Saturday, May 29, 2021

TCM Spotlight on Juvenile Delinquents Every Thursday in June

Mamie Van Doren, High School Confidential
TCM Spotlight will be on the juvenile delinquent movies of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties every Thursday this June. Each Thursday will be dedicated to a different category of juvenile delinquent films, starting off with "School's a Drag" on June 3. June 10 centres on "Jail Birds.""Running Wild" on June 17 centres on youth running wild on the streets. The month long TCM Spotlight winds up on June 24 with "Bad Boys."

Below are my picks of what you absolutely want to watch during the TCM Spotlight on Juvenile Delinquents. All times are Central:

June 3, "School's a Drag":
7:00 PM High School Confidential! (1958)
8:45 PM Blackboard Jungle (1955)
10:45 PM To Sir, With Love (1967)

June 10, "Jail Birds":
11:45 PM Untamed Youth (1957)

June 17, "Running Wild":
7:00 PM The Young Savages (1957)

June 14, "Bad Boys":
8:45 PM Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
10:45 PM Look in Any Window (1961)
12:30 AM Violent Playground  (1958)

Friday, May 28, 2021

Anna May Wong on Television

Anna May Wong was the first major Chinese American star and the first major star of East Asian descent besides Sessue Hayakwa. In fact, from the Silent Era into the early Thirties she was a superstar, easily one of the best known actors in Hollywood. Sadly, Anna May Wong's career would be hindered by California's laws against interracial marriage (on screen she could not kiss an actor of another race), as well as the fact that most East Asian female characters in Hollywood movies at the time tended to be stereotypes. As a result Miss Wong could not maintain the level of success she had in her early career. That having been said, with the advent of television, Anna May Wong was still well known. This made it inevitable that she would appear on the new medium.

Indeed, Anna May Wong's television debut would be as the star of her own show. The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (Miss Wong's birth name). On The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, Anna May Wong played a dealer in Chinese art who would often find herself involved in international intrigue and solving crimes. The DuMont Television Network aired ten episodes of the show from August 27 1951 to November 21 1951. The show was cancelled in 1952. That having been said, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong made television history. Not only was Anna May Wong one of the first female leads on American television, paving the way for characters from Honey West to Jessica Fletcher, but she was the first Chinese American lead and the first lead of East Asian descent on American television. Unfortunately, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong no longer exists. Many of the DuMont Television Network's kinescopes were destroyed prior to 1958 to retrieve the silver content in the film prints. Those that remained were dumped into the Upper New York Bay in the mid-Seventies.

Her next appearance on television was on the show Producer's Showcase in the episode "The Letter," based on the same W. Somerset Maugham play of the same name as the 1940 movie The Letter. Much as in the play and the movie, the wife of a rubber plantation manager shoots and kills a man. Unfortunately, she had written a very compromising letter to the murder victim the day she had killed him. This letter then winds up in the hands of a blackmailer, played in the episode by Anna May Wong. The episode aired on October 15 1956.

It was only a little over a month later, on November 22 1956 that Anna May Wong appeared in the Climax! episode "The Chinese Game." The episode centred on a newspaper columnist who sees a vision of himself killing his wife for another woman while playing a game in a novelty show. Miss Wong's role in the episode may have been minor, as she is billed only as "clerk."

Her next guest appearance on a show would not be a minor role. In the February 11 1958 episode of Mike Hammer, "So That's Who That Was," Mike Hammer (Darren McGavin) investigates the murder of a friend, which also leads him to the murder of a prominent citizen of Los Angeles's Chinatown. Anna May Wong played the widow of the murdered Chinatown citizen, Madame Chu. It was one of her television roles that actually allowed Anna May Wong to exercise her dramatic talents.

Anna May Wong returned to Climax! in its May 1 1958 episode, "The Deadly Tattoo." The episode centred on a serial killer who marks his victim with a tattoo who comes to Anna May Wong's character, Mayli, for help. According to Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, she apparently had fun making the episode.  She researched her role by going to tattoo shops around Los Angeles and worked with a vocal coach so she could speak in pidgin English (Miss Wong was a third generation American who grew up in Los Angeles). She was also amused that she got to wear an eyepatch.

Anna May Wong's next guest appearances were on two episodes of the show Adventures in Paradise. Adventures in Paradise centred on Adam Troy (Gardner McKay), the captain of the schooner Tiki  III, who plied his trade in the Pacific. Anna May Wong played one of Troy's friends, the international moneychanger Lu Yang.  In the first episode, "Lady from South Chicago (which aired on November 2 1959), centred on a Frenchwoman (played by Paulette Goddard) who is visited by a friend, who turns out to be an escaped convict from Australia. In the second episode, "Mission to Manila" (which aired on November 23 1959), Adam Troy investigates the mysterious death of a friend's brother.

