DirectorRobert Florey/Nick Grinde/Kurt Neumann
Release Date(s)1938-1939 (May 2, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was Hollywood’s first Chinese-American film star. Indeed, during the silent and early-talkie period, she was an international sensation, famous for her flapper-era fashions. Frustrated by the Asian stereotypes she was forced to play, for about a decade she alternated between Hollywood and European productions, but a turning point of sorts was when MGM rejected her for the leading role in The Good Earth, the role of O-Lan in Pearl Buck’s novel, going instead to white actress Luise Rainer. If it was clear to Wong before, the casting of Rainer made clear that no breakthrough parts were forthcoming.
Kino’s new Anna May Wong Collection consists of three Paramount B-movies, each running a bit more than an hour, that Wong made during 1938-39. These films—Dangerous to Know, Island of Lost Men, and King of Chinatown—are variable in quality, but what makes them interesting is how they sometimes use Wong in non-stereotypical ways. In King of Chinatown, for instance, Wong plays a respected surgeon, admired by never-condescending white male doctors, the kind of part that would have been rare even for a white Hollywood actress of the period. Inviting Caucasian friends to dinner, one is excited at the thought of chop suey. “We don’t serve American food,” Wong pithily responds.
While Anna May Wong was, undeniably, one of the great faces of the silent era, like some other silent era stars, in talkies Wong’s limitations as an actress quickly became apparent. Years ago, I was rather startled to find myself watching the even more iconic Louise Brooks in a lowly Three Mesquiteers B-Western, Overland Stage Raiders (1938), in which Brooks’ ingenue opposite John Wayne was completely undistinguished from other actresses in such undemanding parts, and Brooks herself was virtually unrecognizable. In these three Paramount titles, Wong isn’t terrible, but it’s pretty clear that, in sound films at least, she definitely was a limited actress, at least in talkies, and what screen presence she had in the silent era had dimmed considerably. By the late-‘30s her striking, youthful features had faded with middle-age; to her credit, she outlasted many of her contemporaries, but in these films the other Asian actors she occasionally appears with (such as Philip Ahn) are clearly better actors.
All three Paramount titles included here were higher-end B-pictures with decent directors and good casts. Two of them pair her with Armenian character actor Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil), and all three feature Anthony Quinn, then slowly working up through the ranks. Dangerous to Know and King of Chinatown both cast Tamiroff as a gangster but he creates contrasting characterizations: he’s a larger-than-life, theatrical, and nearly indestructible gang leader in the latter, but a moody, low-key one in the former, wealthy and powerful whose Achilles heel is that he wants to marry above his lowly social standing into respectability. Both types of characters were already clichés in Hollywood gangster films, but Tamiroff makes each his own.
In both of those movies the plot revolves more around his character rather than Wong’s, especially in Dangerous to Know, though as noted above in King of Chinatown Wong, playing the respected surgeon, is trying to save her father, a traditional Chinese pharmacist from the “old country” (and played by Sidney Toler, just as he was about to start playing Charlie Chan), whom Wong suspects of trying to kill Tamiroff’s gangster. In Dangerous to Know she’s really off on the sidelines as Tamiroff’s “hostess”/gatekeeper/executive secretary, secretly in love with him, while he pursues heiress Gail Patrick.
Both have excellent casts, including Lloyd Nolan, Roscoe Karns, and Porter Hall in Dangerous to Know; J. Carrol Naish, Philip Ahn (as Wong’s brother), and Karns again in King of Chinatown.
Island of Lost Men (not to be confused with Island of Doomed Men or Island of Lost Souls) turns out to be a remake of the pre-Code White Woman (1933), which Kino coincidentally released to Blu-ray this past February. That film starred Charles Laughton, Carole Lombard, Charles Bickford, and Kent Taylor, roles played in this remake by J. Carrol Naish, Wong, Broderick Crawford, and Anthony Quinn.
The remake is quite terrible. The original film was no classic, but Laughton and Bickford were good, Lombard was effervescent as usual, and the climax was unusual and exciting, plus it had a pre-Code tawdriness that was interesting. But, in the remake, J. Carrol Naish’s unbearably hammy performance burns everything to the ground. Naish, today remembered primarily as the sympathetic hunchback Daniel in House of Frankenstein (1944), had a long career playing “ethnic” types—Native Americans, Italians, Asians, Arabs, Hispanics—anything, it seemed, but Irish characters, even though he was of Irish descent. But the more exotic the character, the hammier Naish tended to play him. In Island of Lost Men, Naish plays Gregory Prin, an Asian in “yellow-face,” possibly (though vaguely) a coded Japanese. He’s dreadful.
Sadly, Anna May Wong is no Carole Lombard, either. Though again top-billed, she has much less to do in the remake than Lombard did in the original. (In that film Lombard married Laughton. In the remake, Wong just kind of tags along with Naish.) A miscast Eric Blore may have more screentime as Prin’s butler than Wong does. It’s a loose remake for the first two-thirds, but the last 20 minutes stick very close to the original, including the use of stock footage. Probably because of this, director Kurt Neumann and his frequent cinematographer, Karl Struss, can’t add much visual style so integral to their more famous pairings (Rocketship X-M, The Fly). Only Broderick Crawford, holding his own in an impressively naturalistic performance opposite Naish’s thoroughly unreal one, makes the movie bearable at all.
DANGEROUS TO KNOW (Film Grade): B+
KING OF CHINATOWN (Film Grade): B+
ISLAND OF LOST MEN (Film Grade): D
Kino’s Anna May Wong Collection Blu-ray boxed set, licensed from Paramount, presents the films, all in black-and-white, in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratios. All three look great, especially Island of Lost Men—impressively sharp with strong blacks and little obvious signs of wear or damage. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono, English only) is also good for what it is, and optional English subtitles are provided. Each Region “A” movie gets its own disc and Blu-ray case, even though all three films probably could have fit onto a single disc.
Extras are limited to audio commentaries of equally varying quality and interest: Samm Deighan on Dangerous to Know, David Del Valle on King of Chinatown, and Bryan Reesman and Max Evry on Island of Lost Men.
If one’s exposure to Anna May Wong is limited to these later sound era B-features rather than Wong’s peak silent films, you might wonder what all the fuss was about. But two of the films are above average while the third, when viewed in the right frame of mind, is entertainingly awful. Overall, recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV