Archive for the Asian Category

Davy Crockett, Man of Letters

Posted in AMERICANA, Asian, BUNKUM, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd
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Portrait of Crockett by John Gadsby Chapman

Today is the birthday of Davy Crockett (1786-1836).

Because he has been so heavily mythologized I think there has been an unfortunate tendency to regard this important American figure as a total “folk hero”, like Johnny Appleseed (also a real guy), or perhaps more like, say, Mike Fink or Pecos Bill. One hears of exploits like wrestling bears and contemplates the costume which has since become so iconic and arrives at a verdict of “unreality” even when so many of the historical things he did (served in Congress, died defending the Alamo) are a matter of record.

Last year I chanced to read his 1834 memoir A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself (ironically co-written with fellow Congressman Thomas Chilton.) I was drawn to the book by two opposite but related impulses. One is that I am working on a piece of writing inspired by the American tradition of humbug and Tall Tales, a theme I have been seriously exploring for a couple of decades now. But the second attraction was the facts. I am related to Crockett (through his great-grandmother, who was a Stewart) and (by marriage) to his first wife Polly Finley. And he lived where my family lived (Eastern and Middle Tennessee) and fought in the same battles in the Creek War and War of 1812. I thought I might pick up useful details, and I indeed did.

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But I found myself especially impressed with the book as a founding American cultural document of sorts. Crockett is like a missing link in American politics, and a pioneer in letters. In this highly entertaining book I heard a VOICE, a voice that I feel must have influenced everybody from Mark Twain to Abraham Lincoln to Will Rogers. Crockett’s voice is humorous, earthy, folkish, steeped in the hilarious, outlandish metaphors and hyperbole of the frontier. It manages to be both boastful and honest “Always be sure you are right, then go ahead” was his motto).

I say “missing link” because Benjamin Franklin had been our first politician to walk around in a coonskin cap and fringe jacket, although he did that in Paris and purely for a calculated effect. Crockett would become one of our first national political figures to make a virtue out of being rustic, paving the way for all those “log cabin” presidential candidates who came in his wake. If he had lived longer, I have little doubt, his national ambitions would have continued to bear fruit. Interestingly. his arch-nemesis was Andrew Jackson, also from Tennessee. He hated Jackson’s Indian removal policy and his autocratic tendencies. This hurt him at home politically.When Crockett was voted out of Congress in 1835, he went to Texas to take part in the Revolution, which is where he met his end. (“The voters can go to hell; I’m going to Texas” I’ve tweaked that a little but that’s essentially whet he said). Had he not died, it’s likely he would have been right there with Stephen Austin and Sam Houston as one of the founders of the Republic, and then the State, of Texas.

In the Narrative, Crockett plays both Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill. It’s this tooting of his own horn that makes him so American. His early childhood was uncommonly hard: indentured servitude, farm labor, starvation and more than one incident of running away from home to go on long distance cattle drives — all before adulthood. He made a legend for himself as a bear hunter (the amount of bears he claims to have killed can’t help but strike you as gross) and an Indian fighter, and his leadership and manly prowess was what propelled him to success in local politics despite his lack of formal education (he was sent to school but played hooky for a long stretch, a phase of life one can’t help associating with Huckleberry Finn). His tales of the difficulty of courting his wife (over the objections of her mother) are quite touching.

The success of the book and his martyrdom at the Alamo led to dime novels and stage plays about him, then movies, and finally the tv show, which truly cemented the legend. Surely, people think to themselves, this guy can’t have been real. But he WAS.

 

 

 

Evil Magicians and Mesmerists in Classic Horror

Posted in Asian, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2015 by travsd

Continuing our month-long series of classic horror posts launched here, today we survey several films from the 1930s and 40s that are centered around sinister monsters and villains who scheme for wealth, sex and/or power using magic and thought control. You might call this subgenre an offshoot of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And the Mummy films certainly fall into this subgenre, but there are so many of them that they form their own category and we have given them their own post. 

Often in such films the characters have much in common with mad scientists. The line between science and the supernatural is often blurred. In both cases the person at the center is in fanatical pursuit of knowledge, a knowledge so earth-shaking it transforms him into a monster. In this particular branch of the genre, the racism we spoke about in our opening essay comes into play — the magicians are usually from the “East”:  Asians or Jews, with an intrinsic ability to horrify or disgust based on their foreignness, a story point readers of H.P. Lovecraft know well, although he is far from the only perpetrator of this unhealthy mindset. And horror is far from the only genre to encompass it — it can be hard to know where to draw the line, for many murder mysteries and suspense thrillers of the day come very close in spirit (and even science fiction fantasy if you consider characters like Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon serials). For me it crosses the line into horror when: A) the mystical villain possesses actual uncanny magical powers that are not revealed to have mechanical solutions; and B) he either commits or tries to commit abduction, torture, rape, murder…or world domination.

