#333) Daughter of Shanghai (1937)

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#333) Daughter of Shanghai (1937)

OR “Slaying the Dragon Lady”

Directed by Robert Florey

Written by Gladys Unger and Garnett Weston. Based on a story by Weston.

Class of 2006

A rare case of a movie with no clips on YouTube, but here’s a tribute to Anna May Wong.

The Plot: Lan Ying Lin (Anna May Wong) is determined to find the men who murdered her father (Ching Whah Lee), a successful San Francisco businessman who refused to aid an illegal immigrant smuggling racket. One of her father’s clients, Mrs. Hunt (Cecil Cunningham), introduces Lan Ying to Kim Lee (Philip Ahn), the government agent assigned to crack down on the smuggling. Lan Ying travels to Port O’Juan and poses as a dancer to infiltrate the dive bar run by Otto Hartman (Charles Bickford), the man she believes is running the racket. But there are more surprises along the way in this remarkably stereotype-free mystery.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “an intriguing, taut thriller” and “more truly [Anna May] Wong’s personal vehicle than any of her other films.” There’s also an essay by Library of Congress archivist Brian Taves.

But Does It Really?: I went into “Daughter of Shanghai” fearing 62 minutes of cringe-worthy stereotypes, and was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Sure, it’s a run-of-the-mill B picture with its share of clichés and budget limitations, but the film stars two Asian Americans that are treated as, ya know, people. Thanks to Anna May Wong’s concentrated effort on expanding the roles Asian Americans can play in film, I can judge “Daughter of Shanghai” on its content rather than its antiquated racial issues. “Daughter of Shanghai” is the kind of film I’m looking for on this list: an underrated, largely forgotten film that was vastly ahead of its time. Yes, it’s on the list for what it represents more than for what it is, but its characterizations are refreshingly progressive, so no argument here for NFR inclusion.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly just ‘30s things like candlestick phones, taxi cabs, and printed newspapers. I am delighted I didn’t have to bring up coolies or the “Oriental riff” in relation to this film.

Take a Shot: Lan Ying Lin is introduced as “Daughter of Shanghai” before she performs at Hartman’s club. It makes no sense for the film or the character, but it does make a great title.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Daughter of Shanghai” received mixed critical response and tepid audience reactions, and quickly disappeared. Seeing as how the Oscars were still two years away from giving Hattie McDaniel an award in a prestigious studio picture, they were not going to nominate an Asian American for a B-Picture. Heck, “Daughter of Shanghai” didn’t even make the late show TV circuit.

Other notes

  • Anna May Wong was already an established Hollywood star by 1937, though she was still reduced to playing supporting roles and “Dragon Lady” stereotypes. After not being offered the lead role of O-Lan in “The Good Earth” (a role that went to white actor Luise Rainer), Wong traveled to China to visit family, and ended up staying for a year, absorbing the culture. Still under contract with Paramount, she returned to Hollywood, on the condition that her remaining films feature positive portrayals of Chinese-Americans.
  • Anthony Quinn and Buster Crabbe play the two thugs at the beginning. Quinn was just starting out in the movies, and Crabbe was fresh off his success as Flash Gordon.
  • Once I realized the film was going to treat Lan Ying and Kim Lee respectfully, I started to relax and enjoy myself. Wong is giving a nicely restrained performance, especially compared to some of the overacting happening around her. Side note: Wong was born and raised in Los Angeles, but got vocal coaching at Cambridge while in Europe during the early ‘30s, hence her slightly-British, more enunciated cadence.
  • Lan Ying’s dad isn’t a stereotype either! This is amazing! Though I’m pretty sure all of Ching Whah Lee’s dialogue is dubbed.
  • I get the feeling Cecil Cunningham would have been a great foil for the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges.
  • For the record, Philip Ahn is Korean, not Chinese. But hey, he’s the co-lead in a 1937 B-picture; baby steps everyone.
  • There are a handful of scenes in which Lan Ying, Kim Lee and others briefly speak Chinese. There are no subtitles, so that’s a bonus element for anyone who speaks Chinese, though I’m pretty sure the dialogue translates to “White people don’t know that I’m lying.
  • The film’s B-picture budget is on full display with the model work. The sequence of the helicopter landing in the water was obviously filmed in a tank at the Paramount backlot.
  • It’s not that the film gets worse during the third act; it’s just that Lan Ying becomes a very passive character all of a sudden. Hell, one shot is literally just Lan Ying standing there watching the male characters fight it out. I did not come this far in this movie for Kelly the chauffeur/Irish stereotype to end up being the hero.
  • Ugh, I was willing to forgive this movie’s third act, but it tripped at the finish line. The movie clips along with no romantic subplot between Lan Ying and Kim Lee, and then they discuss getting married right at the end. So close. But then again, not too many “how we met” stories involve dangling from a helicopter. Take that, Bob Saget voiceover!

Legacy

  • Anna May Wong continued to make films that put Chinese-Americans in a positive light, though she spent most of World War II aiding the Chinese war effort, and her screen appearances diminished. After the war Wong never regained her status as film star, but did find success on radio and television, including the first series to star an Asian-American: “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong”. Unfortunately no prints of the 10 produced episodes survive.
  • Wong was set to appear in the film version of “Flower Drum Song” but had to withdraw due to health issues. She died of a heart attack in 1961 at the age of 56.
  • Anna May Wong’s work started being reappraised in 2005 (what would have been her 100th birthday). She has been celebrated in retrospectives, film festivals, at least three biographies, and the documentary “Anna May Wong, Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times and Legend”.

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