daughterReview: One Afternoon Only

Daughter of Shanghai | Robert Florey | USA | 1937 | 62 min

Dangerous to Know | Robert Florey | USA | 1938 | 70 min

Chazen Art Museum, Sunday, October 11, 2:00pm and 3:15pm»

Robert Florey’s Daughter of Shanghai and Dangerous to Know were made one year apart and both star the beautiful and talented Anna May Wong. Taylor Hanley suggests that they are two very different films.

Daughter of Shanghai was made in 1937 and the film’s immediate cruelty took me by surprise. Two smugglers piloting a small plane, with the cargo hold filled with their smuggled ‘aliens’ from across the world, attempt to outrun a government plane. When they are unable to lose their pursuer, they open the back hatch and drop their human cargo into the middle of the ocean. Shocking.

Unfortunately, the film kind of peaked there for me. The plot revolves around a human trafficking ring, but it does not flesh out the opening disaster or offer the perspective of the real victims. Instead, the film focuses on the conflict between the head of the human trade market and a perfect Chinese-American family that wants to expose the organization. Anna May Wong plays Lan Ying Lin, whose father is killed because he has a case against the smugglers. To avenge her father she tracks down the one person whose name she knows: Hartman (Charles Bickford), the boss of a club where women dance for drunken customers. To get closer to Hartman, Lan Ying Lin dances on stage at the club, all sexy-like, in best scene in the movie by far.

The film can be boiled down to good vs. evil, and almost every character can immediately be categorized, except one: Mrs. Mary Hunt (Cecil Cunningham). She has been a good friend to Lan Ying Lin and her father for nearly 11 years, but she also happens to be the head of the smuggling ring. Nearly all the suspense is driven by the possibility of Lan Ying Lin finding this out.

Honestly, I was bored during Daughter of Shanghai. The acting at times was horrible, the characters weren’t interesting or realistic enough, the story line was a bit weak and unbelievable, and the fight scenes were corny. Mrs. Mary Hunt’s character is entertaining mostly because you get to see two sides of her personality, but this isn’t the case for most of the cast. The best thing about the film was the starring of two attractive and talented Asian-American actors, which was uncommon for Hollywood in 1937. The Library of Congress selected Daughter of Shanghai for the National Film Registry in 2006 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

dangerousOn the other hand, I loved Dangerous to Know, which avoids the monotony of Daughter of Shanghai by focusing on an intriguing villain, ex-mob head Steve Recka (Akim Tamiroff), and exploring his good and bad sides. Made only one year after Daughter of Shanghai, the plot is much more complex and the characters are developed well beyond a single trait, bringing the film into another level of entertainment.

Anna May Wong plays Recka’s assistant, Lan Ying. Tamiroff looks an awful lot like Marlon Brando in Godfather, and like Don Corleone, Recka has control over a lot of people. The relationship between Recka and Lan Ying isn’t clear; she might be deeply in love with him, they might of had a history, or maybe she wants to kill him.

When a new woman, Margaret Van Case (Gail Patrick), comes into Recka’s life Lan Ying is distressed. Lan Ying views Margaret as out of Recka’s reach. She is a rich society girl, and more importantly she will soon be engaged to another man. But Recka is stubborn, and he devises a plan to remove the fiancé from the picture.

Though it is obvious to both Lan Ying and the audience that his actions are bad and manipulative, we somehow still see him as good and slightly root for him. This complex main character makes the film constantly entertaining. His destructive behavior is hard not to watch. At the point when Margaret becomes wise to Recka’s plan, her confrontation forces him into an honest and vulnerable position. This is where we see how desperate he actually is. He admits his manipulation, knows on some level that what he is doing is wrong, but still continues to force her into his arms while she vows to always hate him.

And where the plot goes from there is unexpected and poetic.

I had never seen an Anna May Wong film before. But from these two films I can tell she is a beautiful actress who is capable of conveying the complexity of any character. Though she was a bad ass in Daughter of Shanghai, Dangerous to Know better utilized her talents with a character that is both full of common sense and insanely insecure. Complex characters, a layered plot and strong lead performances from Tamiroff and Wong make Dangerous to Know a very different, and superior film to Daughter of Shanghai.


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