A few related posts on closely allied subgenres will follow, on mad scientists, sadists and witch doctors.

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Svengali (1931)

I find it strange that this film is not normally associated with horror — I think it qualifies as much as, say, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  And John Barrymore, who plays the title character earned more than his share of horror street cred in his version of the former film. There is more than a hint of the supernatural in Svengali’s hypnotism, especially as realized in this film….his eyes become these amazing huge smokey orbs with no pupil or iris. Also he is as evil as any monster or mad scientist, and , as in so many horror films of the time, his creepy aim is to catch, control and rape “the girl”.

I read the novel Trilby many years ago…it is is dreadful, as bad as, or worse than Dracula. And the book is jaw-droppingly anti-semitic. That aspect has been expunged here. Instead of a Jew, Svengali has now become a mysterious “Pole or something”. But he is still painted as disgusting, with unwashed, greasy long hair, a pariah even among bohemian artists.

Trilby (Marian Marsh) comes into the scene as an artist’s model. Svengali is attracted to her at once, gives her his “headache cure” and the story proceeds from there. But he also notes that she has rare vocal architecture. He can control her mind long distance. He makes her a great singing star. But the process drains him. He begins to waste away. Five years later when the heroes catch up with them they are at their peak, but begin to descend because Svengali can’t keep it up any more. At the last performance he dies…and because she is psychically connected to him, Trilby dies too.

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Chandu the Magician (1932)

Fox’s answer to Universal’s string of horror hits. It is an absolutely gorgeous movie set in a “Mysterious East” of the imagination. It is based on a radio show that had much in common with The Shadow and Mandrake the Magician, and clearly is a model for the later comic book Dr. Strange.

“Chandu” is the American Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) who in the first act has just finished a course to be a yogi of the highest order. He celebrates his mystic ceremony by performing some gratuitous, familiar magic tricks: causing a rope to float, walking across fire. He is given his mission by his mystical mentor to go out and do good in the world. Conveniently his first mission is close to home. His brother in law, a scientist who is working on a death ray (cue the tesla coils) is kidnapped by an evil mad scientist played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is great in the part; the guy who plays Chandu unfortunately is a bit of a schmuck. The bulk of the plot is set in Egypt which mysteriously bears not a trace of resemblance to the modern Muslim country. Though gang members have names like Abdullah, they appear to worship Osiris and other ancient gods, providing us with a choice Mummy movie atmosphere.

Chandu’s sidekick is an old army buddy—for some reason he is a Kiplingesque hard drinking Britisher….what army were they in precisely? He is the comic relief, always sneaking a drink. To keep him in line, Chandu conquers a little impish double who constantly chides him for his drinking. There are many memorable scenes. One very racy Pre-Code scene has Chandu’s niece being sold at a white slave auction. Several, toothless, dark-hued foreigners leer and drool as they bid on her. In a great set piece, the villain causes the floor of the cell containing Chandu’s family to slowly drop out, threatening to send them plummeting into an underground river several hundred feet below. And the climax is blood chilling. Chandu causes Lugosi to freeze with his hands on the control to the death ray. The thing starts to overheat, while the villain stands there horribly immobile until the thing explodes. Nightmarish.

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The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

This is tangentially a horror film, a sort of sub-genre (murder mystery/sci fi/ travelogue of the Mysterious East, much like Chandu the Magician). Karloff is the titular Fu a sinister, soulless villain with eight inch long finger nails and a plot to use the powers of the recently discovered sword of Genghis Khan to take over the entire world. He kidnaps the archaeologist who found it, demanding to know its whereabouts, and terrorizing his friends and family. Fu is scarcely human — he much resembles Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. He is also a mad scientist, cementing his inclusion here amongst the horror films. His full title is DR. Fu Manchu.  He operates on people, but usually just to torture them. His torture methods are diabolically creative—he relishes it. Also he has excellent Tesla coils , which he uses to great effect when he gets his hand on Khan’s sword.  His daughter, played by Myrna Loy, exists only to corrupt and torture. They seem to have mysterious powers to mesmerize people against their will and make them their slaves. In the end, the heroes turn the electric ray on Fu’s army of minions and make their escape.

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The Ghoul (1933)

A British horror film, with a light tone for the most part that reminds one of “Old Dark House” movies. Boris Karloff an eccentric rich man on his death bed. He had purchased certain stolen Egyptian relics that, with proper ceremony, will bestow immortality. He dispatches his butler to take care of certain necessary duties relevant to the ritual. Then he dies.

