September 14, 2017
Daughter of the Dragon – US, 1931
I’ll be honest, I didn’t have very high hopes for Lloyd Corrigan's 1931 film Daughter of the Dragon. After all, the film was made at a time when American and European movies were not known for giving Asian and Asian-American actors much in the way of quality roles. When good roles did come along, it was common practice for them to be played by Caucasians and for Asian actors to be relegated to supporting roles. It is a situation that made the star of Daughter of the Dragon, Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first real Asian-American female star, set off for the greener pastures of Britain, where she’d hoped to find meatier roles. Also appearing in the film is Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, at one time one of the most popular actors in the United States, yet one unfortunately typecast as either the villain or a man who must make the ultimate sacrifice so that another couple can find true happiness. Playing these kinds of roles couldn’t have been fun for either of them, and it is a credit to them both that they seem to have approached even the most stereotypical of roles professionally.
Daughter of the Dragon is everything you’d think it would be, and this is not a compliment. The film begins with someone’s idea of traditional Asian music and images of both Buddha and a large red dragon. From there, viewers receive a history of the infamous Fu Manchu, a man thought to be dead after plotting his revenge on those he blamed for the deaths of his wife and son during the Boxer Rebellion. We also learn that he had a daughter, a “celebrated Oriental dancer” curiously referred to as Princess Ling Moy, who appears to be both famous and extremely wealthy. (I’m still a little hazy on what she is actually “princess” of, though.)
Fu Manchu is, of course, still among the living and, more importantly, still seeking revenge for his perceived injustices. Having already killed two generations of men in the Petrei family, he has his sights set on the remaining two, and despite his twenty year absence, he has somehow retained all of his henchman, as well as the assistance of evil architects, who have managed to connect Ling Moy’s house to the Petrei’s without anyone noticing. It reminded me of the many underground lairs of Spectre, all of them amazing feats of architecture that would have taken years to complete and could not possibly have gone undetected.
Fu Manchu is unsuccessful in his quest for revenge, and he soon reveals himself to his daughter. She, being the dutiful Chinese daughter that she is despite having been abandoned twenty years earlier, promises to finish the job for him. This solemn oath is taken in front of the dragon emblem with serves as a kind of family insignia and at one point even allows Fu Manchu to speak from the grave. However, before this, we get to hear Fu Manchu’s views on women, and they are stereotypically sexist. At one point, Ling Moy vows to complete the task as her father’s son. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but it seems to please her father quite a lot. There are only two obstacles to her completing her mission: a crafty Chinese officer named Ah Kee (Hayakawa) and her growing love for Ronald Petrie (Bramwell Fletcher) the man she has to kill.
Regrettably, the film operates on the impression that it has no time for character development or for casual conversation. There’s barely a moment that goes by without dialogue that is so direct that it literally forces the movie forward against its will. Without established characters, people change personalities whenever it suits the script. One minute a character can be in love with one person and in the very next scene be professing love for someone else. In addition, despite ample opportunities, the villains of the picture never seem willing to actual kill the person they are tasked with putting an end to. They are more likely to wait a month, insist on his death occurring in a specific location, or demand to first prove where his heart lies. It’s enough to make one long for the silliness of Bond’s enemies and their collective habit of asking him to dine with them.
The film wins some points for its frank discussion of race and the walls that society erected to prevent interracial romances from occurring. During one of these moments, Petrei confesses his attraction to Ling Moy, and she reminds him just how different her physical features are from those of the women he normally dates, as if to say, “This probably isn’t possible.” Such scenes would not have been possible a few years later, when the Hayes Code was more rigorously enforced. It’s also interesting to note the proposal that Ah Kee makes to Ling Moy, not just of marriage but of relocation. He seems to be suggesting that the best place for them is China.
It is a testament to Wong and Hayakawa that they survived the film with their reputations intact. They indeed tried hard to breathe life into a stale script that depicted the majority of Asian characters as both sinister and ruthless. Their efforts are commendable, even if they are not entirely successful. In fact, of all of the actors in the film, the one I’ll remember most fondly is Harold Minjir, who plays the role of Roger, the Petrei family’s butler. Sure, the character exists solely to provide comic relief in a film that has no reason to present it, but his bumbling nature and pursuit of an opportunity to prove his bravery were quite a joy to behold.
Having read both Anna May Wong’s and Sessue Hayakawa’s biographies, I knew they had made a film together prior to seeing Daughter of the Dragon, but there is nothing in either book that suggests that it was the highlight of their careers. The film is a product of its time, and a good reminder of this is a kiss that Ling Moy and Petrei almost share, as well as the character whose voice stops it. Films like this couldn’t be made today, and for good reason. However, go on Amazon and you’ll find a head-scratching five-star review for Daughter of the Dragon. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste. (on DVD)