Saturday, May 28, 2022

Daughter of Shanghai (1937)

Philip Ahn & Anna May Wong
Good roles for East Asian Americans were uncommon during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Even a superstar like Anna May Wong could not overcome the various stereotypes about people of East Asian descent the film industry perpetuated during the era. In an era when yellowface was still common practice, it was not unusual for Anna May Wong to lose Chinese roles to white actresses. She lost the role of Lien Wha in The Son-Daughter (1932) to Helen Hayes. She lost the role of  O-lan in The Good Earth (1937) to Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar for the part. Sadly, for much of her career Anna May Wong would be cast in such roles as the "Dragon Lady" stereotype or the "Butterfly" stereotype.

While Anna May Wong lost the role of O-lan in The Good Earth, it was in 1937 that her career somewhat improved. She signed to Paramount, who featured her in a series of B-movies. While these B-movies were sometimes dismissed by the critics of the day, they gave Anna May Wong the chance to play Chinese American roles that were not stereotypes and were regarded in the Chinese American press of the time as positive images of East Asian Americans. Significant among these movies is Daughter of Shanghai (1937), the second film Anna May Wong made for Paramount.

In Daughter of Shanghai Anna May Wong plays Lan Ying Lin, the Chinese American daughter of a Chinese art dealer, Quan Lin (Lee Ching-Wah). When Quan Lin refuses to cooperate with criminals smuggling illegal aliens in to the United States, they kill him and attempt to kill Lan Ying Lin, who survives. Lan Ying Lin decides to take matters into her own hands and investigate the smugglers herself. Also investigating the smugglers is Chinese American FBI agent Kim Lee (Philip Ahn). The two eventually team up to take down the smuggling ring. As to why a movie centred on a Chinese American would be titled "Daughter of Shanghai," there is an explanation for that in the movie.

Daughter of Shanghai is historic in that it is one of the earliest American movies to feature two East Asian American leads. In some respects, Philip Ahn's career reflected that of Anna May Wong. Philip Ahn was a Korean American actor who also often had troubles finding good roles. Korean and Korean American roles being rare in Hollywood during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Philip Ahn often found himself playing Chinese American roles and later Japanese roles. His character Kim Lee in Daughter of Shanghai was not simply historic because it was a lead role, but also because it may well be the first portrayal of a Chinese American law enforcement officer in the history of American film. What is more, Kim Lee is not played as a stereotype at all, but an intelligent, resourceful FBI agent who speaks without an accent. Anna May Wong's character Lan Ying Lin is also portrayed with dignity and without any stereotypical traits. Indeed, it is to be noted that in Daughter of Shanghai not one East Asian role is played by a white person in yellowface. The Chinese American characters are all played by East Asian American actors.

While most of Daughter of Shanghai was shot on the Paramount lot, the film is of interest to those who would like a look at San Francisco in the Thirties. Early in the movie there is an establishing shot of San Francisco's Chinatown in which the exterior of the Shanghai Low restaurant is visible.

Daughter of Shanghai was released on December 17 1937 to largely positive reviews. It also did well at the box office. Paramount would follow Daughter of Shanghai up with Dangerous to Know (1938). Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn would be reunited in the 1939 film King of Chinatown, in which they once more played the leads.

While Daughter of Shanghai is dated to some degree (on more than one occasion someone must come to Lan Ying Lin's aid), it holds up as a fine crime movie. Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn both give good performances, as do other members of the cast. And while Daughter of Shanghai was shot on a low budget, it still looks very good with impressive set design and some very fine costumes. Its plot has a good deal of excitement while at the same time avoiding the cliches of the genre.

Daughter of Shanghai was a historic film in giving audiences two East Asian American leads  in roles that were far removed from the stereotypes so prevalent during the era. It also happens to be a very good film. It is for those reasons that it was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2006.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Godspeed Ray Liotta

Ray Liotta, who starred in such movies as Field of Dreams (1989) and Goodfellas (1990), died yesterday, May 26 2022, at the age of 67. No cause has been given.

Ray Liotta was born on December 18 1954 in Newark, New Jersey. He was abandoned at an orphanage as an infant and was adopted by Mary and Alfred Liotta when he was six months. He grew up in Union, New Jersey. He did not want to be an actor growing up, but he was interested in sports and played baseball, basketball, and football. It was in his senior year at Union High School that the school's drama teacher asked him if he wanted to be in the school play. Ray Liotta agreed and his interest in acting began. He studied acting at the University of Miami and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1978.

