154. Shadow of Chinatown (1936)
Director: Robert F. Hill
Writers: story by Robert F. Hill, additional dialogue by William Buchanan, continuity by Isadore Bernstein and Basil Dickey
From: Cult Cinema
A shady criminal enterprise tries to take over Chinatown businesses but is constantly thwarted by a pulp writer and his tenacious reporter friend.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone. To celebrate your drowning in Lucky Charms, I give you serials. I know that’s a stretch, but the only material on these sets that I know is even remotely Irish is Naked Massacre and that’s not actually very fun. Or good. Or something I’m rushing to watch again. Instead, today and tomorrow will focus on two movies cut together from movie serials—each cut in their own way and facing their own problems.
First is Shadow of Chinatown starring Bela Lugosi, which is to its credit. In fact, initially, there’s a lot to this movie’s credit. It takes 6 whole minutes to have an openly racist stereotype—the koan-spouting Chinese manservant—and, apart from him, it doesn’t really have others. Sonya Rokoff, who seems initially to be the main villain, looks like she might be a Dragon Lady type or even someone doing yellowface, but, as her name indicates, she’s just a white woman wearing Chinese fashion. She’s also part of a business concern importing and exporting Chinese goods so there’s a reason she’s wearing that. I was nervous when I first saw her, but she’s not putting on an accent and then I caught the name. Let’s be fair: the movie was made in 1936—there was a better than even chance it would be cringingly racist throughout.
None of this describes the plot, though, which is always difficult with serials turned into movies. You either have a few episodes cut together with minimal editing so there’s a lot of bloat, or you have the entire serial cut into one feature so everything’s manic and confused. This is the latter.
So Rokoff works for an import/export firm and gets a note instructing her to sabotage the Chinese businesses in San Francisco because they’re offering too much competition. She calls Lugosi who’s involved with some vague mad scientisty thing and he, an expert of disguise, sends his gang members into Chinatown looking like locals to set off bombs, shoot off guns, and generally create an air of violence that scares all the tourists away.
Plucky society columnist Joan Whiting is investigating the events in hopes of getting promoted to full reporter. She asks her friend/crush, pulp writer Martin Andrews for help, but he blows her off because, *pfft* dames, so she investigates on her own and gets captured.
Thus we have the initial setup and boy did this serial get busy. She’s kidnapped, Andrews stupids his way into saving her, he’s the key suspect in all the gang activity then just isn’t anymore, Lugosi has a longstanding grudge against him, action moves to Los Angeles but never arrives there, Lugosi turns out to be a master hypnotist and then, in the third act, to be a master inventor as well and has bugged all of San Fran with his vi-coders, chase, chase, chase, double-cross, fight, fight, all baddies die, the end.
The original serial, I think, was supposed to focus on Andrews as the hero—a pulp novelist whose stories reflect the real-life adventures he leads. It’s not a bad trope, it worked great for Murder, She Wrote, but it doesn’t come across in this edited version because there’s no time to establish that he’s writing any of this down. The only hint we get is the cigar-chomping chief of police has Andrews under suspicion because the initial set of crimes matches one of his novels.
Instead, initially the movie feels like it’s making Whiting the hero. She’s the one who goes to investigate the crimes, she’s the one who engineers her own escape, and she’s the one who wants something—she’s the character with drive. Granted, there’s a bit of a Lois Lane/Clark Kent divide there where her curiosity gets her captured and Kent/Superman has to save her, but the joke’s always been that Clark Kent is a boring, crappy, unwatchable character. Lois is the one that does stuff. In fact, now that I think about it, how many Superman stories would actually have happened if Lois Lane hadn’t investigated and shown Superman that there was something that needed doing?
God, Superman’s a garbage character.
Anyway, that only plays out for the first act. The second largely sidelines Whiting as everything’s happening on a boat and the third involves the gang turning on Lugosi out of fear, but never getting around to telling the cops what his name is. It’s kind of hilarious the contortions the movie goes through to prevent people from saying his name. Of course there’s a dart in the neck right when someone’s about to say it, but you’ll have criminals monologuing, approaching the name, and then a distraction will happen in the next room and Lugosi will rush in to hypnotize the crooks. It’s a hoot.
Back to Andrews as the hero, though. You start to see the budget limitations in Lugosi as the villain. He’s not bad as the villain—unsurprisingly, he’s the best part of the movie—it’s just that he’s too many villains. He’s initially a hired thug who’s a master of disguise. Then he’s a master hypnotist and gang leader. Finally, he’s the big bad ultimate evil moving all the chess pieces around the board. It’s too much. I got the sense that these were supposed to be three stories that eventually evolved into facing off against this final threat as opposed to Lugosi being all the threats.
What’s interesting to me is how useful the serial story structure is for planning out things like role-playing games, but how disappointing I find it for movies and narrative. Shadow of Chinatown would make a great 1920’s pulp RPG. It’s noir and sneering and dames and you could write down all the plot points of this movie (or the original serial) and have a rollicking campaign. As a movie, though, as a continuous narrative, it doesn’t work because there is no throughline.
In a serial, everything’s about hitting the next beat, driving to the next cliffhanger, and stringing the whole thing along for as long as possible. It’s not surprising to me now that I don’t like Star Wars: Episode IV. The movie follows this format—it was pitched as a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon reboot—and is imagined as a serial. I grew up watching it on TBS so all the peaks and cliffhangers fit in nicely with commercial breaks. I loved it then, but once I saw it on the big screen in one go, I realized how much it didn’t work.
And very much the same here. There’s campy fun to be had—Andrews is your typical useless non-hero and the way things ramp up in the final act is very funny—but it’s nothing that stands out too much. It’s neither great nor terrible, but it’s short and if you’re in the mood to make fun of something, it’ll serve you well. The movie is in the public domain, but Mill Creek slimed my copy so I can’t upload it. There is, however, already a copy on archive.org for you to use at your pleasure.