While Anna May Wong did not get a lot of screen exposure in her guest appearances on Adventures in Paradise, she played a major role in the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp episode "China Mary" (which aired on May 15 1960). With racial unrest growing in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp (Hugh O'Brien) investigates the alleged murder of a white man at the hands of the Chinese population. As a result Wyatt's path crosses with China Mary (played by Anna May Wong), who controls much of what goes on in Tombstone's Chinese population. The episode gave Anna May Wong an important role and the opportunity to demonstrate her acting talent.

Here it must be pointed out that China Mary is an actual historical figure. Born Sing Choy, China Mary was the most important figure among the Chinese in Tombstone. She ran a store and secured jobs for many in the Chinese community there, guaranteeing their good behaviour. She also ran several illegal operations, from gambling to prostitution. That having been said, she was also known for her generosity. She was a respected figure in Tombstone, both by the whites and the Chinese. When she died in 1906, her funeral was attended by a large number of people and she was buried in Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery.

Anna May Wong's final television appearance was on an episode of The Barbara Stanwyck Show. An anthology series, The Barabra Stanwyck Show saw Miss Stanwyck playing a different role most weeks. Anna May Wong guest starred in the episode "Dragon by the Tail," which aired on January 30 1961. In the episode Barbara Stanwyck played Josephine Little (nicknamed Little Joe), who runs an import/export business. In the episode Josephine Little is recruited by the CIA to rescue a scientist being held by the Communists. In the episode Anna May Wong played Joe's amah, A-Hsing. A-Hsing is not merely a servant. She speaks her mind freely and Josephine takes what she has to say seriously.

Barbara Stanwyck appeared in three episodes of The Barbara Stanwyck Show as Josephine Little and and all three episodes were pilots for an episodic, adventure series. There is also an unaired episode of The Barbara Stanwyck Show titled "Little Joe and Hong Kong" in which Anna May Wong also appears, that appears to merely be another version of "Dragon by Its Tail." Had Barbara Stanwyck's series about Josephine Little sold and had Anna May Wong lived, it seems possible she could have been a regular character on the show.

Here it should be noted that Anna May Wong also appeared on the travelogue program Bold Journey on February 14 1956. She was interviewed by John Stephenson and showed her home movies of her trip to China in 1936.

Here it must also be noted that there was an Anna May Wong billed in episodes of the British shows The Voodoo Factor and Danger Man in 1960, and the movies The Savage Innocents (1960) and Just Joe (1960). This is not the Anna May Wong who was born Wong Liu Tsong and had a career stretching back to the Silent Era, but a different, younger actress.

Anna May Wong was set to play Madame Liang in the film adaptation of The Flower Drum Song (1961), but unable to do so because of ongoing issues with her health. She died of a heart attack on February 3, 1961, only four days after her final television appearance on The Barbara Stanwyck Show. She was only 56. It is difficult to say what would have happened had Miss Wong not had issues with her health and had lived to old age. It seems likely she would have appeared in The Flower Drum Song and that it would have revitalized her career. While roles for individuals of East Asian descent were not exactly common in the Sixties and many roles were still stereotypes, it was still an improvement over the Golden Age of Hollywood. While she may never have been the major star that she was in the Twenties and Thirties, it seems possible that she could have made a career out of guest appearances on television and the occasional appearance in movies. Anna May Wong may have made guest appearances on shows that used several East Asian actors, such as Hawaii Five-O and Kung Fu. We should perhaps be thankful that we have her few television appearances, some of which are readily available on streaming, allowing us to see a legendary performer display her considerable talent.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Kim Sisters

Over the past decade K-Pop groups have seen a good deal of success in the United States, particularly BTS. That having been said, Korean singers found their way to the US well before the 21st Century. The Kim Sisters were three Korean sisters (Kim Sook-ja, Kim Ai-ja, and Kim Min-ja) who landed a recording contact in the United States and appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dean Martin Show.

Music ran in the Kim Sisters' family. Their father was conductor Kim Hae-song while their mother was Lee Nan-young, a popular singer in Korea prior to the Korean War. Unfortunately, Kim Hae-song would be captured and executed by North Korea in 1950. Afterwards Lee Nan-young adopted Min-ja and then formed a singing group consisting of the three girls. She would buy American records on the black market so her daughters could learn to sing them. The Kim Sisters would perform for American soldiers in bars and nightclubs, and they proved to be popular with the American military. Their fame in Korea among Americans spread to the point that producer Tom Ball signed them.

