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Friday, February 13, 2015

THE HATCHET MAN (1932)

Edward G. Robinson, with just a wisp of ‘Yellowface’ make-up, is the honorable ‘hatchet man’ of a powerful Chinatown 'family' in this Tong War meller. And while all the principals are Caucasian actors in Yellowface, appearances range from Robinson’s token application to the full Asian war-paint of young ‘Oriental’ lovers Loretta Young & Leslie Fenton. (Fenton, playing a Chinese mobster, looks like a young Chris Walken.) Anyone with an aversion to antique, non-ethnic race casting, even with historical blinders firmly in place, should probably pass. The prologue shows Eddie G. doing his lethal duty, taking out a pal he knew back in the old country; then inheriting the man’s lucrative business and spousal rights to his 6-yr-old child. 12 years later, in a much modernized Chinatown, the girl has matured & assimilated into a teenage Loretta Young, still willing to honor her late father’s pledge, but also developing a yen for Fenton, Robinson’s hipster bodyguard. So, when Robinson has to go out of town on Tong business, the younger generation makes hay. Developments that lead to tragic consequences back in the Old Country. In it’s way, it’s really quite satisfying hokum, from a David Belasco play (see poster), with a doozy of a grisly, ironic, Pre-Code ending. Moving nicely for a 1932 production, there’s demonstration-worthy art direction from Anton Grot and typically inconsistent megging from William Wellman. He’ll nail the hard stuff before blowing the simplest reverse-angle camera set up. (And this was his best period.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: YELLOWFACE vs. BLACKFACE: One of them tries to convince; one to caricature. Even accounting for period conventions, it makes one of these not-quite dead-and-buried practices considerably more insulting & unacceptable than the other. But which one?

DOUBLE-BILL: It’s not really an apt match-up, but everyone’s favorite Chinatown Tong War (certainly the funniest) is found in Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN/’28. (Watch Buster as he films the action from a collapsing platform that becomes a serendipitous camera crane just when he needs one.)

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