Mr. Liotta worked as a bartender on Broadway in New York City before he landed the role of Joey Perrini on the soap opera Another World. He remained with the show until 1981. He appeared in the 1980 TV movies Hardhat and Legs. Ray Liotta made his film debut in 1983 in the movie The Lonely Lady. In the Eighties he appeared in the films Something Wild (1986), Dominick and Eugene (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and Goodfellas (1990). He was a regular on the short-lived television shows Casablanca and Our Family Honour. He guest starred on the shows St. Elsewhere and Mike Hammer.

In the Nineties Ray Liotta appeared in the movies Article 99 (1992), Unlawful Entry (1992), No Escape (1994), Corrina, Corrina  (1994), Operation Dumbo Drop (1995), Unforgettable (1996), Turbulence (1997), Cop Land (1997), Phoenix (1998), Muppets from Space (1999), Forever Mine (1999), Pilgrim (2000), and A Rumour of Angels (2000). On television he guest starred on the show Frasier. He played Frank Sinatra in the 1998 TV movie The Rat Pack.

In the Naughts Mr. Liotta appeared in the movies Hannibal (2001), Heartbreakers (2001), Blow (2001), Narc (2002), John Q (2002), Identity (2003), The Last Shot (2004), Control (2004), Revolver (2005), Slow Burn (2005), Even Money (2006), Local Colour (2006), Comeback Season (2006), Smokin' Aces (2007), Wild Hogs (2007), In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), Battle in Seattle (2007), Hero Wanted (2008), Crossing Over (2009), Observe and Report (2009), Powder Blue (2009), La Linea (2009), Youth in Revolt (2009), Crazy on the Outside (2010), Date Night (2010), Snowmen (2010), Chasing 3000 (2010), and Charlie St. Cloud (2010). He was a voice in the animated film Bee Movie (2007). On television he starred in the TV series Smith. He guest starred on Just Shoot Me!, ER, and Hannah Montana. He was a guest voice on the animated series Spongebob Squarepants.

In the Teens Ray Liotta starred in the TV show Shades of Blue. He appeared in the mini-series Texas Rising and was the narrator on the documentary series The Making of the Mob. He guest starred on the shows The League, NTSF:SD:SUV, Modern Family, Unbreakable Kimberly Schmidt, Young Sheldon, and Great News. He was a guest voice on the animated series The Simpsons. In the Teens he appeared in the movies The Son of No One (2011), The Details (2011), All Things Fall Apart (2011), The River Murders (2011), The Entitled (2011), Ticket Out (2012), Wanderlust (2012), Killing Them Softly (2012), Breathless (2012), The Iceman (2012), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), Yellow (2012), Bad Karma (2012), The Devil's in the Details (2013), Pawn (2013), Suddenly (2013), Muppets Most Wanted (2014), Better Living Through Chemistry (2014), The Identical (2014), Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014), Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), Kill the Messenger (2014), Go with Me (2015), Campus Code (2015), Flock of Dudes (2016), Sticky Notes (2016), Marriage Story (2019), and Hubie Halloween (2020).

In the Twenties Ray Liotta appeared in the films No Sudden Move (2021), The Many Saints of Newark (2021), and Broken Soldier (2022). He was a regular on the TV show Hanna and will appear in the upcoming show Black Bird.

Ray Liotta was certainly a remarkable actor. He could convincingly play historical figures, playing  Shoeless Joe Jackson, Henry Hill, and Frank Sinatra. He could also play a wide variety of characters. Over the years he played everything from mobsters to police officers. He also appeared in a wide variety of genres of films and TV shows, including comedies such as Wild Hogs, science fiction movies, such as No Escape and thrillers such as Unlawful Entry. Ray Liotta was very prolific. The reason he was in so demand is that he was just that good.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

This post is part of the The Cormanverse Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweedgiemidget Reviews

Little Shop of Horrors
(1960) remains one of the best known films directed by Roger Corman. Part of this may be due to the popular musical based upon the movie (itself later adapted as a film), but much of it may be due to the fact that it proved to be a surprise hit at the box office. Repeatedly aired on television since its release, it would also develop a cult following it maintains to this day.