The middle of the film reads like a haunted-house, reading-of-the-will comedy. Two heirs: a young man and a young woman who are cousins but become romantically entwined (h’m…), the girl’s room-mate, a scheming lawyer (Cedric Hardwicke), an Egyptian who wants the relics back and his lackey, and a young priest (Ralph Richardson in his first film role). After a bit of interplay amongst them all, including arguments, flirtation, and so forth Karloff comes back to life. He kills the Egyptian’s assistant, attacks the girl etc. He enacts a ritual in the tomb. It then emerges that is a trick, the priest is really some kind of crook. Several characters are locked in the tomb, the others fight outside, and the tomb catches on fire. Finally the tomb explodes, and the couple escapes. Meanwhile, it has emerged that Karloff didn’t really die, he was just catatonic, and the supernatural events were fakes—a naturalistic explanation to the whole thing.

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The Return of Chandu (1934)

The sequel to Chandu was done as a serial, this time with Lugosi as Frank Chandler (his thick accent completely unexplained). This edition seems done on the cheap and is rather dull, I couldn’t get past the first couple of episodes.

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She (1935)

An amazing movie, based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard. A kind of flip of the usual sex roles. In this one the monster (or “mad scientist) is an immortal, despotic woman, played by Helen Gahagan Douglas (wife of Melvyn and nemesis of Nixon) in her one and only starring role. And the love object is a young man, Randolph Scott in one of his early non-western roles. He and his partner Nigel Bruce travel to the Arctic circle above Russia and team up with a trader and his daughter (Helen Mack). They are en route to find a rare element said to bestow immortality. “The Flame of Life”. The trader is killed in an avalanche. The three are captured in a cave by Morelock-like primitives, who seem poised to eat them. Then ancient-attired soldiers appear (evoking Sumeria and other ancient civilizations) and rescue them and bring them to She Who Must Be Obeyed (Douglas) in their subterranean land.

She rules with an iron fist, kills whomever displeases her. She wants Scott (who resembles her lover of 500 years ago who happens to have been his ancestor), and has convinced him to stay with her, but then she makes the mistake of trying to sacrifice the trader’s daughter in a ritual ceremony. Scott and Bruce rescue her and escape. Then they run into She at her temple, where she steps into the Flame of Life, which for some mysterious reasons ages her horribly until she dies. This is an RKO picture — gorgeous art deco design, and some very neat choreography in ritual scenes. 

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Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

We shall write about this one further in our upcoming zombies post, but it kind of straddles both subgenres, because this one is set in — of all places — Cambodia. And so the atmosphere is very much that of the Mysterious East, with swirling incense and gongs…

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Interlude:

Just wanted to note a related film here. Frank Capra’s 1937 Lost Horizon (which I wrote about here), seems to me much related and it moments seems to intimate horror, but ultimately isn’t, but it’s interesting to contemplate the similarities.

Also: the kind of film we have been writing about seems to evaporate after the 1930s. The reason why is obvious, it seems to me. World War Two brought the western world very much into contact with the Eastern. After that, it lost a good deal of its “mystery”; it was hard to paint it as a world of Fairy Tale Imagination when millions of G.I.’s  had been there and back and never encountered any magicians or magic. It doesn’t vanish entirely, of course. (I think of Marvel Comic’s Dr. Strange, for example, as a particularly late example.) But it is far less prevalent — and certainly not the default, as it once was.

There are later films that come close in spirit, though. This is one:

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The Climax (1944)

A rotten title for a movie, but it ends up being worthwhile picture. But one must be patient, and sit through several goopy musical theatre routines. It was conceived as a sort of sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, and has much in common as well with Svengali. Boris Karloff is the throat doctor to a Viennese opera company. Years ago he became obsessed with a diva and killed her. Now the same thing is happening with a new singer. Note to singers: always beware of Boris Karloff when he soothes and assures you and offers to take you back to his house for an “examination”! He hyponotizes the girl so she can’t sing and he now has control over her. (It’s the hypnosis that justified this film’s inclusion here) Eveneually others piece together what’s going on. The singer’s own will triumphs. Karoff flees to his chamber where his previous victim is in suspended animation. Then, as so often, happens, he dies in a spectacular fire. 

