February 27, 2021
Flame of Love, The – 1930, UK
You would think that a movie with a running time of 76 minutes and a plot involving a desperate race to save a condemned man would not waste a single moment. Not in 1930, apparently. That year, director Richard Eichberg and writer Monckton Hoffe, like so many others in the early days of talkies, were seemingly so giddy over the arrival of sound that they couldn’t resist inserting not just one, but five musical performances into their film The Flame of Love. And these are not the kinds of musical numbers that move the plot along or reveal characters’ inner conflicts or feelings. No, these are pure eye candy, replete with scantily-clad female performers and unintentionally laugh-inducing lyrics about how beautiful Russia “songs” are. The latter description refers to two numbers that are disappointing for another reason: They follow moments of intense emotion. Two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes and completely convey the depths of their desire. They want nothing more but to embrace and passionately lock lips, but what do Eichberg and Hoffe have one of them do? Run to the piano. Did I mention that these characters are alone?
Then again, they really weren’t. The higher-ups had deemed British audiences not yet ready to witness intimacy between a Caucasian and an Asian; hence, two characters who pine for each other and look at each other with intense stares that perfectly convey their collective longing are reduced to grasping each other’s hands and occasionally receiving a peck on the knuckles. It is hard to understate how disappointing this must have been for the film’s star, Anna May Wong. She had gone to the UK hoping to find better roles, only to find the same insulting restrictions that she had experienced in Hollywood. And it would be awfully hard to understate how dated scenes like these make the film seem. We are essentially watching a relic of all that was wrong with early motion pictures.
In The Flame of Love, Wong plays Hai-Tang, a singer in what resembles a Russian vaudeville circuit. After a brief reunion with her Russian military officer boyfriend, Boris Boriskoff (John Longden), she performs in front of a packed crowd which includes several high-ranking members of the Russian military, including the Grand Duke (Georg H. Schnell). The Grand Duke takes an immediate liking to her and sends a “request” that Hai-Tang meet him later that night. Interestingly, Boris is the one ordered to deliver the invitation. Two things are immediately apparent: Boris has no intention of granting the request, and the Grand Duke has no interest in taking no for an answer. Thus, something has to give, and only one of them has complete authority over the other.
Hai-Tang’s song and dance number, or as it might more correctly be called, “the bad idea that they multiplied by three,” must be seen to be believed. In it, the curtain rises on Hai-Tang. She is seated regally on an elevated pillow, decked out in the kind of flashy, skimpy attire that frequenters of red-light districts see ethnic women perform in and assume must be cultural. That she then performs a song that is much more Western than Asian only makes the scene more surreal. First, Hai-Tang sings, then young men dressed in Terra-cotta uniforms wearing men throw off their armor and impressively perform acrobatic feats for so long that what was once impressive becomes tedious. Then, for reasons truly unknown, it’s Hai-Tang’s time to bust a move, and what comes out of her is an unsightly mix of Hawaiian luaus and Isadora Duncan prancing. There’s a silver lining to this travesty of filmmaking, however: the lack of authenticity and Wong’s questionable techniques remove any doubt about the Grand Duke’s intentions. After all, there’s absolutely no way he’d want a private performance of that.
As for the film’s other numbers, they aren’t really an improvement. Boriskoff’s intended romantic serenade falls well short of the mark, and a brief number involving a barbershop quartet is just filler – presumably to help the film achieve feature film length. Other musical numbers take place at an after-hours club, and surprisingly they exist for a purpose, to demonstrate the difference between the kind of place officers go on official business and the ones they frequent when they’re off-duty. The latter was dirtier and much more raucous, and I got the impression that Eichberg intended the scene as a PG-version of an orgy. Alas, like he did with Wong’s first number, the director doesn’t know when the quit - the first of these debaucheries was effective; the second was pure overkill.
I mention this aspect of the film because I believe it is the reason the film was panned upon release. Eichberg spends so much time filming people dancing and singing that it’s hard not to get an impression of narrative shallowness. However, if one can look past these numbers, as well as the fact that the only Russian characters who actually sounds Russian speaks as if it is a foreign language to her, there is actually much to laud the film for. At its core, it is about the powerless being at the mercy of the powerful. Hai-Tang may be a famous performer, but it is important to remember just how much performers were looked down upon in the past, and requests like the Grand Duke’s were sadly routine. Plus, as a Chinese woman living in the days before the first World War, Hai-Tang is paradoxically viewed as not being marriage material, while simultaneously being seen as erotic and desirable. Interestingly, Hai-Tang recognizes this. She is under no illusion of the Grand Duke’s intent, and she also has a less than perfect view of her relationship with Boris. Early on, she tells her overly optimistic boyfriend that the future will send them down diverging roads and that “[i]t must be so.”
Fortunately, once the film dispenses with – or at least reduces – the musical numbers, it becomes an intriguing and emotional film about the efforts of two people to ward off danger and protect both themselves and the people they love. Both Longden and Wong began their careers in silent films, and by the time sound came along, they had learned how to express emotions through looks and expressions. Wong had learned not only how to cry on cue, but also how to simultaneously demonstrate just how deeply anguished a character could be. She needed no words to convey her character’s pain and desperation, and when she and Longden gaze into each other’s eye, they express more than could be achieved with thirty minutes of whispered sweet nothings and heartfelt exposition. They deserve credit for the fact that the second half of the film works as well as it does.
Perhaps The Flame of Love can best be summed up as a tale of two halves, of a poorly-conceived first half replete with far too many sideshows, and a dramatic and deeply involving second half that moves with a deliberate and desperate pace. I cared for these characters, and even though the ending is a foregone conclusion based on the casting and earlier foreshadowing, the ending was still a punch to the gut, at least until the very last image, when Boris looks at his lost love, anguish running over his face, and hides his head behind hers. The stupidity of the times didn’t allow him to kiss his beloved good-bye. (on DVD in Region 2)