Little Shop of Horrors (1960) centres on Seymour Krelborn (Jonathan Haze), a meek clerk working in a florist shop owned by Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles). Also working in the florist shop is Audrey Fulquard (Jackie Joseph),  the girl of Seymour's dreams. Inept and clumsy, Seymour is not a particularly good employee, but he manages to insure security in his job when he tells Mr. Mushnick about an unusual plant he has grown from seeds he bought from "...Japanese gardener over on Central Avenue." Seymour named the plant "Audrey Jr.," after his beloved Audrey. While unusual, the plant is also rather sickly, and Mr. Mushnick gives Seymour only one week to revive the plant or he is fired. Unfortunately, Seymour soon learns the plant requires blood. As Audrey Jr. gets more blood, the plant begins to thrive.   As one might expect given this is a horror movie, Audrey Jr. soon requires entire human beings, which Seymour hesitantly provides. By the way, Audrey Jr. also turns out to be sentient, very intelligent, and very demanding.

Little Shop of Horrors (1960) is well known for the speed with which it was filmed. According to legend, the manger of Producer's Studio, where many of American International Pictures movies were filmed, told Roger Corman that another film was about to finish shooting and the sets would be left standing for a brief period. Roger Corman's brother Gene then bet him that he couldn't shoot a film in two days with those sets. Mel Welles, who played Mr. Mushnik in the film, claims there is no truth to this legend. Instead, while Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was shot on sets left over from another film, Roger Corman had another reason for shooting the movie so swiftly. On January 1 1960 residuals would have to paid to actors for all films made after that date. Roger Corman then wanted to shoot his next film before the start of the new year in order to avoid paying residuals.

Regardless, Little Shop of Horrors was meant to be a follow up to Bucket of Blood and it was both planned and shot quickly. For Roger Corman's prospective new movie, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith proposed a plot in which a music critic becomes a vampire. Roger Corman turned that proposal down, and Mr. Griffith then proposed a plot in which a salad chef cooks up meals using his regular customers. Roger Corman pointed out that this would run into problems with the Production Code, which at the time strong disapproved of anything touching upon cannibalism. Charles B. Griffith then suggested a man-eating plant. Charles B. Giffrth wanted to write what would become Little Shop of Horrors as a horror comedy, but given the poor box office performance of Bucket of Blood, Roger Corman was initially against it. Fortunately, Mr. Griffith was able to convince Mr. Corman to do another horror comedy. Initially, what would become Little Shop of Horrors was titled The Passionate People Eater.

Given how quickly Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was made, it should come as no surprise that the cast was filled by some actors who had regularly appeared in Roger Corman's movies. Roger Corman offered the role of Seymour to Dick Miller, but he turned it down as being too similar to his role in Bucket of Blood. He ultimately took the smaller role of florist shop customer Burson Fouch. The role of Seymour ultimately went to Jonathan Haze, who had already appeared in several of Roger Corman's movies Gunslinger (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), and Rock All Night (1957). Mel Welles, who was cast as Mr. Mushnick, had already appeared in such Roger Corman movies as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Undead (1957), and Rock All Night (1957). As hard as it might be to believe, Nancy Kulp (now best known as Jane Hathsway on The Beverly Hillbillies) was in the running for the role of Audrey that went to Jackie Joseph. Jonathan Herman Shaner, who played Oscar in Bucket of Blood, played the sadistic dentist Dr. Farb. Jack Nicholson played the role of masochistic dentist patient Wilbur Force. Of course he would go onto become a regular in Roger Corman's films. Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith provided the voice of Audrey Jr.  off screen as a reference for the actors. It was planned that his voice would be overdubbed with that of an actor later on. As it turned out, that never happened, so that in the completed film it is an uncredited Charles B. Griffith voicing Audrey Jr.

As Roger Corman had planned, Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was shot very quickly. Roger Corman filmed the movie during the last week of December 1959. Rehearsals unfolded over three days, with principal photography taking only two days and one night. Three days were then spent on second unit work and pick up shots. The film was shot using three cameras running at the same time, a method of filming even then used on television sitcoms. The budget of Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was low even for Roger Corman. It only cost around $30,000.

Initially, Roger Corman had difficulty finding distribution for Little Shop of Horrors (1960) because it was viewed by some exhibitors as anti-Semitic due to Mel Welles's portrayal of Mr. Mushnick, as well as the character of Siddie Shiva (Leola Wendorff). It was nine months after it was completed that Little Shop of Horrors was finally released. When American International Pictures picked up the American distribution rights for Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1960), it was paired with Little Shop of Horrors (1960) on a double bill. Word of mouth then spread about Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and it would later be released on a double bill with AIP's Last Woman on Earth (1960).

