December 20, 2020
Drifting – US, 1923
I believe there is a tendency to give films a pass if they happen to be made by or star someone whose work we generally admire. If the director – say Hitchcock or Chaplin - is the object of approbation, the work might be labeled “lesser” or undergo a “reevaluation” by a generation much more willing to declare any of that person’s creations a masterpiece. If it’s the actor or actress who is esteemed, potential viewers are usually urged to ignore any disappointment that the direction or script may inspire and focus on a performance, the impression being that it is worth any eye-rolling or long sighs that the film inspires as a whole. I mention this because the 1923 film Drifting is likely to be praised for the wrong reasons: It was directed by Tod Browning, whose later film Freaks is often referred to as a masterpiece, and it features a young woman who went on to achieve legendary status, Anna May Wong. So, yes, the film will have its defenders from the get-go.
And yet, let’s imagine a dinner party thrown by the film’s lead characters, Cassie Cook (Priscilla Dean) and Captain Arthur Jarvis (Matt Moore), years after the events depicted in the film. Undoubtedly, one or more of the guests would be unfamiliar with the story of their pairing, and soon, attention would focus on the couple as they set the way-back machine to colonial China during the years opium had a grip on its population. I suspect the retelling would go something like this:
Cassie: See, I was in Shanghai working…
Guest: (cutting her off excitedly) Oh, that’s marvelous! I have so wanted to go there. What did you do, if you don’t mind my asking?
Cassie: Uh… (awkward pause) I was in sales. Anyway, I…
Guest: You were a businesswoman? How intriguing! Whatever did you sell?
Cassie: (clears her throat and lowers her voice considerably) Opium. (At regular volume) Anyway, after blowing all of my money at the tracks, I decided to go to Hang Chow.
Guest: (still startled by the admission that Cassie used to be a drug dealer; looks at the Captain, who pours himself a drink and quickly gulps it down) Excuse me for interrupting, but how did you get there if you didn’t have any money?
Cassie: (visibly flustered) Um… I’m not sure exactly. (Turning and breaking the fourth wall) That wasn’t really explained in the film, was it? (turns back to the guest) Anyway, after my arrival in Hang Chow, I was putting away my things when I heard this god-awful noise…pardon my French… outside my room. I opened the door, and there was…
Guest: Pardon the interruption, but what made you go there? I mean, from what I hear, it is hardly a place for tourists.
Cassie: (after another uncomfortable pause) Well, that was where my husband had been sent to try to crush the opium trade.
(Guest looks stunned and confused)
Cassie: (with an understandably dry throat) See (clears her throat) I went there to put a stop to his foolish campaign. He was threatening my business and costing me money, after all. I was also asked to cozy up to him and eventually betray him. I even stole a report he wrote and made him think that a sweet young woman who ratted me out was lying.
(Guest, mouth agape, looks at the Captain, who is already on his fifth drink)
Cassie: (trying to reassure her guest) Look, I know how it sounds, but we fell in love. Honestly, we did. (breaks the fourth wall again) I know we didn’t know each other all that long and that we never had a single scene together in which we talked to each other with our hearts. I know I put him in mortal danger and was mean to all the kids who looked up to him. I know it didn’t make sense that I was dining with my enemy or that he would also lose all the money he had in the world on the same horse. I know the final battle between the villagers, the mountain people, and the colonial army was incomprehensible and that my husband’s friend was way too old to be pursuing fifteen-year-old Rose Li, and I acknowledge that her fate fit a pattern of Asian characters conveniently stepping out of the picture so that the Caucasian leads live happily ever after. But darn it, the picture needed a happy ending and… (breaks down and sobs)
Jarvis: (walks behind his wife and gently massages her shoulders; looks straight ahead) Don’t worry, dear. It was directed by Tod Browning and features Anna May Wong just before her star-making turn in The Thief of Bagdad. Critics will surely give it a pass. (Drifting is on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars (and yes, I’m being a bit generous with the extra half star, but what can I say – I like Anna May Wong)