It would take a year following Tom Ball having signed the Kim Sisters for them to arrive in the United States. Their first performances in the US were in Las Vegas at the Thunderbird Hotel as part of Thomas Ball's "China Doll Revue." Once their contract with the Thunderbird Hotel ended, the Kim Sisters began performing at the Stardust.

The Kim Sisters made their American television debut on The Dinah Shore Show on June 7 1959. Later in that September they made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan obviously liked The Kim Sisters, as they would appear on his show twenty times. Their last appearance on the show was in 1967. The Kim Sisters also released albums and several singles in the United States. While most of their singles saw little action on the American charts, in 1962 their cover of The Coasters' song "Charlie Brown" peaked at no. 7 on the Billboard singles chart, making it the first hit by Korean artists in American history.

While the Kim Sisters might not have seen a good deal of success as recording artists, they were highly successful as stage performers. They appeared on such shows as The Dean Martin Show, The Hollywood Palace, Operation: Entertainment, The Joey Bishop Show, Della, The Barbara McNair Show and The Merv Griffin Show. They even played themselves in an episode of Ensign O'Toole. They also continued to perform on the Las Vegas Strip until 1967,when Min-ja got married. The remaining Kim Sisters would afterwards perform with their brothers well into the 1990s.

Much of the popularity of the Kim Sisters in the Sixties might have been due to the fact that they were not only singers, but could play multiple instruments as well. In their television appearances they played everything from saxophone to bass guitar to banjo. Between them, the Kim Sisters could play over twenty different insturments.

The Kim Sisters would be one of Americans' first introductions to Korean culture. It was not unusual for them to play the traditional Korean instrument, gaya-geum, or for them to dress in hanbok. An argument can even be made that they paved the way for modern day K-Pop groups. At the very least, they proved a Korean group could have success in the US.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto

In 2020 K-Pop group BTS made history when their song "Dynamite" hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. That having been said, BTS were not the first East Asian artists to have a no. 1 single on the Hot 100, nor were they the first artists to have a no. 1 single in an East Asian language to have a hit on the Hot 100. That honour would go to Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto, who hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with his song "Sukiyaki" in June 1963. It was not only the first song in an East Asian language to hit no. 1 on the chart, but the first song in a non-European language.

Of course, "Sukiyaki" was not the song's original title. Its original title (and the one it still bears outside of English) is "Ue o Muite Arukō" (in English, "I Look Up as I Walk"). "Ue o Muite Arukō" was written by by lyricist Rokusuke Ei and composer Hachidai Nakamura. Rokusuke Ei wrote the lyrics when he was walking home from a protest  against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan. He felt frustration and disappointment at the United States' continued military presence in his country. While "Ue o Muite Arukō" was inspired by Rokusuke Ei's feeling of dejection over the failed protests, its lyrics were written so that they could refer to any loss, such as lost love.

"Ue o Muite Arukō" was recorded by Kyu Sakamoto, who had been a member of Danny Iida & Paradise King before he launched his own solo career. "Ue o Muite Arukō" would be his first hit as a solo artist, topping Japanese magazine Music Life's Popular Music Selling Record chart for three months. It was in 1963 that Louis Benjamin, chief executive of the British recording label Pye Records, visited Japan. He heard "Ue o Muite Arukō" several times while in Japan and decided to bring it to the United Kingdom. It was Louis Benjamin who renamed the song "Sukiyaki." He thought "Ue o Muite Arukō" would be too hard for English speakers to pronounce and chose "Sukiyaki" because it was recognizably Japanese and he thought it sounded catchy. Of course, sukiyaki is a Japanese beef dish. A columnist in Newsweek said it would be something like renaming the song "Moon River," "Beef Stew" in Japan.

Regardless, "Sukiyaki" proved to be a hit in the United Kingdom, reaching no. 6 on the UK singles chart. Capitol Records released "Sukiyaki" in the United States where it proved even more successful. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1963 and topped the chart for three weeks.

Today "Ue o Muite Arukō" may not seem that significant, but in 1963 its international success was very significant. Alongside the anime shows that made their way to the United States and Europe, as well as various Japanese movies, "Ue o Muite Arukō" signified Japan's reentry onto the world stage following World War II. Perhaps more importantly, it helped erode any mistrust of Japan on the part of Americans after the war. Beginning in the Sixties, Japan would increasingly be viewed not as an old enemy, but as a valued ally. "Ue o Muite Arukō" and other pop culture artefacts imported from Japan would help a good deal in bridging any gap between Japan and the United States.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Nancy Kwan: More Than Suzie Wong

Nancy Kwan occupies a singular place in the history of East Asian actors in Hollywood. She was the first East Asian actress to achieve superstardom since Anna May Wong. Born in Hong Kong to a Cantonese architect and a model of English and Scottish descent, Nancy Kwan exploded onto the scene with The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961). She was the first actress of East Asian descent to regularly play lead roles since Anna May Wong. She also became a prominent sex symbol during the Sixties. While she would never repeat the success of The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song, she would appear in many more movies, as well as on television.