Roger Corman had little hope for the success of Little Shop of Horrors (1960) in its initial release and had even less hope of it doing well after its initial run in theatres. For that reason he did not bother to copyright the film and as a result it entered the public domain. Regardless, Little Shop of Horrors (1960) would only grow in reputation as the years passed, with the film being shown often on television. By 1982 the popularity of Little Shop of Horrors (1960) as such that a stage musical was produced Off-Off-Broadway before moving a few months later Off-Broadway. A movie adapted from the musical was released in 1986.

Made cheaply and quickly, Little Shop of Horrors (1960) has maintained its reputation over the years. At Rotten Tomatoes it has an approval rating of 92% from twelve critics. Being in public domain, there are numerous VHS and DVD releases of varying quality. A restored version of the film, along with a colourized version, was released on DVD by Legend Films in 2006. Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was a film that Roger Corman thought would do poorly at the box office and would be forgotten quickly. For once, Roger Corman was wrong.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Fathers on Film on Sundays on Turner Classic Movies in June

Irene Dunne and William Powell
in Life with Father (1947)
In honour of Father's Day Turner Classic Movies is showing movies featuring fathers under the heading of "Fathers on Film" on Sundays in June. The films range from comedies such as Father of the Bride (1950) to the musical Fiddler on the Roof (1971) to the drama East of Eden (1955). Below is the schedule for Fathers on Film on TCM next month. All times are Central.

Sunday, June 5
7:00 PM Father of the Bride (1950)
9:00 PM Father's Little Dividend (1951)

Sunday, June 12
7:00 PM Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
10:15 PM Judge Hardy and Son (1939)

Sunday, June 19
7:00 PM Life with Father (1947)
9:15 PM The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963)

Sunday, June 26
7:00 PM East of Eden (1955)
9:15 PM The Entertainer (1960)

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Barbara Jean Wong, Radio Star

"Barbara Jean Wong" is not a name many might recognize today, but in the Thirties and Forties she was a star. That is, she was a radio star. Barbara Jean Wong appeared in several hours worth of radio shows during the era of Old Time Radio, everything from I Love a Mystery to Hallmark Playhouse.

Barbara Jean Wong was a fourth generation Chinese American born on March 3 1924 in Los Angeles. Her parents, Thomas and Maye Wong, operated a produce market. She was only five years old when she first started performing on radio. At the time her long black hair was styled in ringlets, and as a result she became known as the Chinese Shirley Temple. She attended the Mar-Ken School for Professional Children, where one of her classmates was Mickey Rooney.

Barbara Jean Wong's most significant role may well have been on the radio program The Cinnamon Bear. The Cinnamon Bear is what would later be termed on television a "mini-series" or "limited series." It was meant to air six days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The Cinnamon Bear centred on a pair of twins, Judy Barton (Barbara Jean Wong) and Jimmy Barton (Bobby La Manche) who journey to a magical world called "Maybeland" to retrieve the silver star that topped their family's Christmas tree. They are helped in their search by Paddy O'Cinnamon, also known as The Cinnamon Bear. The Cinnamon Bear first aired from November 26 and December 25 1937. It would be repeated most holiday seasons for literally years. It remains widely available to this day.

Another notable role for Barbara Jean Wong was Amos's daughter Arbadella on Amos 'n' Andy. Arbadella appeared in several episodes of the show and would usually play a significant role in the Christmas episodes, in which Amos would explain the importance of Christmas to Arbadella. Barbara Jean Wong also appeared several times on I Love a Mystery and later I Love an Adventure. On I Love a Mystery she played a variety of characters, most often such Chinese characters as P.Y. Ling and Lee Taw Ming. Barabra Jean Wong also played the daughter on The Smiths of San Fernando, the 1946 audition program (the radio equivalent of a television pilot) for what would become The Smiths of Hollywood.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, Barbara Jean Wong was very much in demand and appeared on several other radio shows. She made several appearances on the anthology show Lux Radio Theatre. She also appeared on such radio shows as Cavalcade of America, Hallmark Playhouse, Nightbeat, and Romance.

