A British screen musical ... from the 1930s?
Yes, and it stars Anna May Wong!
VCI Entertainment has released an incredible 3 DVD collectors set containing restorations of the original (102 minute) version of the British film CHU CHIN CHOW (1934), along with the shorter 1953 American release of the same film (re-titled ALI BABA NIGHTS and targeting a "kiddie matinee" audience, it cuts out most of the spice--and the music). The set also features generous photo galleries, artist bios, an Arabian Nights-themed Popeye cartoon, loads of other extras and another British feature film of the 1930s, Karl Grune's ABDUL THE DAMNED, starring Fritz Kortner who plays the bandit chief, Abu Hassan, in CHU CHIN CHOW.
Ace film restorer, Jay Allan Fenton, supervised the project and it is a welcome addition to the expanding digital library of historically and artistically important films available to anyone with access to a DVD player. (Sound and image on these films can be less than pristine, but still almost miraculous considering their age and rarity.)
It is also a boon to aficionados of the sublime Anna May Wong.
Novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote that it seemed absurd "that plays of oriental setting should have to be manufactured" for Wong, but CHU CHIN CHOW was not hatched as a starring vehicle for the Chinese American actress. Combining elements of musical comedy and pantomime, CHU CHIN CHOW was a venerable British show biz institution by the time it reached the screen in 1934. With a story by Oscar Asche and music by Frederic Norton, the stage version was first produced at His Majesty's Theatre on August 3, 1916 and ran for five years and a (then record) total of 2238 performances. There was a silent version of the musical shot in 1925 (go figure!), so the 1934 film is theoretically a re-make.
British illustrator and writer, Osbert Lancaster, recalled in his memoir, With An Eye To The Future, his mother's "slightly puritanical" attitudes toward playgoing. He notes "musical comedies and revues were regarded with marked disfavour as being certainly trivial and probably immoral," but that "exception was made in favour of CHU CHIN CHOW on account of its oriental setting."
Bathed in exoticism and set in a far off place and time, it seems the play, and later, the film's "oriental setting" gave uptight "slightly puritanical" British audiences license to enjoy a bit of "immoral" fun.
The Gainsborough Picture, filmed at Islington by Walter Forde, is a campy orientalist trifle, based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, distinguished by Hollywood style production numbers (rare for British films of this vintage), over-the-top costumes and characterizations, and the fantastic set design of Hungarian-born Erno Metzner (who also designed the sets for W.B. Pabst's German silent THE DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, starring the American actress Louise Brooks).
Cinematography is by German Expressionist vet, Mutz Greenbaum (AKA Max Green), and the film seems at times more naturalistic in detail than American films of the same type and vintage, but at others far more theatrical and stylized. The ethnic portrayals (by an international cast) are strictly of the period.
The film is further distinguished by the luminous presence of Anna May Wong, who plays the shimmering Zahrat. The role is reminiscent of her turn as the Mongol spy in THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1925), and she brings to it the same dance-like grace and willowy bearing.
In CHU CHIN CHOW Wong is given opportunity to flaunt her exoticism and parade her potent sexuality. She seems somehow utterly natural and unselfconscious in the part--no matter how flagrantly over-the-top the character of Zahrat. In this pantomime-based role, we're acutely aware of the actress' mastery of controlled gesture, expression and attitude.
As always, Wong is so adept at projecting herself, and creating a vivid visual image of character, that we cannot keep our eyes off of her when she's on screen.
Once again, Wong steals the show-and undoubtedly some hearts-without even trying.
It has been reported that British audiences were appalled by her harsh L.A. accent, yet as early as 1930, Evelyn Waugh wrote, "We have learned from her 'talky' that she has an excellent speaking voice" and goes on to praise her "balance of modesty and refinement." She sounds fine here, speaking in the low, British inflected theatrical voice she employed for the remainder of her career.
Thanks to Jay Allan Fenton, and the folks at VCI Entertainment for making these films available to the public. Accessibility of Wong materials has been meager, but now it seems we're witnessing the opening of a treasure trove of long unseen films (another superior British film featuring Wong, PICCADILLY, was recently released by Milestone Collection). It is fortunate that these films are finally coming to light again after being buried in the vaults for so long. This release is truly an embarrassment of riches for fans of Wong, and anyone interested in world cinema.