Among Nancy Kwan's better remembered films is the all-star disaster movie Fate is the Hunter (1964). In the film Nancy Kwan plays Sally Fraser, the girlfriend of doomed airlines pilot Jack Savage (Rod Taylor). It is Sally who gives the movie its title, discussing the concept of fate with Savage in a flashback. Miss Kwan does well in a role that was historic for her. Despite being Eurasian in descent, it was the first time she ever played a Eurasian character.

For much of her career Nancy Kwan was cast in comic roles. It should come as no surprise that she played the lead role in The Wild Affair (1965). In The Wild Affair she plays Marjorie Lee, a secretary about to get married and feeling about nervous about it. Wondering if she had missed out on life, she then decides to attempt what would be her first and only fling at her office's Christmas party. In some respects Nancy Kwan's casting seems odd given she is Eurasian and her parents are played by Bessie Love and Paul Curran. That having been said, Miss Kwan does well in the role as a strait-laced young woman who decides to kick up her heels. The movie is notable as one in which Nancy Kwan debuted a new style. Vidal Sassoon cut her famous long hair into a sharp bob.

Nancy Kwan followed up The Wild Affair with another comedy, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1965). In Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., Dick Van Dyke plays the Naval lieutenant of the title who finds himself on an island in the East Pacific when he is forced to eject from his plane. Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is severely dated in that it engages in stereotypes about Pacific Islanders (all of who seem to be played by East Asian actors except for Akim Tamiroff). While Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. is a highly problematic film today and boasts a rather poor script, Nancy Kwan still stands out, giving a solid performance that is remarkable given how little she was given to work with.

Nancy Kwan would only fare a little bit better with Nobody's Perfect (1968), another comedy that deals with the United States Navy. Nobody's Perfect chronicles the adventures of the crew of the USS Bustard shortly after World War II. The film is a run-of-the-mill service comedy, with the usual antics one would expect as such. That having been said, it has some notable performances from Doug McClure (who plays hospital corpsman "Doc" Willoughby) and James Shigeta (who plays Toshi O"Hara). Nancy Kwan plays United States Navy nurse Lt. Tomiko Momayama, enlivening the proceedings with her performance.

Perhaps unfortunately, Nancy Kwan's next movie may be her most famous besides The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song. The Wrecking Crew (1968) was both the last in the "Matt Helm" series of movies starring Dean Martin and the last movie Sharon Tate made to be released in her lifetime. In the Sixties spies were big business, and this was not lost on producer Irving Allen, who bought the rights to the "Matt Helm" novels by Donald Hamilton. While the "Matt Helm" novels are rather serious works that owe more to film noir than James Bond, the series of "Matt Helm" movies Irving Allen produced in the Sixties were outright spy spoofs. The first three movies were rather enjoyable, if frivolous romps. The Wrecking Crew is just plain bad and, at times, even downright sexist and racist. That having been said, the movie will always be remembered for a fight scene between Sharon Tate and Nancy Kwan (Bruce Lee choreographed the fight scenes). Both actresses handle themselves well and it is the one memorable scene in an otherwise dreary movie.

In the Sixties roles were rare for actors of East Asian descent and as the decade passed, Nancy Kwan was finding it harder and harder to get roles. In the Seventies, then, she would look to Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Europe for parts. She also appeared on American television. She appeared in the two-part Kung Fu episode "The Cenotaph" In a portion of the episode told in flashback and set in China, Miss Kwan plays Mayli Ho, the Chinese Imperial consort, who is being pursued by a Chinese warlord. Nancy Kwan gives one of her best performances in the role, and she has chemistry with David Carradine (who played the lead role of Kwai Chang Caine). It must be noted that this would not be the last time the two appeared together. In the 1988 mini-series Noble House, Nancy Kwan played Claudia Chen, executive secretary to Ian Dunross of an international trading company (Pierce Brosnan).