Barbara Jean Wong would also have a movie career, although her roles of any significance would be playing Charlie Chan's daughter in Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938), Nan Ti in China (1943), and Iris Ling in another Charlie Chan movie, The Red Dragon (1945). In most of her other film appearances her roles are usually incidental at best. Barbara Jean Wong appeared in a few roles on television, including such shows as Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf, The Halls of Ivy, and Buffalo Bill Jr. After she married in 1950 her acted much less frequently. She provided the voice of Stormy in the animated film The Man From Button Willow (1965). In 1972 she guest starred on the TV show Anna and the King.

In addition to acting, Barbara Jean Wong was a dancer and as a child performed at various events in the Los Angeles area, including Hollywood Women's Club costume party in 1935.

Barbara Jean Wong earned degrees in drama and English at the University of Southern California and Columbia University. She taught elementary school in Los Angeles for 23 years before retiring in 1992. She was active in such community organizations as the Friends of the Chinese American  Museum and El Pueblo Historical Monument.

In an era when Asian Americans rarely appeared in movies and were perhaps even more rare on radio, Barbara Jean Wong carved out a career as a radio performer. She was a highly versatile actor, appearing in everything from adventures shows to comedies.

Monday, May 23, 2022

John Aylward Passes On

John Aylward, who played Dr. Donald Anspaugh on ER and DNC Chairman Barry Goodwin on The West Wing, died on May 16 2022 at the age of 75.

John Aylward was born on November 7 1946 in Seattle, Washington.  He graduated from the Professional Actor's Training Program at the University of Washington in 1970. In 1973 he was among the founders of the Empty Space Theatre in Seattle. He made his television debut in the TV movie The Secret Life of John Chapman in 1976. His film debut was in Strings in 1985. In the late Eighties he appeared in the TV movies Stamp of a Killer, Third Degree Burn, and Child in the Night. He appeared in the movies Seven Hours to Judgement (1988) and Three Fugitives (1989).

It was in 1996 that John Aylward began playing Dr. Donald Anspaugh, the Chief of Staff at County General Hospital, on ER. He would ultimately appear in 74 episodes of the series. He also had recurring roles on the shows The Others, The Fugitive (2000), and Family Law. In the Nineties he guest starred on the shows Northern Exposure, Ink, Grace Under Fire, Any Day Now, Secret Agent Man, The Practice, and 3rd Rock from the Sun. He appeared in the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon and Creature. John Aylward appeared in the movies Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993), Eden (1996), Buddy (1997), Armageddon (1998), Finding Graceland (1998), Can't Stop Dancing (1999), and Thirteen Days (2000).

In the Naughts John Aylward continued to appear as Dr. Anspaugh on ER. He played the recurring role of Barry Goodwin on The West Wing. He guest starred on the shows Diagnosis Murder; Ally McBeal; Dharma & Greg; The X Files; Everwood; The Agency; Judging Amy; Good Morning, Miami; The D.A.; Nip/Tuck; Jack & Bobby; Carnivàle; Surface; Law & Order; Boston Legal; Stargate SG-1; Cold Case; Without a Trace; Cavemen; My Boys; Big Shots; The Mentalist; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; Brothers & Sisters; Mad Men; and The Whole Truth. He appeared in the movies Just Visiting (2001), Harvey's Speech (2002), Bad Company (2002). Down with Love (2003), Monster-in-Law (2005), North Country (2005), The Celestine Prophecy (2006), The Gray Man (2007), Crimes of the Past (2009), The Crazies (2010), and Norman (2010).

In the Teens Mr. Aylward guest starred on the shows Harry's Law, Fringe; Fairly Legal; House of Lies; American Horror Story; Major Crimes; Impastor; Scorpion; Shameless; and Yellowstone. He had recurring roles on Nobodies and Briarpatch. He appeared in the movies Water for Elephants (2011), Gangster Squad (2013), A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), The Architect (2016), The Nowhere Inn (2020), and The Way Back (2020).

John Aylward was an extremely talented actor. As Dr. Anspaugh on ER he played the character with a perfect balance of being by-the-book, while at the same time being caring. He also gave good performances as Barry Goodwin on The West Wing and pilot Charles "Red" Murphy on Northern Exposure. Over the years John Aylward played a wide variety of roles, including judges, clergy, lawmen, medical doctors, and even a paranormal researcher. From all reports John Aylward was also the consummate gentleman, known for his kindness and thoughtfulness. Talented and versatile, John Aylward will always be remembered.