Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lugosi's 'Yellow Peril Trilogy'

Three of Bela Lugosi's worst movies have him playing an Oriental Villain in films inspired by what was in the 1930s a thriving pulp fiction genre, the Yellow Peril tales.

While these films are not an actual trilogy, it is interesting that three of his worst would be drawn from the same now-mostly disused well.

For more reviews of (better) Bela Lugosi films, visit The Bela Lugosi Collection.


The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Arline Judge and Lotus Long
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

"The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is a B-movie double-threat that manages to both be a bad Yellow Menace and a bad newspaper reporter comedy.


Bela Lugosi stars as Wong, a cheap, underachieving Fu Manchu imitation whose minions are murdering their way through Chinatown's underworld to acquire the ancient Twelve Coins of Confucius. A slacker, racist newspaper reporter dismisses the police's theory that it's a Tong War unfolding, but is otherwise indifferent to the situation until his editor forces him to follow up on the story. He bumbles his way through some of the lamest detective work (with his incompetence exceeded only by that of the police), narrowly avoids several harebrained assasination attempts by Wong's minions, and eventually makes his way to the film's lame climax through the miracle of Plot Dictates.

While "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" is watchable, it is only just. It is better than some later Yellow Menace films (such as the awful "The Castle of Fu Manchu" starring Christopher Lee) but not by much. And if you have even so much as a tiny bit of sensitivity to racism and bad stereotypes, prepare to be at the very least mildly outraged. The worst racism is comes from the mouth of the film's "hero," so be prepared to not like him much. (It's pretty bad, even by the standards of the day in which this film was made.)


The Shadow of Chinatown (1936)
Starring: Herman Brix, Joan Barclay, Luana Walters, Maurice Lui, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Robert F. Hill
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A pair of self-loathing "Eurasians" (Walters and Lugosi) team up to use their business saavy and scientific know-how to enrich themselves and take their revenge on both the White and Oriental peoples. But they haven't counted on interference from a San Francisco society page reporter wanting to graduate to investigative reporting (Barclay), her Chinese culture-loving private detective friend (Brix), nor the assortment of superfluous secondary characters and bumbling henchmen.


"The Shadow of Chinatown" that I watched is the feature-film version, which is a condensing of a 15-part serial. That explains for some of the disjointedness of the story, but it doesn't account for the atrociously wooden acting on the part of the actors--except Luana Walters, the only performer who gives a decent accounting of herself--the erratic and contradictory abilities and powers of Lugosi's character, and the lame, anti-climax of the movie's end.

This 70-minute version was so dull I almost didn't make it to end. It starts out strong enough with Walters and Lugosi's minions fanning out through Chinatown and terrorizing business patrons while disguised as Chinese gangsters, and providing Barclay's character an opportunity to get captured by the villains and then escape... but then it starts to sink into a mess of bad acting and even worse plotting. Walters remains a bright spot throughout, but she's really the only thing worth watching here.


Black Dragons (aka "The Yellow Menace") (1942)
Starring: Bela Lugosi and Joan Barclay
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

As America gears up to fight the Japanese during WWII, a group of wealthy Fifth Columnists finalize their plans to sabotage the war effort from the top down. However, they share a secret far deeper and more sinister than just being traitors--and that secret is why the mysterious Mr. Cologne (Lugosi) is murdering them, one by one. Is Cologne an American patriot, or is he a threat more sinister than even the enemy agents?


There isn't much in this 1942 spy movie that recommends it to the modern viewer. "Black Dragons" is terribly dated due to its WWII message of "loose lips sink ships" and while it shows some glimmers of perhaps having risen to the level of an interesting thriller, the rushed, exposition-heavy wrap-up during the film's final ten minutes dispels what little supense had been built up, and the fact that the mysterious powers displayed by Lugosi's character (who, literally, vanishes into thin air several times) remain unexplained, confine this film to the massive scrapheap of Z-grade pictures.



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