UK / 68 minutes / bw / Wyndham Dir: J. Elder Wills Pr: Bray Wyndham Scr: John Quin, Billie Bristow Story: J. Elder Wills, Eric Ansell Cine: Robert G. Martin, Alan Lawson Cast: Anna May Wong, Henry Victor, Lawrence Grossmith, Margaret Yarde, Rene Ray, Victor Garland, Ernest Jay, Wally Patch, Ben Souten, Brian Buchel, Judy Kelly, Ruth Ambler.
During the years in which, weary of the racially stereotyped parts she was being offered and of seeing made-up Caucasian actresses being preferred to her for leading Asiatic roles, Wong deserted Hollywood for Europe, she made some good movies and some that were . . . not so good. This movie falls into the latter category, yet it’s not entirely without merit: it has a fairly good turn from Victor as the psycho villain, it has some nicely snappy one-liners (“She couldn’t poison your guts—you ain’t got none”), with an obviously limited budget for sets it manages to create a similarly claustrophobic, culturally diverse environment to the one seen in the much more prominent movie PÉPÉ LE MOKO (1936) a couple of years later, it has some excellent little cameos from the supporting players (including the ragamuffin children), it has some fairly good music, and, most of all, it has Anna May Wong.
“When Anna May Wong is onscreen, no one in the audience is looking anywhere else.”
Apparently the movie was intended to be set in the Limehouse district of London, but the UK censors vetoed the notion that a British city could harbor such a den of vice and iniquity, even though it actually did. The tale was thus, with some ease, transplanted to Brazil, where the town of Cuarano Santos has an adjoining slum, Tiger Bay, “the home of all the riffraff of the Seven Seas”—a description given to it by one of the stuffy denizens of an English club in Cuarano Santos when advising young Michael Brooke (Garland) not to go there. Garland has announced that romance can be found anywhere, even in a pit of vipers like Tiger Bay. Heedless of the old fart’s warning, off he goes.
The story proper centers on the eatery cum dancehall cum antiques emporium owned by Lui Chang (Wong), who also dances there. She was brought here from China as a child of seven by her Manchu father, the two of them being fugitives from revolutionary China; with them came the infant Letty, the daughter of Lui’s father’s great friend, an Englishman who died in the fighting. So far as Lui’s father was concerned, the infant was a sacred trust given to him by his friend; when Lui’s father died a few years ago, Lui inherited that sacred trust: “To me, she’s a much-loved younger sister, to be guarded and guided. And now she’s the very peach of my eye.”
Michael stumbles into the emporium, and is enchanted as he watches Lui dance. The now adult Letty (Ray) sneaks into the back of the audience, despite instructions from Lui to stay away, and is spotted there by the drunken thug Olaf (Victor), who tries to maul her. Michael leaps to her defense. When he receives a knife-wound in the arm as reward, he’s nursed back to health by Lui, Letty and the matronly employee Fay (Yarde). Looking right past the ravishing Lui—although he admits that “You’re so unlike all my previous conceptions of the Chinese”—Michael falls for the airheaded blonde.
Olaf is the leader of a gang of hooligans who murder and extort their way around Tiger Bay with little interference from the cops (who are French, although otherwise this doesn’t seem to be a French colony; go figure). He plans to subject Lui’s establishment to an extortion racket; when she faces him down (“This time they’ll find they’ve bitten granite”), he and his men send a hooker to lure the waiter/janitor Alfred “Alf” (Jay) out into the streets, where they laughingly murder him. When even this fails to soften her resolve, they abduct Letty . . .
Not quite all of the cops are French. A minor character earlier has been Whistling Rufus (Grossmith), whose bird impersonations hold adults and especially children spellbound. He proves to be undercover cop Major Wingrove, who’s been after Olaf and his hoodlums for some while. Together he and Michael lead the rescue effort, not realizing that Lui has tricked out of Olaf the issuance of instructions to his men to release the girl. Having done that, she has no compunction about hurling the thug’s own dagger to drop him in his tracks.
Two of the movie’s great child actors seen watching Whistling Rufus perform.
And it’s here, in its finale, that the movie’s narrative comes totally unglued. Any normal cop, especially in a cut-throat slum like Tiger Bay, would immediately decide that Lui had killed the sadistic hooligan “in self-defense” or for some other “justifiable” reason. Wingrove, however, having idiotically asked Lui if Olaf’s death was an accident, starts harping on moralistically about how murder is always a crime and, dearie me, she’s going to have to do time for this, oh yes. Perhaps, even though the UK moviemakers were prepared to give Wong a decent role despite her Chineseness (she was in fact born in LA), they nevertheless felt that her inscrutable “threat” had to be kept in check: allowing her to get away with murder could, perhaps, have been skirting alarmingly close to . . . well, something? A white male hero who’d similarly despatched a murderous rat in the final reel would have been rewarded by the cheers of the crowd and a clinch from the romantic interest; but for an Asiatic female to be treated likewise was clearly thought dangerous.
Even before the disastrous finale, the movie has been pretty much scuppered by the ghastliness of the two romantic leads. Both Garland and Ray play their parts as if performing in summer rep on the promenade of a second-tier English seaside resort: they’re stagy, unconvincing and unhelped by a screenplay that gives them some quite nauseatingly winsome lines. Yarde is actually rather good as a sort of pantomime dame of a character who proves to have some unexpected depths. But, when Wong is onscreen, no one in the audience is looking anywhere else.
The movie’s title card describes it as being by Wills and Ansell; Ansell also did the music, some of which is rather good. Among the movie’s editors was the young David Lean. Wong had been involved with a “Tiger” before: she played Tiger Lily in the silent Peter Pan (1924).
This is unrelated to the redoubtable Hayley Mills movie Tiger Bay (1959) dir J. Lee Thompson, which may in due course also find a slot here.
On Amazon.com: Tiger Bay