Anna May Wong (1905 – 1961) was an Asian-American movie star, and one of the most popular actresses of her generation, starring in films such as The Thief Of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924) and Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932) to international acclaim. The press notes for the Java Head / Tiger Bay Double Bill proclaim that she was known for her “fluid grace and languid sexuality.” On the basis of these titles, it would be hard to disagree…
Java Head (Thorold Dickinson, J. Walter Ruben, 1934)
Java Head is the sort of film you’d expect to find playing mid-afternoon Sunday on Film4; mannered and light-hearted enough to provide some classy entertainment, but obscure enough to ensure the likes of BBC1 and ITV would give it a pass, opting instead for a Powell & Pressburger or early James Bond.
The story tells of a handsome seafaring adventurer named Gerrit (John Loder), son to the owner of Java Head, a prestigious sailing line company in 1800s Bristol. After a year traversing the globe Gerrit returns married to an exotic noblewoman from China, Taou Yuen (Wong), who stirs controversy in the small town. The people there hold on to conservative and Christian values; shocked, the community must now adjust to her presence.
It’s a somewhat bland film, sadly not living up to the “heavy-breathing melodrama” described in the aforementioned press notes, but there is a particular element of interest which almost makes the film worth recommending, and that is the editing by David Lean. Many will already know that Lean, who went on to direct such classics as Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), started out as an editor, and his work here is exemplary, displaying a keen understanding of visual storytelling. His employment of montage, especially in the rapid-fire tour of the town’s gossip trail, is thrilling, as is the way he frames a spectacular carnival. The gossip trail is best of all, as we fluidly wipe between brief shots of townsfolk whispering secrets about Gerrit and Yuen. If only the rest of the picture were as good.
It’s not a bad film per se, just a rather routine and unengaging one, emphasizing moral values which are now commonplace. Even for the time it explores them in rather uninspired fashion though, spending too much time in subplots, and all pulled off quite timidly. The performances are largely fine but Wong is the clear standout. Her exoticism is so striking that we are as taken aback as Gerrit’s family when she arrives; beautiful and spirited, her presence in the frame is undeniable, and despite the strong-willed nature of her character she exudes warmth. It’s a wonderful performance which, combined with Lean’s editing, perhaps means I’m recommending the film after all, flaws and all.
Directors: Thorold Dickinson, J. Walter Ruben
Writers: Martin Brown, Gordon Wellesley
Stars: Anna May Wong, Elizabeth Allan, John Loder
Runtime: 85 min
Tiger Bay (J. Elder Wills, 1934 – pictured)
Essentially a propaganda piece for the sanctity of true love (does it thrive in the darkest slums, or is it just a fantasy of feminine fiction?), Tiger Bay tells the overwrought story of Michael (Victor Garland), a young Englishman living abroad who travels to the low-life district of Tiger Bay in the hope of finding romance against a bleak social backdrop.
Some of the stereotypes are terribly out-dated, but worse is the ever-changing emotional spectrum of our protagonist, who seemingly changes mood to serve the plot more than anything; his initial naivety and doe-eyed romanticism is wholly unbelievable, as is his transition to strong-willed, impulsive brawler when he steps into an escalating conflict, attempting to protect the honour of exotic dancer Lui Chang (Wong) against the rowdy drunk Olaf (Henry Victor, of Freaks, Tod Browning, 1932, fame).
Yet the film does have rewarding aspects. Wills’ direction is smooth and often unconventional, choosing interesting angles from which to shoot the action. It’s no more ambitious than any other film of this era, but a tracking shot through swinging saloon doors and the simple shot structure which invites us into the Tiger Bay district are effectively executed. The set-piece finale excites also, and the ending is admirably downbeat.
Wills’ knack for comedy is uneven to say the least. Some gags land solid chortles, and others cringing silence. This isn’t helped by some atrociously OTT performances, although Wong is a captivating screen presence, more than making up for the frequent histrionics of the supporting cast. She’s such a naturalistic and controlled performer, yet her exoticism lends every portrayal an air of mystery. Her beauty is magnetic, and her talents capable of lifting even the drabbest of material.
The film is worth noting once again for the editing by a young David Lean, now on his eleventh picture. His work is by far the best thing here, and already his visual senses seem well developed, using screen-wipes to liven up the action and creating tension from the well-choreographed fight sequences which Wills can’t quite muster on his own. I couldn’t wholly recommend the film, but there’s enough here to entertain purists of 1930’s cinema and at 65 minutes it certainly won’t take up too much of your time…
Director: J. Elder Wills
Writers: John Quin, J. Elder Wills (story)
Stars: Anna May Wong, Henry Victor, Lawrence Grossmith
Runtime: 70 min
Considering that they’re almost 80 years old the films look excellent. There is some slight scratchiness during Java Head, but most viewers won’t notice; certainly it doesn’t distract from the action. The prints are generally marvellous, so it’s a shame that this is the barest of all possible packages. There are no extras.
The Java Head / Tiger Bay double bill is released on DVD 20th June 2011.