them for now. How about Sessue Hayakawa? The Wrath of the Gods (1914) is a silent film that takes place near the pounding surf of a doomed Japanese shore. Sessue Hayakawa (The Bridge On the River Kwai, Swiss Family Robinson) is a poor fisherman named Yamaki. His daughter, Toya San, is cursed because of an ancestor’s murderous desecration of a temple and so she cannot find love lest the gods unleash their wrath on the village. Toya San (played by Hayakawa’s wife in real life, Tsuru Aoki) renounces her Buddhist faith exclaiming, “I refuse to acknowledge a god who would so unjustly curse the innocent.” This is a huge religious and philosophical statement. One that I’m not sure even the film fully comprehends. When a shipwreck lands an American sailor, Tom Wilson (Frank Borzage), at their doors they take care of him, but soon he and Toya San fall in love. Here’s where things get interesting. Toya San cannot accept his marriage proposal for fear of the curse, but Tom assures her that Jesus Christ will protect them and that his god is stronger than all their Japanese gods. It was at this point I realized that guys will say anything to get sex but his motives are purer than that, I think. He genuinely loves her and so he evangelizes to her so he can marry her. Seeing that they can be happy together, Yamaki accepts Christianity and builds a wooden cross to replace the figure of Buddha. Naturally, the small village community is furious when they get wind of this idiot American staining their way of life. They murder Toya San’s father and torch their house and then the whole island erupts and rocks and flames poor down on everyone. The old Japanese seer gets killed in a volcanic avalanche and the island burns and the entire town is wiped out, but Tom and Toya San escape. As the Japanese villagers die in the distance, Tom says, “Your gods may be powerful, Toya San, but mine has proved his omnipotence. You are saved to perpetuate your race.” Wow. Culturally insensitive much?

The implications in this film are reason enough to watch this! Seriously! This is crazy, crazy stuff! It was based on an actual disaster that struck Sakura-Jima in 1914, the biggest Japanese eruption in the century. The dramatic elements were based on an old Japanese legend, but the implications here… This is not a love story, this is the gods at war. Each god has a very different nature and personality it seems, yet they appear to both wield authority despite their seemingly distant and abstract portrayal. The American guy has no idea how serious his infringement on their culture is. He just wants the girl and he has a simple faith in Christianity. He says Christ will protect them if she believes. Which he does and they are saved. The seer says that the Japanese gods will destroy the island if Toya-San marries. Which they do and everyone is killed. Not to say there isn’t a clear pro-American/pro-Christian agenda here, but I think there is plenty more to unpack in this story. It presents two very different world views. The ignorant, meddling, naive, and optimistic Christian American all in favor of New World ideals and individualism is in stark contrast to the traditionalist, isolationist, and superstitious mob mentality of the Japanese fishing village who live in fear and follow strict ritual. Both are caricatures, but both make Toya San’s choice that much easier to go with the flat white guy. He’s nice to her and says she won’t be cursed. Who would you go with?

Another really cool thing about this movie is that the Asian people are PLAYED BY ASIAN PEOPLE. The Wrath of the Gods was made early enough (1914) that there was still some diversity in American films. No yellow-face in this film. Another really fascinating thing is that, unlike Madame Butterfly copies, the Japanese girl gets the white guy in the end and doesn’t die. Actor Frank Borzage and actress Tsuru Aoki even share an onscreen kiss. Miscegenation laws be damned! This sort of interracial romantic representation would be banned later on in Hollywood and hurt the careers of people like Anna May Wong. No one remembers this movie today because it is a silent movie with no big, famous names in it. Hayakawa was a fine actor and he made dozens of films in both the sound era and the silent, but he is not as famous as Valentino, Pickford, Chaney, or Fairbanks. This is a strange little movie, particularly in its representation of foreign relations, but it’s only good and not great and so it gets swept under the carpet.

So why do I keep doing this? Watching these films that are good but not great and recommend them? It is because I’d hate to think of some of these fine movies being forgotten or missed by people who might enjoy them. Like The Shanghai Express, West of Zanzibar, and White Zombie which I loved and featured folks like Marlene Dietrich, Lon Chaney, Sr., and Bela Lugosi; Elephant Boy, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Wrath of Gods are not so off the beaten path that even the most nominal of film buff couldn’t enjoy them. Sabu, Fay Wray, and Sessue Hayakawa are still pretty big. Next time maybe I’ll try to find even smaller movies. Until then enjoy these titles.

http://www.moviemartyr.com/1932/mostdangerousgame.htm

http://www.britmovie.co.uk/films/Elephant-Boy/

http://www.listal.com/list/filmography-robert-j-flaherty

http://www.filmfan.com/pages/memorial_wray.html

http://furuhonjoe.blog137.fc2.com/blog-entry-5.html

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

The Inconsequentials

Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.

Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.

I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”


Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.

The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.


Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.

Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.


The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.

Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is  just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).

 

One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.

As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.

picture references:

mubi.com

doctormacro.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.