The Last Vaudevillian

Posted in Asian, Indie Theatre, Irish, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on June 5, 2015 by travsd

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Our pal Cyndy Fujikawa’s play The Last Vaudevillian opens in previews in L.A. tonight. Cyndy guest blogged about her remarkable show business family in a six part series that starts here.  I really belong there tonight and I’m bummed I can’t be. I only hope it’s a big success and comes to New York! West coast readers, here are the details:

Pacific Resident Theatre Co-op presents a workshop production of The Last Vaudevillian, a play by Cyndy Fujikawa.
Directed by Julia Fletcher. Produced by Sarah Zinsser. Cast: Robin Becker, Karen Benjamin Chapman Peggy Maltby Etra Brendan Farrell,Darren Kelley Matt McKenzie Wesley Mann Nell Murphy, Michael PrichardTro Shaw Sally Smythe, and Sarah Zinsser.

Pieviews: June 5-6; Opens June 11. Performances through June 21. Thursday-Satturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm.

Pacific Resident THeatre Company is at 705 1/2 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA. More details and tickets are here. 

Harold Lloyd in “The Cat’s Paw”

Posted in Asian, Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , on August 7, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Harold Lloyd comedy The Cat’s Paw (1934), written and directed by Sam Taylor.

The Cat’s Paw  is Lloyd’s least characteristic film. He is well cast as a young missionary raised in China who returns to his American hometown for the first time. But the film is weirder and darker than Lloyd’s usually are. He is made a straw man candidate for a nonexistent reform party and accidentally wins the election. When he tries to clean up the corruption, the crooks conspire to frame him. His response is to round them all up and make them think they will have their heads chopped off. Mass decapitation is a note that’s just distinctly un-Lloyd. Yet there’s something distinctly Capraesque about the story arc that Lloyd and his team should have followed up on in subsequent movies. Naïve young man of goodwill gets cruelly used by a bunch of greedy crooks. That’s a formula Depression era audiences warmed up to, and that would have been an easy adjustment for Lloyd. Just with less head-chopping (and even less use of the word “chink”.)

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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On Herb Shriner

Posted in AMERICANA, Asian, Clown, Music, Stand Up, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , on May 29, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great humorist, broadcast personality and harmonica player Herb Shriner (1918-1970). I first became aware of him, quite naturally, because of his son the comedian Wil Shriner, whom I used to see on tv in the 1980s.

The elder Shriner was too late for vaudeville, but would have been perfect for it, with his mixture of expert harmonica playing and homespun story-telling, very much in the tradition of Will Rogers. His radio career began in 1940, leading inevitably to television. He was best known as the hose of the game show Two for the Money from 1952 through 1956. After that, he was primarily a liver performer, and made record albums. he also had variety shows of his own over the years, and did guest spots on others. Here are a couple of clips revealing his two sides:

To find out about  the history of the variety arts (including tv variety)consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.safe_image

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

International House

Posted in Asian, Burns and Allen, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the terrific all-star Paramount comedy International House (1933), directed by Eddie Sutherland.

I’ve probably seen this one two dozen times, and will no doubt watch it many more. It’s essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.

The flustered hotel manager is of course Franklin Pangborn; the hotel doctor and nurse are George Burns and Gracie Allen. Guests include W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), Stuart Erwin and Bela Lugosi as an evil Russian spy. The radioscope itself is the devise that enables the revue portion. As the assembled parties watch, the device tunes into various parts of the globe where it just happens to capture great variety acts, among them, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.

The most unfortunate aspect of the film of course is attitude towards the Chinese, which ranges (in the typical mode of the time) from stereotype to ignoring them completely. Anyway that’s how they used to make Hollywood movies. When we emulate them today, let’s choose only the good parts.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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Stars of Vaudeville #865: Lee Tung Foo

Posted in Asian, Hollywood (History), Movies, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Lee Tung Foo (1875-1966). Born in California, Lee was a Chinese American singer in vaudeville from the mid 1890s through around 1919. Lee was formally trained, and apparently good at what he did, but naturally his gimmick, and the source of most his attention, was his ethnic identity. He didn’t do “yellow face” like many magicians, but he did make a big deal out of going “against type”, as in his Harry Lauder imitation:

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Vaudeville was already slowing down by the ’20s thanks to the competition of cinema. Lee opened a couple of popular Chinese restaurants in New York. Then about a decade later he started to emerge from retirement, with some small roles on Broadway and then Hollywood films. He had a decent part in the Warner Bros. short The Skull Murder Mystery (1932) and then was called back for another speaking part in The General Died at Dawn (1936). For the next quarter century he was relegated mostly to uncredited bit parts, as servants, laundrymen, witnesses and suspects in B pictures, visiting Asian dignitaries, and color in crowd scenes, although occasionally speaking parts would come his way. His last film was The Manchurian Candidate (1962). For lot’s more on Lee Tung Foo, check out this cool article here. 

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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