Throughout her career Nancy Kwan has taken poor material and turned out a good performance. This is certainly true of Night Children (1989). Class of 1984 (1982) had proven to be a hit and for the rest of the decade filmmakers would churn out similar movies about violent teenagers, Night Children among them.  Today, aside from being among the later films of David Carradine and Nancy Kwan's careers it might be best remembered as the second feature film my dear friend Vanessa Marquez. In Night Children David Carradine plays veteran cop Max who comes up against a violent youth gang. Nancy Kwan plays his girlfriend, parole officer Diane. Sadly, Night Children suffers from a bad script that at times borders on the unbelievable (particularly its ending). Worse yet, Max would not have been a very sympathetic character in 1989, let alone today, a situation made all the worse by the fact that David Carradine basically phones in his performance. The only reasons to watch Night Children are Vanessa (for the brief time she is on) and the performance of Nancy Kwan. Nancy Kwan takes the role of Diane and actually makes something of it.

Fortunately, Nancy Kwan would appear in better movies later in her career. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) departs a good deal from Bruce Lee's actual life, but while it fails as biography it succeeds as entertainment. In the film Nancy Kwan plays Gussie Yang, the sardonic but kindly restaurant owner and Bruce Lee's boss who funds his marital arts training. Nancy Kwan gives a great performance in the role.

Nancy Kwan has had a long career filled with many remarkable roles. And while not every film in which she has appeared is exactly a classic, they all the better for having Nancy Kwan in them. As mentioned earlier, Nancy Kwan has the talent for taking a poor script and still giving a great performance. If she is a pioneer with regards to East Asian actors in Hollywood, it is perhaps because she is just so very talented.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Late Great Charles Grodin

Charles Grodin, who starred in such movies as Catch-22 (1970) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972), died on May 18 2021 at the age of 86. The cause was bone marrow cancer.

Charles Grodin was born on April 21 1935 in Pittsburgh. He graduated from Peabody High School as valedictorian. He attended the University of Miami, but left to pursue his career in acting. He studied acting at the HB Studio under Uta Hagen and later studied under Lee Strasberg as well.

Charles Grodin made his big screen debut in an uncredited role as a drummer boy in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954. He made his television debut in an episode of Decision in 1958. That same year he appeared in an episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre.

Mr. Grodin made his debut on Broadway in 1962 in Tchin-Tchin. In the Sixties he appeared in the Broadway productions Absence of a Cello and Love and Other Strangers. On television he was a regular on the soap opera The Young Marrieds in 1965. He guest starred on Play of the Week, The Defenders, My Mother the Car, The Trials of O'Brien, The Felony Squad, Shane, Iron Horse, The F.B.I., Captain Nice, The Guns of Will Sonnett, N.Y.P.D., The Big Valley, and Judd for the Defense. He appeared in the movies Sex and the Single Girl (1964), Rosemary's Baby (1968), and Catch-22 (1970).

In the Seventies Charles Grodin appeared in the movies The Heartbreak Kid (1972), 11 Harrowhouse (1974), King Kong (1976), Thieves (1977), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Real Life (1979), Sunburn (1979), It's My Turn (1980), and Seems Like Old Times (1980). On television he appeared in the TV movies The Meanest Man in the West, Just You and Me, and The Grass is Always Greener in the Septic Tank. He was the voice of Joseph in the TV movie It Happened One Christmas, an unauthorized remake of It Happened One Night. He appeared on Broadway in Thieves and Same Time, Next Year.

In the Eighties he appeared in the movies The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Lonely Guy (1984), The Woman in Red (1984), Movers & Shakers (1985), Last Resort (1986), Ishtar (1987), The Couch Trip (1988), You Can't Hurry Love (1988), Midnight Run (1988), Taking Care of Business (1990). On television he appeared in the mini-series Fresno. He appeared in the TV movie Charley's Aunt. He guest starred on the shows Great Performances, American Playhouse, and The Magical World of Disney.

In the Nineties Charles Grodin had his own talk show on CNBC and MSNBC. He appeared in the movies Beethoven (1992), Dave (1993), So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), Heart and Souls (1993), Clifford (1994), and It Runs in the Family (1994). In the Naughts he appeared in the movie Fast Track (2006). In the Teens he was a regular on the show Louie. He appeared in the mini-series Madoff. He guest starred on the TV shows Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Michael J. Fox Show, and The New Yorker Presents. He appeared in the movies The Humbling (2014), While You're Young (2014), The Comedian (2016), and The Private Life of a Modern Woman (2017).

Charles Grodin was a remarkable actor who played a number of notable roles. He was the lead in The Heartbreak Kid, laying the shallow sporting goods salesman who falls in love with another woman while on his honeymoon. In Real Life he played veterinarian Warren Yeager, the head of the Yeager family who finds themselves the subject of a documentary. In Midnight Run he played an accountant arrested for embezzling money from his mobster boss and hence on the run from the law. Charles Grodin had a particular gift for comedy, with perfect delivery and perfect timing. Few actors were as talented as he was.