October 5, 2017
Tiger Bay – U.K., 1934
There must have been a clause in Anna May Wong’s contract stipulating that a movie starring her include at least one dance sequence, regardless of whether it made sense for her character. And it doesn’t in J. Edgar Willis’s Tiger Bay. In the film, Miss Wong plays Lui Chang, the hostess of a restaurant/dance hall on a seedy island known as Tiger Bay. Chang not only runs the place – she even cooks when the situation calls for it –but as an extra bonus, she is also the star attraction. Early on, Chang takes the stage in front of dozens of gawking customers, each of them giving the stage their rapt attention. Then the dance begins. Let me rephrase that. Then what passes for an exotic dance in an old movie made by people who knew nothing about Asian dances begins, and Miss Wong commences with the kind of dance that more closely resembles the kind performed for that teenage pervert in the video for Madonna’s "Open Your Heart," with its limited choreography, repetitive movements, and complete indifference on the part of the dancer. Having seen what comes next, I can’t say I blame her.
Tiger Bay has a running time of just 63 minutes, and it would make sense for a movie with so few minutes to focus on just two or three characters. The makers of Tiger Bay, however, opt for a wider scope. We get Lui Chang, her young ward (in a more daring movie, she would be her daughter or sister), a handsome young traveler named Michael (Victor Garland) in search of romance in the toughest of places (yes, you read that right), a patron who steals other people’s drinks and sings to birds (yes, you also read that right), a caustic and lovable employee named Fay (Margaret Yarde), and a bumbling assistant named Alf (yes, you…oh, never mind). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s chief villain, Olaf (Henry Victor), who appears to be in some country’s Navy, but spends most of his time either pursuing women or extorting protection money out of local businesses.
With such a wide focus, very little is developed enough to elicit much in the way of empathy from the audience. Only Miss Wong is given enough screen time for us to understand what makes her tick and what brought her, a woman that Michael declares does not match his stereotypes of Chinese women, to a place like Tiger Bay. After all, from what we see of the place – gambling, prostitution, violence out in the open, indifference all around – it is hardly a place for a lady. The scene in which she explains her beginnings is probably the best one in the film, and yet it is also the first sign of the influence of what were then common practices in movies with non-White leads. In the scene, Michael confesses to being fascinated by Chang, yet apparently “fascination” is plutonic. A second later, he’s professing love for Chang’s ward, Letty.
The film’s main story line involves Olaf’s attempts to get money from Chang, and had this been given more time, Tiger Bay would likely have been a much better film. Sadly, it is poorly developed, and Olaf comes across as more of a clumsy oaf than a homicidal monster. At one point, he attempts to scare people by pounding a fork and knife on a table and demanding food. It’s more comical than threatening. Also hurting the film is its inconsistency when it comes to the authorities on the island. They first give the impression of being lazy and ineffective, which would make sense if they were on the take, yet by the end of the movie, there they are rushing to stop Olaf’s criminal activities. Just where they were when he stabbed Michael during a fist fight we’ll never know. And then there’s the film’s problematic ending. If you’ve seen Miss Wong’s movies before, you know what I’m getting at. The film has to find a reason to have her die, and the one they come up with is so out of left field that you’d swear the film’s five writers just drew it out a hat.
It all makes for a frustrating experience, yet one that is not without a few moments of charm. Miss Wong has a knack for playing strong, resilient characters, and she does well in the film despite the substandard material she is given. I also got a real kick out of Fay. During an early scene, Michael takes her for Letty’s mother, and when told that Fay is single and respectable, he is quick to apologize. Without missing a beat, Fay replies, “Sorry I’m single, or sorry I’m respectable?” It’s a great pre-code moment in an otherwise forgettable film. (on DVD)
2 and a half stars