The Hatchet Man (1932)

The Chinese: A Great Bunch Of Lads

In the beginning of The Hatchet Man, the Chinese community (“Yellow residents” as the opening crawl refers to them as) in San Francisco circa 1918 are a parallel society to the rest of America. However, fast forward to 1932 and the community has moved beyond the Tong wars of the past to a more Americanized and western way of life in which many of the old ways are dismissed such as foot binding and women having less freedom. – Meanwhile, elders in the community hold onto their more old fashioned ways. Instead, we see a community which is becoming integrated into wider society and there are even signs of interracial relationships with mixed couples seen in the dance hall sequence in one of the more insightful films about the oriental to come from this era.

The Hatchet Man is another pre-code William Wellman gem in which the production values, extensive camerawork, and detail in the sets are second to none. The graphic ending is one of the best in pre-code cinema but the scene which I feel best shows of the craftsmanship present in The Hatchet Man is that early in the film in which Wong (Edward G. Robinson) has to kill his best friend and blood brother Sun Yat Ming (J Carroll Nash). At the beginning of this lengthy and slow-paced scene, Sun is finishing writing a will to Wong under the fear that he will be killed by a Tong (“The one I am expecting comes through doors without knocking”). Sun is leaving Wong all his worldly goods and his daughter to become his wife when she is of legal age. Soon Wong arrives and after many gaps in the slowly delivered dialogue with calming Chinese music in the background, the camera does an epic zoom on Robinson as he delivers the fatal line “I am the hatchet man of the Lem-Sing Tong”.

The one drawback of The Hatchet Man is the casting of Edward G Robinson; he isn’t fully convincing in the role of Wong Low Get. Sometimes he looks Asian which his epicanthic fold but not always, not to mention he doesn’t sound particularly Asian which his Eastern European accent. That said if you can suspend your disbelief at Robinson playing an oriental, you’re still left with a performance with the intensity you would expect from Robinson. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell in the cast who is Asian and who is a white actor in makeup. Loretta Young is far more convincing in her role as Wong’s adopted daughter Sun Toya San. Wong’s romantic relationship with his adopted daughter raises many eyebrows from today’s standards not is it ever made clear if she knows this is the man who killed her own father, but this just makes the odd relationship all the more fascinating. Leslie Fenton, on the other hand, is the film’s big scene-stealer as the slim ball villain Harry while Toshia Mori (who was originally to play Loretta Young’s role) as Wong’s secretary is a very striking screen presence.

There is much less focus in Hollywood cinema of Chinese-American gangsters as opposed to Italian-American gangsters; a shame since it’s a fascinating underworld with it prevalent theme of honor.

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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Ship Happens

If was to sum up Mutiny on the Bounty it would be ‘immensely satisfying’. The actual build up to the mutiny itself is just so immense. Charles Laughton is an absolute beast as Captain William Bligh, a cruel sadist with no reverence for his crew, even more so due to his prejudice against convicts. I can’t stress just how much I love this performance. Shivers go down my back at any of his many outbursts (“Chriiiiiistian!”). For me, this is the ultimate love to hate character that when he finally gets his comeuppance after subjecting his crew to overworking, lashings and other mistreatments, it’s one of the most satisfying movie moments ever. Just like the crew, you grow to hate this character with a passion. On a personal level, I can see many of my old school teachers in Bligh. Ok, they weren’t that sadist but his harsh nature gives me déjà vu of my school days. Bligh is shown however to have a human side though. He does have a friendship with the King of Thatti, the only person who can convince Bligh to be less harsh. Their interactions are the only time in the film Bligh is shown to have a softer side. There’s just something about angry ship captains which make for such memorable characters (Captain Ahab, Captain Queeg, James Cagney in Mister Roberts).

Of course, there is also The King himself: Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – A figure you would be glad to have as a captain, stern but fair and a man you would happily salute and shout “yes sir!” at. He’s the humanitarian saving grace for a crew ravaged at the hand of Captain Bligh. Like Laughton, the hairs on my back rise at any of his outbursts throughout the film (“I call ship’s company to bare witness, you killed him!”). Supposedly the two intensely disliked each other possibly due in part to Gable winning the Oscar for Best Actor the year before for It Happened One Night over Laughton’s performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. This makes the seething hatred between the two characters feels more real making Mutiny on the Bounty a movie of two powerhouse performances. This was Gable’s first role in a period film and he fits well into the historical period. Likewise, I’ve never thought much or Franchot Tone as an actor but he’s very good as Rodger Byam, an idealist seaman who has to make difficult decisions between his loyalty to the navy and tyranny of Captain Bligh.

Then there are the scenes on the Island Tahiti. These were filmed on location and are as romantic as it gets. Tahati seems like a world too good to be true; a tropical drug shop of feast, song, and sleep. A seemingly carefree society in which the inhabitants don’t even know about the concept of money. It’s such a release after the tyranny experienced on board The Bounty, well until we have to return to the ship that is – no wonder a mutiny takes place. Even with the production code in effect, the scenes on the island are still very exotic and it’s defiantly implied Christian and native girl played by Mamo Clark had sex. Shirtless Clark Gable, beautiful exotic women, tropical island paradise, what more do you want? Although I do have to ask; were there really natives who had relations this good with the British Empire?

The life-size recreation of The Bounty pushes the boundaries of set design at the time. From a visual standpoint, the movie excels in the realism department. Likewise, the rousing musical score unleashes the imagination of your inner schoolboy. Oh, and did I mention James Cagney is in this film; yep he’s in there for a brief second. Just when I thought this movie couldn’t get any better.

In defense of the film for being historically inaccurate; this is a movie, a work of fiction, not a documentary (although I highly recommend 1984’s The Bounty, which tells the story with Bligh being the hero and Christian as the villain). Besides, how can we ever truly be sure what happened aboard that ship 200 years ago? Regardless of what really happened, I find the tale of The Bounty is a story of great fascination and one which really sparks the imagination. Mutiny on the Bounty is the seafaring movie all seafaring movies are measured against.