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Saturday, March 16, 2013

MR. WU (1927)

This tale of Family Honor Avenged was a change of pace for Lon Chaney who does a double act, first playing the ancient Chinese Grandfather, then taking on the grandson, Mr. Wu, as a grown man with a daughter old enough for marriage. The story is East Meets West balderdash, hardly PC by today’s standards, but it’s also embarrassingly watchable. Renée Adorée plays Chaney’s daughter, a delicate flower who falls for the handsome young son of a Caucasian businessman, breaking the family honor. (As her companion, Anna May Wong quite upstages Adorée. Was she ever up for the role?) When Chaney discovers the love affair, the thin facade of Western civility he’s long cultivated cracks, and his cruel Asian core reasserts itself with deadly consequences. It was Cecil B. De Mille who codified this Asian character arc for the movies back with THE CHEAT in 1915, and it’s really never gone much out of fashion. Handsomely designed, in a pleasingly artificial manner that suggests Chinese landscape painting, it’s directed with real visual flair and subtle trick shots by the little-remembered William Nigh. (With 100+ titles from the ‘teens thru the ‘40s, Nigh’s later films are B-list fodder, but his silent credits look more interesting, at least on paper. And his remarkable cinematographer, John Arnold, had even better credits before moving into an executive position when Talkies came in.) The first two acts are all painterly scene-setting and a bit languid, especially sans the original tinting that undoubtedly gave the film the atmospherics of an exclusive L.A. Chop Suey joint. But the payoff once Chaney starts dishing out unspeakable cruelties in the last act are considerable. The final showdown between Chaney’s Barbaric Oriental Ways and Louise Dresser’s Caucasian MotherLove is awesome to behold. And more than slightly absurd.

CONTEST: The plot filches a few major plot hooks from two famous operas by Puccini. Names the operas and the story grabs to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

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